They Suffered for Their Cézanne Portraits

In Paul Cézanne’s “Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap,” from 1866, his subject comes across as a family clown, the kind that kids delight in.

WASHINGTON — There’s an engrossing confab of a show in session at the National Gallery of Art here. It’s called “Cézanne Portraits.” With some 60 likenesses by a notoriously testy, people-averse artist, it’s the largest gathering of its kind in a century. (The last one was in Paris in 1910.) And it has just a few more weeks to run, so if you’re going to catch the conversation, which I seriously recommend, the time is now.

You’ll know most of the players by type, if not by name. Cézanne himself, in self-portraits, is very present, looking alternately feral and professorial. So is his mate of nearly 40 years, Hortense Fiquet, who sits with her hands knotted in her lap and a lifetime of patience inscribed on her face. The Cézanne clan, as a whole, is a tense bunch. The artist’s Provençal father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne, has his head in a newspaper, as if trying to tune everyone out. By contrast, his uncle, Dominique Aubert, can’t stay still. In a series of 10 portraits done in a two-year span he mugs as if he were in a bus station photo booth.

A few art celebrities are on hand. Émile Zola, Cézanne’s childhood friend in Aix-en-Provence and (at least early on) aesthetic brother in arms, reclines on a cushion, a Buddha in beige gabardine. The art critic Gustave Geffroy, who Cézanne loved (when Geffroy wrote something nice about him), then loathed (for reasons we don’t know), hunkers spiderlike over a scattering of open books.

And the dealer Ambroise Vollard, who put Cézanne’s career on the map (he organized his first portrait show), is rewarded, if that’s the word, with the likeness seen here. Vollard claimed to have submitted to 115 sittings for the painting, each lasting from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., during which time he was verbally slapped — “You wretch! You’ve spoiled the pose! Do I have to tell you again you must sit like an apple?” — if he so much as twitched.

The torment he suffered doesn’t come through in the image itself, in which Vollard projects the calm of a seasoned statesman. Yet Cézanne, after all the hassle, decided the picture was a failure and refused to finish it. One day he put down his brushes and never came back.

He could get away with such behavior because he wasn’t working on commission, never did. He picked the people he wanted to paint, almost always family or friends. And they sat — and sat — because they felt obliged or flattered. This arrangement also meant he could do portraits that are, stylistically, as much about the painter as the sitter. There’s a theory that Cézanne viewed his human subjects the same way he did the apples and mountains in his other work: as mere abstract shapes, excuses for testing the mechanics of depiction. And it’s certainly true that he saw himself as an experimenter, an anti-academic art dissident.

His beginnings set him up as an outsider to the Parisian establishment. He was born in rural Aix in 1839, the son of a bourgeois banker turned gentleman farmer. Faced with paternal disapproval — his father wanted him to be a lawyer — he went countercultural: in an early self-portrait owned by the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, where the show originated, he depicts himself as hirsute Wookiee. He also made a point of being a rude, crude technician. In his pictures of Uncle Dominique, he slathers on paint with a palette knife, like pâté on bread. Nor did he make any effort, at least until late in his career, to idealize his sitters. His many portraits of his wife suggest the very opposite was true.

The two began living together in 1869, when Cézanne was 30 and Fiquet was 19; in 1872, they had a son, their only child. After hiding the relationship for years from the artist’s family, they finally married in 1886, though rarely lived together thereafter. One of the show’s earliest portraits of Fiquet, from around 1877, is really a portrait of the dress she wears, a mountain of shimmery blue-green stripes. At the top of this fabric Alp is a perfectly oval head, with a chalky, hollow-eyed mask of a face and a pulled-back, wig-like hairdo.

This portrait set a template for many others of Fiquet that would follow over time. (Almost 30 are known; 15 are in the show.) The consistent features include the egg-shaped head; the cap-like hair; the emphasis on details of clothing; and an unreadable expressive content. Unreadable does not mean unread: For a century, art historians have interpreted these paintings either as evidence of Fiquet’s discontentment with her lot in the marriage (how many days did she clock up as sitter?), and of Cézanne’s cold, everything-for-art objectification of her as a pileup of ovals and cones.

The psychodynamic accuracy of all this we’ll never know. And anyway, that’s not the full story, or maybe even the central one. When I look at Cézanne’s work in other genres — the apples in his still lifes, the mountains in his landscapes — I see geometry, but also warmth. When I look at the portraits I see this too: crankiness, yes, but also teasing jokes, affectionate digs, and love.

In paintings of Uncle Dominique, he comes across as a family clown, the kind that kids delight in. Cézanne père was a crusty conservative — “cold, stingy,” Zola called him — but his son’s portrait is the equivalent of a tickle: It sends the old man into art history reading a newspaper for which Zola wrote.

In image after image, Fiquet looks stiff, even robotic. Then suddenly in one from the mid-1880s — around the year the couple married — she doesn’t. Her hair streams loose, her lips are slightly parted, and her face, bent toward us, is awash with emotion. And this sight sends us back to her other portraits, to reassess and imagine what we’ve missed.

Unabashed tenderness softens the portraits of Aix farmers and domestic workers Cézanne painted in the decade before his death, at 67, in 1906. By then the family estate was his; the artist-rebel had become a devout Roman Catholic and vehement Provençal nativist, scornful of Paris, though glad for its approval. His late portraits had one primary emotional focus: on the unmodern, precious but endangered rural world that the artist grew up in and never really left.

It too is represented in the Washington exhibition — organized by John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with Mary Morton of the National Gallery of Art, and Xavier Rey, former director of collections at the Musée d’Orsay — in the person of a man named Vallier, who was Cézanne’s gardener. From his curved back and beard we take him to be elderly. He’s sitting in darkness, so he could be anywhere: in Provence, Paris, indoors, outdoors. And he’s seen in profile, so we don’t have the complication of trying to scrutinize his face, interpret his mood. In a talkative show of contrary voices, he’s a quiet zone. Half-abstract, picked out in light, he looks like a spill of late-summer leaves, drifting downward, becoming earth.

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