Cézanne Portraits – a magnificent exhibition of portraits and self-portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

It’s always a pleasure to see exhibitions of work by Cézanne and the exhibition of portraits which has opened at the National Portrait Gallery delivers on many counts.  When a show includes several portraits we’re familiar with from permanent collections in London galleries it’s a bit like encountering an old friend at a party:  “Oh, good morning M. Cézanne, good to see you again, I recognise you from your portrait at the Courtauld Gallery, but, goodness me, there’s a similar one right next to it which has quite a different feel and atmosphere.”

He produced 25 self-portraits and a good selection are on show here. It’s always fascinating seeing the progression of face, the ageing process and the gradual setting of features.  The notes on the wall claim that Cézanne was only interested in representation – enough of a likeness to make a person recognisable but that he wasn’t bothered with the psychological side of painting or in demonstrating a subject’s work or interests.  I think there definitely several exceptions to that claim.   The most frequently painted subject was Hortense, his wife.  We see her change from modest young woman to weary wife to rather vacant-looking older lady.  He was clearly fascinated by her face and captured her innate stillness very well.

There’s a chronology to the show – we shift from his early days in Aix-en-Provence to Paris and the world of the post-impressionists, of which he was a leading light, and then back to Aix and portraits of the ‘peasants’, the country folk he lived amongst.  I have to say, I really like those pictures. I could stare at his quick oil sketch of The Gardener Vallier for hours, revelling in the beguilingly simple strokes which capture the man’s figure and the sensation of dappled sunlight as he poses for the artist.  Then there’s the portrait of the farm worker with the pipe and the hat – who worked on the estate of Jas de Bouffan – and he features in the glorious card players pictures.

It’s fascinating to have the chance to look close up at the techniques he used.  The early whoosh of brush strokes gives way to the palette knife and thick smears of paint on canvas before he moves onto the development of smaller, more urgent brush strokes in a downward or diagonal direction which build up layers of colour and tone.

This show is an absolute joy for anyone interested in Cézanne, in portraiture, post-impressionism or simply the evolution of one of the most influential painters of the late 19th century.

It’s on at the National Portrait Gallery until 11 February 2018.


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