The present painting depicts Cézanne's son Paul, born in January 1872 to Hortense Fiquet, whom the artist would marry fourteen years later. One of Cézanne's favorite portrait subjects, Paul appears in at least nine oils from the 1880s (Rewald, nos. 463-468, 534, 579, 649), together with more than a hundred drawings. He also posed for the figure of Harlequin in the monumental painting Mardi Gras of 1888 (Rewald, no. 618; Pushkin State Museum, Moscow). On the basis of style, Rewald has dated the present painting circa 1885, when Paul would have been thirteen years old. However, he retains the plump, rounded features that we find in portrayals from the beginning of the decade, when he was still a young boy. In contrast to the portraits of Paul from 1888-1890, which capture him in the throes of later adolescence, cocky and self-possessed, or the contemporaneous depictions of the hired model Michelangelo di Rosa, works which share profound sympathy for the psychological vicissitudes of youth, the present painting shows Paul above all as the object of his father's affection, his expression open and slightly tentative, his cheeks lightly flushed and his head delicately inclined. Philip Conisbee has written, "In Cézanne's tenderly observed drawings and paintings of his adolescent son, we may feel a sense of nostalgic self-identification on the part of the artist" (Cézanne in Provence, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 234).
The aura of untroubled, if understated, affection that pervades the present portrait is exceptional in light of the personal sturm und drang that marked the mid-1880s for Cézanne. In the spring of 1885, he had a brief, disastrous love affair with an unidentified woman in Aix, which left him in a state of utter anguish. Having failed all summer to finagle an invitation from Zola to visit him at Médan, the artist lamented in August, "For me, there is complete isolation. The brothel in town, or something like that, but nothing more" (quoted in J. Rewald, ed., Paul Cézanne Letters, New York, 1976, p. 221). In the fall, Cézanne re-located from Aix to the nearby town of Gardanne, where he was joined by Hortense and Paul; the trio remained at Gardanne for nearly a year, and the present canvas may well have been painted at this time. Mary Tompkins Lewis has written, "Despite his increasingly remote relationship with Hortense, his wife and son also seem to have provided some degree of solace during this difficult period, as well as serving as subjects for his painting. Cézanne's quickly sketched images of Paul as a child, which offer a rare window into the more compassionate side of the artist's character, had long reflected his pride and deep affection as a father. But by the mid-1880s, the artist's son was in his teens, old enough to take on the torturous task of sitting as a subject for his father, and the results could be more finished" (Cézanne, London, 2000, pp. 229-230).
Indeed, although portions of the present canvas are left bare, the portrait head itself is among the most fully realized depictions of young Paul in Cézanne's oeuvre, capturing with great sensitivity the graceful oval of the face with its slightly pointed chin, the dark eyes and arching eyebrows, the childishly rounded nose, and the delicate mouth with full lips. The modeling of the face, built up through a tightly knit network of small taches, stands in contrast to the summary handling of the torso and background, which form a dark corona around the pale, gray-tinged flesh tones. Christina Feilchenfeldt has written, "As with Degas, the unfinished areas in portraits by Cézanne often draw attention to the completed portions and thus constitute an essential element of the pictorial conception... The artist deliberately omitted to fill the canvas, a finished pictorial solution having already been attained" (Cézanne: Finished-Unfinished, exh. cat., Kunstforum, Vienna, 2000, pp. 128-129).
(fig. 1) Paul Cézanne, Mardi gras, 1889-1889. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. BARCODE: ART22763_DHR