Among Paul Cézanne’s most radical and memorable canvases are portraits. As such, they have appeared in virtually all retrospective surveys of his work, beginning with the first, at the Paris Salon d’Automne of 1907, the year after his death, an exhibition that decisively influenced Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among other artists. In 1910, Ambroise Vollard, who had been the artist’s dealer, capitalised on the burgeoning interest in Cézanne’s work by showing in his gallery 24 ‘Figures de Cézanne’. That, however, remained the only previous exhibition devoted to his portraits when, some half dozen years ago, I was approached by London’s National Portrait Gallery about organising a more comprehensive one. The result, ‘Cézanne Portraits,’ is on view there this autumn as a 50-work survey (which was previously at the Musée d’Orsay and will be at the National Gallery of Art in Washington next year). It spans the artist’s career, including such famous works as Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair (c. 1877), from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to little-known ones, such as Girl with a Doll (c. 1895) from a private collection.
Since loan exhibitions comprise the art of the possible, some pairs and series could not be reunited for the present one. However, sufficient of them have been, in whole or in part: among them, several of the early, palette-knife portraits of Cézanne’s Uncle Dominique from 1866; a great pair of self-portraits from 1885–86; and groups of canvases from each of the three series of portraits of Madame Cézanne made in that same decade. These works tell us how Cézanne’s methodical method of painting – ‘one stroke after the other, one after the other,’ was how he described it – readily became a practice involving the creation of one painting after the other of the same subject.
Still, the content of these paintings matters. One reason, I think, why there has never previously been a survey of Cézanne’s portraits is that his reputation, as it developed in the early 20th century, was as someone who had transformed Impressionism into a newly structured art, paving the way for modernist abstraction. This meant that critics paid more attention to style than subject-matter; and, therefore, that paintings of mute objects and natural scenes – still lifes and landscapes – seemed more central to his achievement than paintings of actual, individual people.
‘Cézanne Portraits’ is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 11 February 2018.
From the October 2017 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here