Cézanne’s People at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. | BLOUIN ARTINFO
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Cézanne’s People at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Paul Cézanne’s “Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress”, 1888–1890. Oil on canvas, unframed: 81 x 65 cm (31 7/8 x 25 9/16 in.) The Art Institute of Chicago, Wilson L. Mead Fund
(Photograph © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski)

In the summer of 1899, Paul Cézanne left Paris to work in the village of Bourron-Marlotte, which was a popular French Post-Impressionist getaway. At the Hôtel Mallet there, he met a young Norwegian painter, who introduced himself as Alfred Hauge. Cézanne, in turn, identified himself, and the young artist replied that it wasn’t possible, because Paul Cézanne was dead. Perhaps as a way to prove that the rumors about his death had been greatly exaggerated — he had only retreated from society for quite some years since inheriting a fortune from his father — Cézanne painted a portrait of Hauge, which the young artist was desperate to receive when it was completed. But Cézanne would not satisfy the request: frustrated with his own work, Cézanne slashed the painting with a knife.

Throughout his 45-year career, Cézanne painted about 160 portraits (among about 1,000 paintings), but only one of his sitters ever ended up with one of them, and that was his art dealer, Ambroise Vollard. Later, Vollard would describe the experience of sitting for Cézanne as rather excruciating. He estimated that it took 115 sessions to complete the work, and that, on one occasion, when the sitter nodded off in his chair, Cézanne blurted out, “You wretch! … Do I have to tell you again you must sit like an apple? Does an apple move?”

“Cézanne Portraits,” which opens at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., on March 25, brings together more than 60, or more than a third, of Cézanne’s portraits from collections around the world, and is the first exhibition devoted exclusively to this portion of his oeuvre.

The works on display open up a portal into Cézanne’s heart, providing us with fascinating narratives about his personal history — and presenting images of how his friends, family members, and other sitters responded to his character. Co-curated by Mary Morton at the National Gallery of Art, John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Xavier Rey, director of the Musées de Marseille, “Cezanne’s Portraits” was previously on view at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the National Portrait Gallery in London, with largely stellar reviews. It runs at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., until July 1.

Morton, curator and head of the department of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art, said that Cézanne struggled with portraits, and made fewer works in this genre, nevertheless, “you see him achieving extraordinary things and then getting frustrated, and then walking away, and then coming back to them. There are 5 to 10 portraits that are among the greatest, if not the greatest, things that he ever did.” Cézanne’s portraits offer us another perspective on the “father of Modernism” who pioneered certain formal aspects of painting that laid the groundwork for a radical transformation of art in the 20th century, influencing a generation of emerging Cubist artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. The iconic images almost always associated with Cézanne, however, are his still lifes of apples and blocky landscapes, and his portraits have largely been overlooked. “We tend to talk about him in formalist terms, because he’s creating a whole new game in the field of painting,” said Morton. “He does that mostly through landscape painting and still life painting. But people didn’t really know what to do with Cézanne when he starts to deal with human beings. Not only people, but people he knows really well.”

Among the highlights of his portrait work in the exhibition are “Boy in the Red Waist Coat,” 1888-90, from the National Gallery of Art’s own collection — which Morton calls “his transcendent masterpiece” — “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair,” 1877, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and “Madame Cézanne in the Greenhouse, 1890-92, from the Musée de l’Orangerie. Cézanne’s wife, known as “Madame Cézanne,” or Hortense Fiquet, was perhaps his favorite subject. He painted 29 of her — starting from before they were married — and 26 of himself. “I find the images of his wife to be devastating,” said Morton. “He clearly loves this woman and you can see that the marriage is really hard, and it’s like he captures the impossibility of easy harmonious intimacy.” Cézanne and Fiquet had become involved when he was in art school in Paris, and she worked at the school as a model. For several years, the couple hid their relationship from his parents, afraid that his banker father would cut off his allowance, even after they’d had a son. Later, the two were estranged and lived apart, although he continued to paint her portrait even after he disinherited her. Elderfield said that the aim of the exhibition was to “draw the string of the portraits out of everything else and see what they look like themselves as a unit. One thing was clear that they did tell a whole story of his career, and I think, provided a closer sense of him as a person.

When you’re standing looking at the portrait, you are standing where he stood, in front of these people you’re very much aware of it, because they are looking back at you.” It’s not always a comfortable place to be standing. Vollard recalled that Cézanne hated being watched at his easel, and he may have made the dynamic more difficult by requiring extreme patience from his sitters. But on the other hand, he also told Vollard, ‘The goal of all art is the human face.’ His portraits were never made on commission; he typically painted friends and family members, or others with whom he had more intimate social connections. “His idea of portraiture didn’t include flattering people, didn’t include making people important or beautiful or cute, and he didn’t like to have sitters who expected that,” said Elderfield. “There certainly was at least one occasion where an important politician wanted to be painted and he felt he was too full of himself and wouldn’t do it. He was also notorious for also not fully completing the picture, at least to the extent that people expected.”

The exhibition presents both complementary pairs and multiple versions of the same subject — there are four of Madame Cézanne in a red dress, three of her in a blue dress, and about 10 of his uncle Dominique Aubert, a bailiff — but it’s unclear whether these were designed to be series, like Claude Monet’s haystacks. The curators also don’t know yet how frequently Cézanne painted the same sitter over a period of years, even though some were evidently painted in quick succession.

“One of the reasons we avoided chronology in the display is that we do not know when these paintings were made,” said Morton. “We tried to use the wallpaper in the background to determine the chronology in some cases, because he moved a lot and you can see the different wallpapers from some rooms change. But we don’t know when many of them were done.” The exhibit also includes the portrait of Hauge, which has been repaired, although one can still see the damage to the canvas if one looks closely, said Elderfield. The Vollard portrait is also on display; after 115 sessions, Vollard said the painter just stopped working on it, although it may not have been complete, and apparently said that he was “not discontented with the front of the shirt.”

Perhaps more significantly, these portraits give us an insight into Cézanne as a person, what kinds of relationships he had, and how he tried, and succeeded, to explore the emotions of his sitters through his very considered formal technique. “When you think about emotion, you don’t necessarily think of Cézanne,” said Morton. “There’s a lot of emotion there that you don’t get with still lifes and landscapes, and if people are willing to look and open themselves up to that it can be very moving.”

— This article appears in the March 2018 edition of Art+Auction