Cézanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
Cézanne was never well known for his portraits, despite painting over 200 of them in his lifetime, and, in many ways, it isn’t hard to see why. The wide selection included in this exhibition are less attention-grabbing and draw from a more limited palette than many of his landscapes. In choosing to display paintings from all stages of Cézanne’s career, from very early works to those from the final years of his life, the curator John Elderfield also, by necessity, includes some more awkward and less accomplished pieces.
Nevertheless, even with fewer colours at his disposal, Cézanne’s characteristic and charming painting style remains apparent. The chronological timeline of pieces from throughout the artist’s life also allows visitors to get a real sense of his development, witnessing the experiments that allowed this style to emerge. The Cézanne paintings the average person is most familiar with are subtle and accomplished in their application of paint despite the impressionistic style. After witnessing earlier portraits in which the canvas is loaded with chunky swathes of paint, it becomes far easier to imagine what a shock he must have been to the contemporary art world.
Also fascinating is how this exhibition places multiple portraits of the same subject alongside each other, allowing similarities and differences to be observed. Unlike many of his peers, Cézanne never received a portrait commission and, indeed, seems to have struggled to produce portraits even as gifts for admirers and so his pool of sitters was limited. This, however, gave him the liberty to eschew conventions of portrait painting, such as depicting male figures as noble and female figures as beautiful and seductive. Cézanne’s portraits are thus more true to life than other similar paintings of the time but also, crucially, far more enigmatic. When emotion is depicted, its exact nature is hard to divine and this indeterminateness serves to draw greater attention to the artist’s excellent use of colour and form.
For both those who love Cézanne and those who know little about him, this is a comprehensive and intriguing exhibition, featuring numerous paintings never before displayed in the UK.
Photos: Erol Birsen
Cézanne Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery from 26th October 2017 until 11th February 2018. For further information or to book visit the National Portrait Gallery website here.