Jun 12th 2018

Truth in Painting: Cézanne’s Portraits at the National Gallery of Art

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.

 

One can hardly overstate the significance of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), an artist who not only transformed French painting, but in many ways invented modern art: “The father of us all,” as Picasso observed. To be a painter in the twentieth-century one had to come to terms with Cézanne – an artist whose work forces upon us the question of what it means to be a painter. For Cézanne, it was nothing less than to confront the mystery of the visible, the vitality and interpenetration of objects, the paradoxical nature of being itself. 

The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is currently exhibiting a generous selection of Cézanne’s portraits, offering a window into the artist’s development, his readiness to experiment, his unflinching honesty and tireless commitment as a painter: “I want to die painting,” he would say, “I am probably only the primitive of a new art.” 

From the town of Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne was a man of independent means, and therefore did not require finding buyers for his work; he was able to devote his life to the solution of those artistic problems that consumed and obsessed him. He would say that he wanted to paint “Poussin from nature” – which presumably meant that he wanted to attain the perfect balance, harmonious design, and substantiality of the old masters, who he studied religiously at the Louvre, while remaining true to the discoveries of the Impressionists, whose exhibitions he would take part in as a young man. In short, to bring together the order and necessity of the old masters, with the fidelity to nature and the artist’s sensations that distinguished the great Impressionist painters of his generation – including, Monet, Renoir and Pissaro.    

Not unlike Rembrandt, Cézanne painted self-portraits throughout his career, in what constituted a kind of running autobiography. The exhibition presents a number of these, including the bold, brash Self-Portrait with a Landscape Background (1875), painted when he was thirty-six years old. Cézanne has accentuated, even exaggerated his prematurely balding head; his side locks are wild and unkempt, while the bushy mustache and beard entirely covers over the mouth. He has no need for words: his arched brows accent the piercing eyes, giving the work a brazenly dramatic flair. He bellows and roars with those magnificent eyes and V-shaped brow, atop which sits a massively rounded forehead.  We seem to be face to face with a painter who is aware of his power and wants to make us aware of it too.   

Cezanne Boy in Red Waistcoat
Cézanne: Boy in Red Waistcoat

Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888-1890) is another standout in the show, one of a series of paintings Cézanne did of a young boy dressed in the garb of an Italian peasant. The contrapposto of the standing figure, evocative of classical sculpture, is unusual among Cézanne’s portraits, and lends the romantic youth a certain élan and dash. Perhaps what is most striking is the use of color – the pinks and greens and blues that respond in a varied and complex harmony with the lively red of the boy’s vest. Color was all-important for Cézanne: for him, the painter ‘spoke in colors’. What Cézanne said of Veronese could have just as easily been said of him: “his colors dance.” One is “reinvigorated by them. You are born into the real world. You become yourself. You become painting…” At the same time, colors existed only in relation to each other – for Cézanne, their significance was inseparable from their relationships, so that each spot seems to have “a knowledge of every other.”  

A substantial portion of the show is devoted to the portraits of Cézanne’s wife Hortense, of which the painter did over thirty. While generally not unsympathetic, neither do these pictures flatter their subject, who is sometimes quite plain in her appearance. In more than a few we encounter a frank, even startling mixture of severity and impatience verging on outright displeasure.

Cézanne Madam Cézanne
Cézanne: Madame Cézanne in Red Dress

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888-1890) – on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art – is an extraordinary painting, in which we find the subject seated in an elaborately furnished interior. Like so many of these works it is a rather strange and somewhat disconcerting portrait, all the more so for the odd tilt of the sitter and her surroundings, as if everything within the frame is in movement and in danger of sliding off the canvas entirely. Hortense wears a typical bourgeois housedress, however the vital red tones lend credence to Cézanne’s claim that no one could paint red as he did.

The portrait of art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1899) is undoubtedly among the most majestic and legendary of the works in this exhibition. It took some one hundred and fifteen sessions of posing to see the painting through, and still the piece was ultimately left unfinished – like so many of Cézanne’s canvases. Indeed, Giacometti went so far as to say that, “[Cézanne] never really finished anything… That’s the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.” 

Cézanne:Vollard
C´zanne: Ambroise Vollard

 

In the works of his later years, Cézanne would often leave substantial portions of the canvas exposed. This is evident in his landscapes, a handful of which are housed in the National Gallery. “The landscape,” he said “thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.” The seeing of the painter was not the inspection of an in-itself world, for Cézanne – hence, his abhorrence of the photographic eye – but a vision that occurs in him: “Nature is on the inside,” he would say. The painter’s task is to trace the coming-to-itself of the visible – the way in which the mountain makes itself seen by the painter. The painter does not produce simply another thing: his achievement consists in unfolding the carnal essence of the thing – a visible to the second power, as it were.  

“Nothing is beautiful except what is true,” Cézanne once said, “and only true things should be loved.” As the philosopher Jacques Derrida put it: “The truth in painting is signed Cézanne.” Perhaps it is this above all else that makes him the indispensible painter for our times, this era of so-called ‘post-truth.’ For Cézanne “painting was truth telling or it was nothing.” That is what it meant to paint from nature, to be primitive, to be free from all affectation, to be like those “first men who engraved their dreams of the hunt on the vaults of caves…” This is why we need to look and look again at Cézanne. And it is perhaps best that he has come to the National Gallery, to D.C., but a stone’s throw away from where truth is daily made a mockery of, and lies are proffered with breathtaking ease.

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.
Dec 10th 2018
The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.
Dec 6th 2018
Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.
Dec 5th 2018
Researchers have developed a test that could be used to diagnose all cancers. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types. The test has yet to be conducted on humans, and clinical trials are needed before we know for sure if it can be used in the clinic.
Dec 4th 2018
The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (pictured below by Michael Johnson) amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him. Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him?
Nov 26th 2018
There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk.
Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example. 
Nov 13th 2018
Over the last ten years, research has demonstrated the importance of creative practice in the arts and humanities. They can help maintain health, provide ways of breaking down social barriers and expressing and understanding experiences and emotions, and assist in developing trust, identities, shared understanding and more compassionate communities. So, hopefully, this sidelining of the arts in health terms is changing.
Nov 13th 2018
I am here to sing Will Kemp’s [in the picture below] praises and review this new e-book because I have been studying with Will since January 2016, long distance but close in heart—Will lives in Britain and I live in the States.
Nov 13th 2018

This address is in part about the musician who has studied as a concert pianist, but does not pursue the narrow and precise field for which he has been trained, yet does not quit; but does not often play solo recitals nor concerts, nor chamber music, nor strict lieder activities

Nov 2nd 2018
Writing is such hard work that those of us who dabble in prose often dread looking at the “white bull” – Hemingway’s term for a blank sheet of paper waiting to be filled up with our words. Will we defeat the bull today? It’s always a tossup. The stress and strain of writing perhaps explains why so many writers seek an outlet in the visual arts, particularly painting and sculpture. Visual output satisfies the hunger to create, and, as a bonus, the art form is more free and spontaneous. Great writers have produced great paintings. Look at Victor Hugo, Guillaume Apollinaire, Rudyard Kipling, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Even more interesting to me is the somewhat lesser phenomenon of pianists who paint. They are seeking the same release, the same soulagement, the same need to liberate themselves. 
Nov 1st 2018
Modern life does have many benefits, but when it persuades us to use transport, sit in a chair at work, or watch TV for extended periods, we increasingly have to turn to medicine for solutions because these habits are killing hundreds of millions of us each year. With 70% of people in the US on prescription drugs (50% in the UK), it seems that as lifespan inches upwards, disease is skyrocketing. The irony is that many advances in modern medicine are firefighting those very problems that modern life itself has created.
Oct 30th 2018
It’s important to note that all studies, including our own, only show an association between the herpes virus and Alzheimer’s – they don’t prove that the virus is an actual cause. Probably the only way to prove that a microbe is a cause of a disease is to show that an occurrence of the disease is greatly reduced either by targeting the microbe with a specific anti-microbial agent or by specific vaccination against the microbe. Excitingly, successful prevention of Alzheimer’s disease by use of specific anti-herpes agents has now been demonstrated in a large-scale population study in Taiwan. Hopefully, information in other countries, if available, will yield similar results.