The Portraits of Paul Cézanne: a Peasant’s Image in Context
The innovative French painter Paul Cézanne (1860–1906) produced some 160 portraits within a body of work that comprised nearly 1,000 paintings. Surprisingly, notwithstanding Cézanne’s importance as a forerunner of twentieth-century art, no exhibition had exclusively focused on this particular genre in his work. Cézanne Portraits at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. addresses this omission by showing sixty works, highlighting portraits done in pairs or as series and presenting a full range of his sitters, thus enabling new insights into his pictorial practices. His Portrait of a Peasant (1904–06), on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, forms part of a half dozen paintings of working men painted towards the end of the artist’s career.
Cézanne never conformed to Paris Salon portrait conventions, which were designed to convey the sitter’s status or achievements. He was, however, keenly interested in compositional issues around the portrayal of the human figure. He once told his friend the writer and art critic Joachim Gasquet: “You don’t paint souls, you paint bodies; and when the bodies are well painted … the soul shines through …” Financially secure after receiving his inheritance in 1886 and with a growing artistic reputation following his 1895 solo exhibition at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in Paris, the artist continued in these later years to use his portraits to explore new ways of composing and expressing the human form.
Cézanne admired the elderly working people who had retained the traditional culture of his native Provence. For a small sum, his subjects were happy to pose for the long periods required by the artist. The artist demanded that his models avoid all movement, as if he were painting a still life. He once chided Vollard when sitting for his portrait: “Do I have to tell you again you must sit like an apple? Does an apple move?” In the National Gallery’s painting, the unidentified sitter is positioned with his large hands folded in his lap and his legs crossed, appearing seated comfortably. His black ribbon tie, set against his blue winter coat and vest, lends a sense of formality. Cézanne has conferred on the sitter a quiet dignity, even nobility, and made him a subject worthy of a portrait. This portrait thus exemplifies what the author D.H. Lawrence in 1929 described as the quality of “coming to rest” in Cézanne’s subjects. A more recent observer who studied the work, American curator Joseph J. Rishel, detected a “cunning and alert animation” in the subject of this portrait.
In the National Gallery’s work the cross-hatched blue-green wall and the navy coat complement the grey, brown and yellow lower parts of the portrait. Contrasting with the solid, upright model, the diagonals in the lower half help animate the picture. The eyes of the model appear unfinished. Cézanne may have intended to paint them last. Highly critical of his own work, the artist often re-worked paintings over prolonged periods, either from memory or based on a photograph. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his famous 1945 essay “Cézanne’s Doubt” had identified the artist’s relentless quest for the truth of visual perception as a way of understanding his methods.
Like the majority of his late works, Portrait of a Peasant was created in Cézanne’s studio at Les Lauves, north of Aix-en-Provence, where he began painting in 1902. Several other portraits from this period, including those of Cézanne’s gardener Vallier, appear to use the same chair and backdrop.
The small rectangular object on the right in the Portrait of a Peasant has been variously identified as a shovel or a portfolio. John Elderfield, the exhibition’s co-curator, believes it to be a small canvas, linking it to other portraits with studio materials, and notes that only the sitter’s coat has been extensively re-worked.
The Portrait of a Peasant, along with other paintings, drawings and sculpture, originally belonged to Ambroise Vollard, who consistently promoted the artist. When Vollard died in a car accident in July 1939 and war loomed, the works were shipped to the U.S. for safekeeping. The British Admiralty seized the shipment en route due to suspicions about its ownership. Stored in Ottawa at the National Gallery for the duration of the war, the estate was released by a British court in 1949, and a year later a French court clarified the shares to which the City of Paris and the estate were entitled. Vollard’s closest relatives were Jeanne and Léontine Vollard, two sisters then living in a religious community in La Réunion, who decided to sell their share of the collection held in Ottawa. The Gallery acquired the portrait, which joined an early Cézanne portrait of Gustave Boyer of c. 1870, already in the collection. The Gallery also holds two lithographs of Cézanne’s late Self-portrait, c. 1896–97.
In the Washington exhibition the Gallery’s Portrait of a Peasant with its blue backdrop, expressive brush strokes and alert subject holds its own among the strong portraits painted at the end of Cézanne’s career. The artist’s bold experimentation with colour and the human form represents his final, relentless attempt to find and express a new kind of aesthetic. These dignified, late Cézanne portraits – no less than his landscapes, still lifes and bathers – would inspire Matisse, Picasso and other pioneers of modern art.
The exhibition Cézanne Portraits is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until July 01, 2018. At the National Gallery of Canada, works by Paul Cézanne are on view in Room C215. If you would like to share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right of the page.