Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review - Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

I recommend you see the new Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery if you can.  I wasn't expecting to like it as much as  I did. 

It's very much a historic one-off exhibition. It's the very first time
  • over 50 of his portraits have been gathered together for exhibition in one place. 
  • his portraits have been seriously exhibited since he died and the retrospective in the Paris Salon d’Automne of 1907, the year after his death which influenced both Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, amongst others.
It's also a splendid and significant exhibition occupying almost all of the ground floor exhibition space at the National Portrait Gallery - the same space occupied by the exhibitions for the Lucian Freud retrospective and Picasso's Portraits.

Interestingly, it opens in London 111 years - almost to the day - after he died in 1906.

The last self-portrait (1898-1900) by Cezanne
oil on canvas, 641mm x 533mm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
The exhibition opened to the public at the NPG  today and continues until 11 February 2018. So lots of time to see it - however this one is undoubtedly going to be a blockbuster (see below) - so don't hang around to book tickets.
I saw it twice yesterday - in the morning at the PV and then again in the afternoon at the Friends Preview - which was packed.

The Portraits include two of (left) his gallerist Vollard and (right) the art critic Geffroy

The morning was a briefing. I listened to Nicholas Cullinan tell how this exhibition started out some six years ago during the tenure of his predecessor Sandy Nairne.

Then listened to the curator of the exhibition, John Elderfieldprovided an excellent tour and explanation of the exhibition. (He's the Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, following his tenure from 2003 to 2008. He's also nothe Adler Distinguished Curator of European Art and Lecturer 19th- and 20th-Century European Art at Princeton).  

RECOMMENDED READ: John Elderfield has written an article for Apollo Magazine - Cézanne’s radical portraiture by John Elderfield

He also highlighted the help that the online Cezanne catalogue raisonnée published in 2014 had been in preparing the exhibition (and incidentally it's fascinating!)

Elderfield's aim has been to:
  • give a sense of progression in Cezanne's painting processes from beginning to end. 
    • models at the beginning are largely family, lovers and very close friends. Towards the end of his life he paints people around where he lives in Provence. His wife and son by this stage are living in Paris.
    • his use of the knife seems to diminish after the criticisms at the Salon in 1876
    • his palette changes and lightens after 1872 when he moves to Auvers to be near Pissaro and learn about painting plein air and how to paint landscapes
    • his portrait production drops - before recovering later in life
  • highlight the complementary pairs of paintings and the series of paintings - different versions of the same subject (eg of himself, his wife Hortense, his uncle - but also of his gardener at the end of his life)
Three paintings of Hortense in a red dress
  • plus highlight the continuities e.g. 
    • Cezanne's intense dislike of the poetic or cute 
    • the fact he didn't want smiles, gestures or any movement by his sitters!
    • the omission of any commissions - quite deliberately
    • the lack of portraits of important people - he stuck to family and friends. In this exhibition only two people are "known" outside his family and friends and the ordinary people where he lived.
    • he liked to paint genuine ordinary people who didn't need to be flattered
    • his aim was to paint the factual faces of ordinary people - their personality was not something he took into account.
    • he never exhibited between 1876 - when the Salon derided his work and 1895 when his dealer Vollard created an exhibition of his paintings
Elderfield called him "the most profound portraitist since Rembrandt"

Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery with John Elderfield, the Curator of the Exhibition
Judging by the number of people in the exhibition yesterday afternoon, it's safe to say this is going to be a very popular and potentially crowded exhibition

The NPG are endeavouring to maintain sensible numbers by having a timed entry - and when you book your ticket you'll need to identify a short window when you will arrive to enter.
Advance booking is highly recommended for this exhibition (NPG website)
The way the exhibition is hung means that artworks are nicely spaced out. Based on yesterday when it was crowded, it should be perfectly possible to see each one comfortably. So you spend time looking and not in trying to work out how to get to see the next one!

Why this is a special exhibition

Two self-portraits c.1875
  • It brings together some 50 of Cezanne's portraits for the very first time.  These represent about a quarter of the 200 portraits Cézanne is known to have painted in his career. 
  • He painted 26 self-portraits and 29 portraits of his wife and a significant number of them are in this exhibition
Two paintings of Madame Cezanne in blue 1886-7
painted around the time they married and some 14 years after the birth of their son Paul
  • It includes his first and his last self-portrait
  • It includes paintings of his son as a small child.
  • It's the first exhibition dedicated to his portraits since the one organised by dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1910 which showed 24 ‘Figures de Cézanne’. 
“Up until now, Cézanne’s portraiture has received surprisingly little attention, so we are thrilled to be able to bring together so many of his portraits for the first time to reveal arguably the most personal, and therefore most human, aspect of Cézanne’s art.” Nicholas Cullinan
  • it has three of the leading museums in the world participating - and works have come from a number of prestigious museums and private collections worldwide
  • It will have a film about it released in January 2018.
It includes a number of famous paintings including this one of his wife. It's one of the earliest paintings of Hortense Fiquet (1850-1922) who was his lover before she finally became Madame Cezanne. He painted 27 portraits of her.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair (c. 1877)
oil on canvas 725mm x 360mm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
I liked the treatment of the material in the skirt.

The skirt in the 
It also includes a number of paintings which have never been seen before - including:
  • Two self-portraits of Cezanne in a bowler hat have never been on display in the UK before
John Elderfield being interviewed in front of the two self-portraits of Cezanne in a bowler hat
  • a series of paintings of his uncle - made using a palette knife not long after he started to paint portraits - which were reviled by the Salon when exhibited. Critics made it very clear they did not like his knife paintings
Paintings of his uncle made using a knife
What struck me the most was how similar Cezanne was to some other great portrait painters - like Lucian Freud - who typically painted family, friends and his studio assistant and dealers - and accepted very few commissions. (Hockney ditto - although I'm not sure I'd call him a great portrait painter!)

It's as if painting people is about painting the things in your life at the same time as you work through process issues and things you want to experiment with.

This exhibition is no revelation in terms of personality of the sitters - but it tells us a lot about Cezanne, his life, his painting and his personal preferences - and lack of time for and interest in painting emotions or anything sentimental.

That said the paintings of his son are quite beautiful.

The Artist's son (Paul Cezanne) 1881-2
oil on canvas 350mm x 380mm
Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris
In the afternoon, came the realisation that many of the paintings are ones which could be hung in a contemporary portrait exhibition today - and nobody would know they were done over 100 years ago!

The paintings look amazingly fresh.

For me it emphasised just how much Cezanne has influenced modern and contemporary painting - and why this exhibition is a MUST SEE for all contemporary portrait painters

My only gripe is that I think the NPG could have done a lot more on the website to explain the exhibition. It deserves a proper microsite rather than one which is almost entirely commercially orientated. I don't mind commercial aspects - but NOT at the expense of the educational for those who can't get to the exhibition!

I also recommend the small booklet called Painting People.

Photograph of Cezanne in old age

Reviews of the Exhibition

You can also read the other reviews of the exhibition.....

Reviews of the exhibition in Paris

Previous posts


  1. It was when I saw one of his portraits in Cambridge that I understood what the fuss over his was. It sort of came off the wall and hit me on the head. Prints never really show the power. His portraits are so much stronger than the rest of his works. I'm looking forward to seeing this very much.

  2. I was also amazed at the difference between what they look like up close and what they look like in books or prints. They seem so much duller in print.


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