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

May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "A blockchain company has bought a piece of Banksy artwork and burnt it. But instead of destroying the value of the art, they claim to have made it more valuable, because it was sold as a piece of blockchain art. The company behind the stunt, called Injective Protocol, bought the screen print from a New York gallery. They then live-streamed its burning on the Twitter account BurntBanksy. But why would anyone buy a piece of art just to burn it? Understanding the answer requires us to delve into the tricky world of blockchain or “NFT” art."
Mar 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Exercise is good for your health at every age – and you can reap the benefits no matter how late in life you start. But our latest research has shown another benefit of being physically active throughout life. We found that in the US, people who were more physically active as teenagers and throughout adulthood had lower healthcare costs."
Mar 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Although around one in 14 people over 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s still no cure, and no way to prevent the disease from progressing. But a recent study may bring us one step closer to preventing Alzheimer’s. The trial, which was conducted on animals, has found a specific molecule can prevent the buildup of a toxic protein known to cause Alzheimer’s in the brain."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The art historian George Kubler observed that scholars in the humanities “pretend to despise measurement because of its ‘scientific’ nature.” As if to illustrate his point Robert Storr, former dean of Yale’s School of Art, declared that artistic success is “completely unquantifiable.” In fact, however, artistic success can be quantified, in several ways. One of these is based on the analysis of texts produced by art scholars, and this measure can give us a systematic understanding of how changes in recent art have produced changes in the canon of art history."
Feb 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely."
Feb 16th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... these men were completely unaware that they had put their lives in the hands of doctors who not only had no intention of healing them but were committed to observing them until the final autopsy – since it was believed that an autopsy alone could scientifically confirm the study’s findings. As one researcher wrote in a 1933 letter to a colleague, “As I see, we have no further interest in these patients until they die.” ...... The unquestionable ethical failure of Tuskegee is one with which we must grapple, and of which we must never lose sight, lest we allow such moral disasters to repeat themselves. "