5 things I learnt from the Cézanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery
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5 things I learnt from the Cézanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

5 things I learnt from the Cézanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is one of the most influential artists of the nineteenth century. Over a working life of some forty-five years, Cézanne made almost 1,000 paintings of which around 160 are portraits.

1: Early in his career Cézanne painted with a palette knife.

Portrait of Anthony Valabrègue; 1869 – 1871

Since this is the painting technique I use, I was delighted to see Cézanne’s early portraits with the rich layers of paint applied with a knife. It’s easy to underestimate how daring and ahead of their time these portraits were. Unfortunately they weren’t well received which could be why he abandoned the technique.

When a jury member at the Paris Salon of 1866 first saw Paul Cézanne’s portrait of the journalist and critic Antony Valabrègue, he exclaimed that the portrait was not painted with a knife but with a pistol. The Salon refused him admission. The coarse, appearance created by Cézanne’s technique led Valabrègue to complain in a letter to the writer Zola:

“He has given me such a fierce complexion that it reminds me of the statue of Champfleury when it was stained with squashed blackberries.”

2: Cézanne painted 29 unflattering portraits of his wife Hortense Fiquet

Portrait de madame Cézanne 1888-1890

Paul Cézanne married Hortense after the birth of their son, then ignored her. He was however fascinated by her face, which he painted obsessively over and over. He captured its odd geometry, he didn’t try and make her look beautiful (he didn’t believe in that) instead he recorded her likeness with brutal accuracy. The result is somewhat unsettling, she stares out at us and looks utterly miserable which makes me wonder about the state of their marriage! Contemporaries described these paintings simultaneously as “monstrosities” and “masterpieces”.

3: He painted very slowly

Portrait of Gustave Geffroy, 1895

When painting a portrait of the Art critic Gustave Geffroy who had written several articles praising his work, it took Cézanne three months and over eighty sittings at Gustave’s house. Suddenly Cézanne stopped coming round and announced the portrait a failure and abandoned it unfinished.

4: He was very critical of his own work

Old woman with a rosary 1895

He struggled for much of his painting career with his classical drawing skills which he felt were weak. Many of Cézanne’s paintings use distorted perspective and shapes take on an abstract feel, you can also see in some of his paintings where he has re-drawn parts several times until he got it right. These aspects of his work are now seen as part of their charm but he faced harsh criticism for it at the time. Cézanne would often abandon or destroy paintings after working on them for months, even years.

The poet and writer Joachim Gasquet found this painting in 1896 at Cézanne’s family house near Aix-en-Provence, lying on the floor of the artist’s studio with a pipe dripping on it. The lower left hand corner is marked by splashed water.

5: Cézanne revolutionised how colour was used in painting

Boy in a red vest 1894

Cézanne’s work with colour inspired artists to reject naturalistic palettes, he would put orange, and blue and green in his skin tones, and used colour to represent how light plays on the surface of objects. He inspired the likes of Picasso to take this idea further, and who referred to him as “the father of us all”.

After Cézanne other artists like Matisse and Gauguin developed the colourisation of the Fauvism movement in France, and then the Expressionist movement centering around Germany – in other words, Cézanne opened up art in Technicolor.

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