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Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
Image Credit: The Gardener Vallier

Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

26 November 2017 Ekin Kurtdarcan

Cézanne Portraits is an exhibition solely dedicated to the portraiture of the French painter Paul Cézanne, an often-overlooked part of his oeuvre. Curated by John Elderfield in partnership with Musée d’Orsay in Paris and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the exhibition traces the chronological production of Cézanne’s portraits, and enables the viewer to compare the portraits to each other to get a sense of the stylistic evolution of the paintings.

Born in 1839 in Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne produced around 1000 paintings in his lifetime until his death in 1906, with his portraits dating back to early 1860s. In a time when portraiture raised questions in artistic circles about the relationship between the artist and the sitter, Cézanne - inspired by artists such as Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet as well as newly developing forms of photography - created an almost experimental, highly personalised style. As he preferred to paint people he knew and was comfortable with, in his depictions he approached the figure of the sitter with a matter-of-factness, reconciling it with his subjective perception. According to Elderfield, Cézanne regarded the subject almost as a still life, demanding that the sitter not pose. As this approach challenged the established notion of portraiture, it captured the distinctiveness of the sitter's personality. Through series of portraits from Cézanne’s early period to his last years, the exhibition demonstrates the various techniques he uses, displaying the different executions of the same subject.
 

Image credit: Man with Crossed Arms

These variations are perhaps most evident in Cézanne’s early portraits of his maternal uncle, Dominique Aubert. This series of portraits dated 1866-7 demonstrates a rough and provocative palette-knife technique often used by Courbet, which Cézanne described as manière couillarde – literally, ‘ballsy’ style. The most prominent features of these portraits are the way the paint is layered on the skin of the figure, where the blend and the strokes are intentionally unrefined and the contours are thicker. Although these portraits evoke a sense of primitiveness, in the portrait titled Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap, the viewer observes a calmer portrayal of the figure emphasised by the lighter colours of clothing and the clearer contours of the face. In these portraits, Cézanne’s handling of the paint is very impressive, and the various perspectives of his uncle consolidate a sense of personality.

Similarly, the palette-knife technique is also seen in the two portraits of Cézanne’s friend, poet and critic Antony Valabrègue. The first of the portraits (1866) was submitted to the Paris Salon, and although it was rejected, its style shocked the jury, which according to Mary Morton, Head of the Department of French Paintings at National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., came as ‘a slap in the face’. The use of paint - similar to Uncle Dominique's portraits - complemented by the stiff posture of the sitter brings forth an underlying violence or aggression, giving the portrait a darker undertone. Comparatively in the second one (1869-70), Valabrègue’s slanted posture and the use of brush instead of the palette-knife creates is more refined, the pink blend on the face and softer contours of the figure making the sitter seem more sympathetic.


Image credit: detail from Antony Valabrègue
 
Perhaps the most interesting series in the exhibition are the portraits of Hortense Fiquet, who became Madame Cézanne in 1886 after living with the painter for over a decade and giving birth to their son Paul. The early portraits of Hortense coincide with the period in Cézanne’s life where he began working with the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, studying the use of light and shade, and their effects on a wider range of colours. In these portraits, the particular use of colour combined with a texture reminiscent of his palette-knife paintings signal his idiosyncratcistyle, perhaps going beyond an Impressionistic influence. In the painting Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair (1877) the striking red colour and the curves of the armchair contrast the blue-green vertical creases of the figure’s dress, highlighting the regal yet relaxed leaning posture of Hortense. Her expression is gentle yet ambiguous, a sense that the viewer gets in many other portraits of her.


Image credit: detail from Madame Cézanne in a Red Chair

In the portraits made around 1885-7, Hortense’s vulnerability and emotive expressions are intensified, as the pink hues of her face are brought forward against the blue and green backgrounds. Cézanne reflects a spectrum of emotions on her face, subtly varying from melancholy to annoyance, and it is this ambiguous subtlety that makes Hortense’s portraits effectively emotional for the viewer. Especially in the series Madame Cézanne in a Blue Dress (1886-7), Cézanne rejects the established notions of female portraiture by deliberately de-feminising Hortense; he depicts her with the hair pulled back, withdrawn and unsmiling. According to Mary Morton, Hortense has been the target of misogynistic attacks by critics, who frequently criticised her 'uncooperativeness' and lack of seductiveness rather than attributing her portrayal to the conscious choice of the artist. Nonetheless, the fluidity between femininity and masculinity especially evident in the painting owned by Musée d’Orsay, which reflects both the fleetingness and the sensibility of her character, making the viewer question how much of Cézanne's feelings towards her are in the paintings.
 
Cézanne Portraits is a powerful and impressive exhibition which follows and details the artist's style throughout his life, and is a must-see for those interested in portraiture, an intimate and personal form in itself.

Cézanne Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 11 February 2018.

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