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Tourists and locals abuzz over rare London show of Cezanne’s masterpieces

Tourists and locals abuzz over rare London show of Cezanne’s masterpieces

A treat for art lovers – self-portraits by Paul Cézanne, the pre-eminent French artist of the Post-Impressionist school are now on public display for the first time in the United Kingdom.

The paintings are part of a major exhibition, Cézanne Portraits, at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The exhibition brings together over fifty of Cézanne’s portraits from collections across the world.

A Distinctive Voice

Cézanne began by making allegories, still lifes and landscapes but only an occasional portrait. The exhibition focuses on the period since 1866 when portrait painting grasped his attention. The exhibition illustrates how through working on portraits, Cézanne found his own artistic voice. From the beginning, this meant painting people in whose presence he felt comfortable.

In his early years, his subjects included his parents, close friends and domestic staff. The first of the three self-portraits, painted around 1885, was, together with Cézanne’s earliest self-portrait, the only painted self-portrait to be based upon a photograph.

Self-Portrait with Bowler Hat by Paul Cézanne, 1885–6; Private CollectionMadame Cézanne Sewing by Paul Cézanne, 1877; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

The two portraits with a bowler hat show the artist in a familiar pose, looking back over his shoulder, his right eye engaging with the viewer. The shape of the hat reflects Cézanne’s pleasure in modelling simple, solid geometric forms. The works are the only painted self-portraits to show Cézanne wearing a bowler hat, although it would become his favorite headgear in his later years.

“This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition” Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery

Rare Examples

Also displayed for the first time in the UK are two portraits of Cézanne’s wife, Hortense Fiquet – Madame Cézanne Sewing (1877), on loan from Stockholm’s National Museum and Madame Cézanne (1886–7), on loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts. Cézanne’s mistress, Hortense, finally became Madame Cézanne in 1886, following the death of the artist’s father with whom he had a difficult relationship. The couple had a son, Paul, who is the subject of several of Cézanne’s portraits.

Cézanne Portraits explores the special pictorial and thematic characteristics of Cézanne’s portraiture, including his creation of complementary pairs and multiple versions of the same subject. The chronological development of Cézanne’s portraiture is considered, with an examination of the changes to his style and method, and his understanding of resemblance and identity. The exhibition looks at the extent to which particular sitters inflected the characteristics and development of his work.

Paintings included in the exhibition range from Cézanne’s remarkable portraits of his maternal uncle, Dominique Aubert. Shown dressed in differing costumes, Aubert sat for nine or ten portraits by his nephew over the winter of 1866–7. Other portraits are of Cézanne’s close friend Antoine-Fortuné Marion, who became Director of the Museum of Natural History in Marseille and went on painting expeditions with Cézanne in Provence.

In addition to the portraits previously unseen in the United Kingdom, the exhibition also includes a number of works that were last exhibited in this country in the 1920s and 1930s. The paintings are drawn from museums and private collections in Brazil, Denmark, France, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Uncle Dominique in Profile, StockholmUncle Dominique in ProfileNationalmuseum, Stockholm

The Human Dimension

The exhibition coincides with the anniversary of the artist’s birth a century ago. Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director, National Portrait Gallery, London, believes it is important to highlight neglected aspects of Cezanne’s work. Cullinan says: ‘We are delighted to have brought together an unprecedented number of Cézanne’s portraits for the first time in order to reveal arguably the most personal, and therefore most human, aspect of his art.

While Cézanne may have learnt a great deal from the Impressionists, his aim was quite different, his vision unique, informed by a desire to see through appearances to the underlying structure of things by means of mass, line and shimmering color. Nowhere was this more evident than in his portraits. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.’

Self PortraitSelf Portrait

John Elderfield, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and Curator of Cézanne Portraits says: ‘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. Unlike most of his avant-garde peers, Cézanne never received a portrait commission, and many of his painted likenesses of friends and family members offer little information in the way of his sitters’ individual personas, stature, or psychology. More than his landscapes and still lifes, Cézanne’s portraits serve as markers or milestones in his long and prolific career, allowing us to ponder the key developments in his painting process and of his understanding of what portraiture can achieve.’

Serene expressions

According to Elderfield, Cézanne’s primary interest was in creating the fact of the representation, he was not seeking to create anything poetic. For example, he did not want his sitters to smile. He liked to paint people who did not expect anything from him. This explains why he did not paint many prominent or public figures.

The Artist’s SonThe Artist’s Son

Cézanne did not like to be flattered and preferred obscurity. He was comfortable being with agricultural people and others from a similar background, considering them to be more real than the glamorous people in Paris. He was lauded by his peers for his factual reality.

In later years Cézanne paintings became more experimental. His friend Vollard complained about having to sit more than 115 times! His final portraits of Vallier, who helped Cézanne in his garden and studio at Les Lauves, Aix-en-Provence, were made shortly before the artist’s death.

Later a younger generation of critics, became very appreciative and warm towards Cezanne’s paintings. One big surprise at a later stage was his portraits of children. Cézanne entered the twentieth century a celebrated artist although his later life was mostly solitary. He died on Oct 23, 1906 aged 67.

Despite being described by Picasso and Matisse as “the father of us all”, Cézanne remains somewhat unknown and misunderstood. Over his life Cézanne painted almost 1000 paintings, almost 200 of which were portraits, including twenty-six of himself and twenty-nine of his wife.

Cézanne Portraits enables us to view the work of one of the most influential artists of the nineteenth century with fresh eyes.

The Cézanne Portraits National Portrait Gallery in London is being held from October 26, 2017 – February 11, 2018. The exhibition is organized by the National Portrait Gallery, London; Etablissement public des musées d’Orsay et de l’Orangerie, Paris; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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