Portrait of an artist at work

Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, 26 October 2017 – 11 February 2018

Paul Cézanne’s gardener, M. Vallier, peers out from under the wide brim of his straw hat, his eyes shaded from the sun. He sits cross-legged on a chair in a shaft of light in the garden of the artist’s house in the hills near Aix-en-Provence. Probably painted in the summer and autumn of 1906, shortly before Cézanne’s death in October that year, it shows the artist’s unique method of building form with colour using distinct overlapping brushstrokes, and his desire to capture the exact tone of each element. It’s striking and original, at once enigmatic (what is the gardener thinking?) and intimate. It is one of 50 revealing portraits in this new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery by the artist more usually associated with bowls of apples and the craggy outline of Mount Saint Victoire, which he painted repeatedly in his obsessive interest in portraying the absolute essence of the subject.

There has not been an exhibition of portraits by Paul Cézanne since 1907, which seems incredible given the quality of these works and the window they offer onto the artist’s creative development: Cézanne painted portraits throughout his working life, and these striking paintings tell us a great deal about him, serving as markers in his prolific career and revealing the most personal and human aspects of his work.

Portraiture was popular in Paris in the 1860s, encouraged by the state-sponsored annual Salon exhibitions. But unlike his peers, Cézanne never received a portrait commission during his career. So he eschewed the “triumph of bourgeois art”, capturing the exact likeness of the sitter in the rather insipid style of portrait painting prevalent at the time, and instead directed his intense gaze on a handful of sitters – his wife Hortense, members of his family (notably, his father and his Uncle Dominique), friends, servants and himself. Out of these apparently ordinary subjects he created extraordinary paintings which say far more about him the artist than the lives of the people he painted. It’s an astonishing display, drawn from collections across the world, including works never before seen on public display in the UK. The exhibition is staged in conjunction with the Musée d’Orsay and Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art.

The early works are painted in what Cézanne called his “maniere couillarde” (literally, “ballsy style”), the paint confidently applied using a palette knife, with a preference for contrasting pigments of dark and light. Impressionist-style “patches” of colour are used not to suggest the shifting effects of light but rather to denote the form and structure of the sitter’s body – the jut of a cheek or angle of the forehead – an approach which later found favour with the Cubists and the Fauves, and must have seemed revoluationary at the time. In a self-portrait based on a photograph, the artist’s eyes, bloodshoot and almost aggressive, peer out in a direct, challenging gaze, the choice of colours sinister and gloomy. In others, he portrays himself in a bowler hat, his favoured headgear in his later years. He found the domed shape appealing, taking pleasure in modelling solid geometric forms (again something later taken up by the Cubists). He places himself in a familiar pose, looking back over his shoulder, his right eye engaging with the viewer. Again the paint is applied with confident brushtrokes, adding depth, vigour and structure to the picture.

Self-Portrait with Bowler Hat, 1885-6. Private Collection

The slightly guarded or enigmatic manner in which sitter engages with viewer is notable in many of the portraits. While the sitter may appear face on, the gaze is rarely direct, asking more questions than it answers. Cézanne reveals little about his subjects – that is not his primarily interest. Instead, he tells us more about how he paints, how he creates the work, its structure, composition and physical form.

Cézanne painted around 30 portraits of Hortense, his lover and later his wife. Her plainnness – oval face, symmetrically parted hair – makes her the ideal subject for his interest in and exploration of form over the portrayal of the inner personality. Details on her dress, the furnishings in the room in which she sits, the shimmering stripes of her skirt are brought to life with Cézanne’s vigorous technique, while her face is delineated with flat planes of colour which contrast with her surroundings. Confidently produced, the work surpassing Cézanne’s earlier potraits, these pictures of Hortense are arresting and intimate with a strong rapport between sitter and painter.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, c1877


Cézanne’s portraits not only invite us into the world he knew; they also allow us to contemplate the continuing inventiveness of the artist at work

– John Elderfield, curator


This is a highly engaging exhibition, intelligently curated with a wealth of impressive loans, all attractively displayed, despite the rather disjointed layout of rooms. It is another triumph for the National Portrait Gallery in a series of heavyweight exhibitions of portraiture by key European modern and contemporary artists (Grayson Perry, Giacometti, Picasso), doubtless led by the vision of the current director, Nicholas Cullinan. No longer the poor relation to the National Gallery next door, the National Portrait Gallery proclaims its status as one of the most significant players in London’s artistic life.

Highly recommended



Further information


(Header image: Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-90. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Collection of Mr & Mrs Paul Mellon)


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