with Phong Bui

NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART | March 25 – July 8, 2018

Paul Cézanne, Self-Portrait, c. 1875. Oil on canvas, 25 9/16 × 21 1/4 inches. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, gift of Jacques Laroche, 1947 © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

In order to experience a great work of art, one must assume that one will never understand it fully, but perhaps there are a few exceptions when one is completely alone with one’s openness and vulnerability, ready to be a receptor to the hidden layers of minute subtleties. How does one ever come to understand the art of Paul Cézanne? I once asked my poetry professor in college, Stephen Berg (who was the founder and former editor of American Poetry Review), and he responded that I should read both Honoré de Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece and Émile Zola’s The Masterpiece, which I eventually did in the late 1980s when I was living and working in New York City, trying to understand the genesis of modern art while catching up with a tremendous feeling of inadequacy towards contemporary art. To my good fortune, having spent a whole year teaching at Haverford College in Philadelphia in the late 1990s, I was able to read Dore Ashton’s A Fable of Modern Art, Meyer Schapiro’s essay “The Apples of Cézanne,” among other related reading material, and spent endless hours with Cézanne’s work at the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Having this time with Cézanne’s works, I came to realize the heroic embodiment of an artist’s perpetual struggle to negotiate the titanic energy that sparks from the collisions of opposites: idealism and realism; the desire to be something that always remains unattainable; the need to be practical in fulfilling a day’s task; the ability to recognize inner fantasy (due in part to early childhood memory) and a willingness to create a pious-like routine to provide a clarity of intention; and so on and so forth.

Whatever Cézanne is able to express in his work has been taken for granted since the turn of the 21st century, as part of our cultural heredity. Frenhofer, the protagonist in The Unfinished Masterpiece, attempted to unify line and color—imagine Ingres’s pure line and Delacroix’s exotic color together in one picture—and in a moment of crisis, says, weeping, “I am an imbecile then, a madman with neither talent nor ability. […] I’ve created nothing!” Émile Bernard, in one of his last conversations with Cézanne, brought up the story: Cézanne stood up in tears, striking his chest with his fist and said, “Frenhofer, c’est moi.”

Portrait of John Elderfield, pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

The exhibit Cézanne Portraits at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., curated by John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with Mary Morton, curator and head of the department of French paintings at the National Gallery of Art, and Xavier Rey, director of the Musées de Marseille, is a rare occasion. The paintings come from some sixty collections around the world in the first-ever exhibit devoted to this subject: it explores how the artist portrayed his sitters with radical style and method in relation to a distinct worldview. On May 17, 2018, John Elderfield paid a late afternoon visit to the Rail HQ in Greenpoint to share his insights into these paintings. As usual, our conversation was not long enough to expand on all of the possible topics derived from our subject; meanwhile, the following is an edited version of our conversation for your reading pleasure.

Phong Bui (Rail): In the exhibition catalog introduction you cited the painter-critic Walter Sickert, who divided portraits into two kinds: “pictures painted by artists as servants of their customers” and “pictures painted by artists who are the masters of their customers.” Due to, perhaps, the lack of patrons, which partially hastened the end of the guild system by the early 19th century, aspiring French artists rarely took commissions—Cézanne in fact never took a portrait commission—but rather painted people they knew, as you mentioned. As a side note, one might say, just as a portrait of a person reveals something about his or her biography, a self-portrait should present a form of autobiography. Similarly, you seem to be convinced that 1866 was the decisive and prolific year for Cézanne in which he found his own voice through the practice of portraiture—not through still life nor landscape paintings he made this same year and throughout his life.

John Elderfield: I’ve long been fascinated by Cézanne’s very first Self-Portrait (c. 1862-64) done from a photograph taken a year before, where you really have a sense of him thinking about portraiture in relation to photography, which is a presentation of what he looks like. In painting the portrait from the photograph, he asks himself the questions: What am I actually like? What do I feel like? And it’s the last time he does this. We know the expression, “There’s more than meets the eye.” Cézanne’s decision seems to have been, “No, there’s no more than meets the eye.” [Laughter.] You paint only what meets the eye. And that became his way of working. It didn’t mean, of course, that his portraits are like photographs; or that they are expressionless. The latter idea, which fueled an exclusively formalist view of Cézanne, had its source in 1905 when the critic Charles Morice wrote, “Cézanne takes no more interest in a human face than in an apple.” I think it is fascinating that Morice was a translator of (Fyodor) Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864), whose protagonist, isolated in his failures from other human beings—as Cézanne was popularly thought to have become—insisted that “a man in the nineteenth century must, and morally ought to be, pre-eminently a characterless creature.” What would become a ubiquitous formalist reading of Cézanne’s portraits thus began in the context of a proto-Existentialism. Nonetheless, he painted without regard to psychology. This is why Cézanne’s selection of people to paint was of the utmost importance—only those whom he felt comfortable working with: first, those who wouldn’t be hostile to him; second, those who didn’t want anything from him. So, he could just set about painting the presence of the person in front of him, and not get distracted by endless human psychologies.

Rail: I couldn’t agree more. Still, looking at the early paintings in the first two rooms of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, for example, in that first Self-Portrait, I was frightened by the intense red ground coming through from below, especially around the eyes, which generates a quasi-sinister look. It reminds me of what Lawrence Gowing said about Cézanne’s paintings in the context of the exhibit he organized, Cézanne: The Early Years 1859-1872, which I saw in 1989, also at the National Gallery of Art: “Cézanne’s work found shadow; the other painters, his Paris friends, sought light. Its emotional expression was often grievous … It’s caprice was ungoverned and its reason eccentric.” Whatever Cézanne was trying to search for in those early paintings, they were the opposite of how Théophile Gautier describes the “visible world” in which most Impressionist painters saw delight in its colors, shapes, textures, and motions without any moral connotations of the objects. On one hand, we know of Cézanne’s inner life, filled with intense, dark, and other destructive impulses, which he must have been aware of as a source of vital energy. I love the story of D.H. Lawrence, during his visit to the now legendary exhibit Manet and the Post Impressionists—which introduced England to the work of Cézanne, Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin, and others, organized by the great Cézanne critic Roger Fry at Grafton Gallery in 1910—Lawrence said, “Cézanne’s apple is like the moon. There’s an unseen side.” On the other hand, there’s the need to repeat, to serialize things as a form of lessening the emphasis of the “self,” as well as a way of reassuring Cézanne’s own idea of stability. What are your thoughts on these two opposing issues?

Elderfield: I agree the early work is the expression of a tormented young man—in fact, as Sebastian Smee wrote in his review of the show, like that of “a hormonal teenager head-butting everything in sight.” However, not all of them are as aggressive as they are commonly said to be. For example, we know that each of the Uncle Dominique pictures, nine or ten portraits painted between 1866 – 67, was painted in an afternoon. But they cannot have been vehement in their execution. Yes, they were painted quickly—but they were also painted carefully. They were composed from heavy, wet patches of paint, applied by a knife; and it is impossible to do that in any other manner than very carefully, as to not break the skin of previously applied patches. However, early writers like Fry were less familiar with these portraits, and more with the early paintings of violent and troubling scenes: They more readily supported the idea of an early, dark period influenced by Baroque painting, as compared to a later Cézanne of classical order. Recently some art historians have been arguing that the early imagery does not have its source in the artist’s psychological makeup, but pictures an alternative, dark and violent version of modern life to the one painted by Manet and his friends in Paris that concentrate on the urbane, well-dressed upper middle classes. My view would be that it could be both or it could be neither. It could be that Cézanne was working through what it means to paint subjects that have very prominent affect. His so-called The Autopsy of 1868 – 69 is one good example. One interpretation links the painting to the novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) by Cézanne’s close friend [Émile] Zola, published the previous year, in which Thérèse, aided by her lover, a Cézanne-like artist named Laurent, drowns her husband; only Laurent, unsure whether he is actually dead, then frequents the morgue in search of his victim’s corpse. However, one of my seminar students at Princeton this spring has shown that the title, The Autopsy, wasn’t attached to the painting until 1913, before being popularized by Fry, who added the unfounded suggestion that it was painted for a local hospital and rejected for being horrifying. Its alternative, less-often used title, Preparation for a Funeral, is indubitably the correct one, since it was most likely inspired by the [José de] Ribera painting, The Entombment, which Cézanne saw at the Louvre in early 1869. Far from being intended as a painting of violence, it was intended as a painting of love and grief. That is symptomatic of the necessary ambiguities attendant upon painting affecting subjects that Cézanne was struggling with in his early years.

Left: Paul Cézanne, Antony Valabrègue, 1866. Oil on canvas, 45 13/16 × 38 3/4 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Right: Paul Cézanne, Antony Valabrègue, 1869–1871. Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 × 19 3/4 inches. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Rail: You mentioned that when he submitted the 1866 portrait Antony Valabrègue to the Salon, it was intended as an act of defiance, rather than seeking approval by the official Academy. Can we therefore assume that he was very aware of his own intentionality, even though he knew his painting was in some ways at odds with the prevailing taste of the time?

Elderfield: Yes, certainly. He felt strongly about things. As he once said, “I paint what I see, as I feel–and I have very strong sensations.” I do think that the aggressive presentation of the early pictures express Cézanne’s own non-conformist spirit from an early age. His desire to oppose what he perceived to be a polite establishment, albeit modern, art being made in Paris was evident from the very beginning. This is why he was a great admirer of Courbet, in part because he could identify with Courbet’s pride of his provincial heritage and its connection to the land.

Rail: Which undoubtedly is also tied to Courbet’s avowed materialism or realism.

Elderfield: Yes. And for that reason it makes sense that Cézanne took a lot from Manet, who was the bridge between Courbet’s realism and the Impressionist painters of Cézanne’s generation. But he never felt comfortable with Manet himself because of Manet’s upper middle-class background, which shaped the subject of his paintings.

Rail: True, you can see in the Getty’s picture of Antony Valabrègue (1869 – 71) that it’s pretty Manet-esque, as a whole at first glance, but then you quickly see how he can’t assimilate Manet’s bravura brushwork, especially in the area of the vest. Cézanne doesn’t quite make it! [Laughter.] His tendency to be thorny and gnarly prevails in the end.

Elderfield: I agree. I think that this second portrait of Valabrègue is a would-be Parisian picture compared to the first one, which, in contrast, seems raw and uncouth in its energy and strength. Having switched back from painting with a palette knife—as in the first portrait—to the brush, he finds himself tempted by Manet-like sophistication—and almost has us believing that his heart is in it. This is another instance, like the first self-portrait, of Cézanne trying something and doing it pretty well, sometimes extremely well—then learning from it that it wasn’t, in fact, what he should be doing.

Rail: At the same time, Cézanne must have been aware of his lack of Courbet’s—as well as Manet’s—immense social confidence as a person, inseparable from Courbet the great artist. Yet, in his own ways, he managed slowly and eventually to figure out how to use strokes of the brush to emphasize his painting’s physical reality in a manner equal to that of the palette knife application he had learned from Courbet—treating everything that appears in the painting with the same physical and equal worth. Still, during the course of learning how to paint with the palette knife, you can detect and relate to Cézanne’s impulsive nature and impatience. We feel at times in the painting series of Uncle Dominique, for example, he was so impatient that he didn’t even mix the paint properly on the palette table before applying it onto the painting surface.

Elderfield: Again, it means that on one hand, there’s the impatience; and on the other, there is the methodical constraint. He appears to have been completely aware of the two things going together simultaneously. You can see at times he hits the stride, and other times you can see he gets into trouble.

Rail: Getting into trouble means not quite settling for uniformity. In the first of the two Musée d’Orsay self-portraits of the mid 1870s, we see the bold, unruly brushstrokes on his right shoulder of an otherwise dark, thickly painted picture. In the second, with the rose-colored ground, the right shoulder is left incomplete, and the three dabs of paint on the edges of his hair and beard expose his facial skin and lip below the mustache; they appear like bad punctuation marks in a sentence.

Elderfield: Those are the things that catch our attention, and something similar is true of many of his canvases. We know that the portrait with the rose-colored ground was shown in the 1907 memorial show of Cézanne’s work at the Paris Salon d’Automne, and written about with enormous admiration by Rilke. He pointed out that people were laughing at these pictures; and he said a droll, but profound thing of this particular self-portrait: “without even remotely interpreting his expression or presuming himself superior to it, he reproduced himself with humble objectivity, with the unquestioning, matter-of-fact interest of a dog who sees himself in a mirror and thinks: there’s another dog.”

Rail: It’s similar the way that Jean Genet wrote in the essay “What is Left of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet” (published in Tel Quel, 1967), about his account of sitting on a train, observing an ordinary and poorly dressed man whose face bears a certain gravity of life’s hardship and the inevitability of old age. Yet Genet sees in his face a familiar sense of dignity. And in that brief encounter, Genet sees himself through the old man and comes to recognize a universal truth of humanity, which leads him to a new understanding of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, 1877. Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 × 22 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Robert Treat Paine, 2nd. Photo: © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Elderfield: This is very much to the point: Cézanne records a face without interpreting. Of course, we will find ourselves interpreting. We do so when we look at the face of someone one on the subway. But what we discover there is inevitably subjective. This is particularly apparent in what critics and art historians have made of the face of Marie-Hortense Fiquet, in the 1886 portrait Madame Cézanne.

For example, the Philadelphia Museum portrait of her in a striped dress has been said to show melancholy, mournfulness, shyness, submission, tenderness, and weakness. It is, of course, ambiguous, as are all his painted faces. And, if we do accept that this particular face does convey one (or more) of these emotions, how can we know whether this is what Madame Cézanne is feeling; or whether it is what her husband thinks she must be feeling; or whether he is projecting his own feelings on her. And did Cézanne ask his wife to assume particular expressions when he posed her to be painted? Or did he offer her a means of presenting herself? I don’t think that we can draw a clear line in our viewing of such portraits between the painter’s control and the sitter’s self-presentation. Nonetheless, while all portraits are collaborations, we have to attribute to Cézanne the uncertainties of meaning, or the variety of intimations (whatever we choose to call it), produced by these portraits. Also, such meanings are not delivered solely by facial features. With this portrait, the meaning—the feeling—communicated by the delicately—let us say, lovingly—painted striped dress, qualifies (to say the least) the frequent suggestions that it is a portrait of someone who is miserable.

Rail: What about [Camille] Pissarro, who was nine years older, and within a close to ten year association that began in 1872, made twenty side-by-side paintings with Cézanne? How did he influence Cézanne?

Elderfield: Well, Cézanne learned Impressionist plein-air painting through Pissarro. This helped him to transfer the modular and monochrome method of the Uncle Dominique pictures into colored paint. The problem, though, was how to make a painterly equivalent of a continuous, ever-changing visual array, something he hadn’t taken on seriously before. In the earliest Pissarro-influenced landscapes of 1872 – 74, he struggled, trying to use the earlier modular method to create a one-to-one relationship between a small observed feature—say, a single leaf—and a single piece of paint. This certainly couldn’t be used for portrait painting, which almost petered out in the early 1870s. It took him a while, and a brief return to palette-knife painting, to learn how repeated patches of paint of a similar size could do what he wanted—a method that was transferrable to portrait painting, and that led to the so-called “constructive” brush strokes of the late 1870s, running diagonally across figure and ground. However, these took him beyond Impressionism, while allowing him to recover the stillness and solidity of his 1860s paintings in full Impressionist color. The period of making portraits entirely from constructive brushstrokes wasn’t very long, but it produced some extraordinary works like the small self-portrait from the National Gallery in London.

Paul Cézanne, Uncle Dominique, c. 1866. Oil on canvas, 15 7/8 × 12 3/8 inches. Private Collection. Photo: © 2017 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Rail: Why do you think he stopped, or at least slowed down, using the constructive brushstrokes?

Elderfield: I think he seemed to have chafed at their quasi-mechanical implications. He became so celebrated in the early 20th century as the great orderer; the artist who, more than anyone else, created post-Impressionist order from the transience of visual appearances recorded by Impressionist painters. But I think it may be more useful to see him aiming for the certainty of order, yet recognizing—whether consciously or not— that it implied restriction, and therefore recognizing—whether consciously or not—the potency of disorder. Since the exhibition opened, I have been re-reading Mary Douglas’s great book Purity and Danger (1966). I’d read it when it was published in the mid ’60s, but haven’t looked at it since. She famously argued for the cultural embrace of disorder, that its potential for ordering is indefinite, and, in the disorder of the mind, lies truths that cannot be reached by conscious effort. We see this in relaxations of methodical order in details of canvases, like the amazing Museum of Fine Arts Boston painting of Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair (1877), which Rilke absolutely loved. At the lower right-hand side of the canvas, Cézanne’s mind appears to have wandered from the observed striped dress to a remembered grove of trees, leaving that area of the dress incomplete. This doesn’t mean the painting is unfinished. It and similar instances in fact ask us to qualify the usual way in which the issue of finish and unfinish in Cézanne’s work have been discussed—usually by saying that unfinished works are those with areas of unpainted white canvas in them. We know that he was satisfied with some of these incompletely covered canvases. Conversely, we also know that he was dissatisfied with some completely covered canvases; and in some cases, for example the 1899 portrait of Alfred Hauge, he cut-up and abandoned the work, only for it to be rescued and repaired by his dealer Ambroise Vollard. Also, although he said that his process was simply to put down one stroke after another, it is by the 1880s that he had regressed on occasion to the traditional process of painting by setting down one layer after another: First, a drawn substructure. Second, a loose, painterly in-fill, to comprise something akin to what would traditionally be called an ébauche, that is to say, the underpainting of what will become the finished work. And then, third, a more opaque, finished surface. And he sometimes didn’t complete the third layer, willing to have different levels of finish in a picture.

Rail: And is content with such a decision.

Paul Cézanne, Ambroise Vollard, 1899. Oil on canvas, 39 3/4 × 31 7/8 inches. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Agence Bulloz.

Elderfield: Yes. We can see this in the great Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants (1893 – 94), at the Metropolitan Museum, where most of the painting is crisp and opaque, except for the upper and right background, which is very thinly painted like a watercolor. Yet the whole painting is beautifully orchestrated. On the other hand, with the Detroit Institute of Arts portrait of Madame Cézanne (1886 – 7), you can see the under-drawing and the loose painterly in-fill, telling us that he stopped at the ébauche stage. We might say that it is an incomplete as well as an unfinished picture in the sense he’d taken it to that point and didn’t know what to do with it. However, we can see it pinned onto the wall of his studio in a painting done some seven years later, The Smoker (1893 – 6), at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

So he still had it around. He was maybe thinking he would come back to it, but he didn’t. Perhaps he came to think of it complete although unfinished in the way he had originally intended. We can’t be categorical about this because he had his fluid notion of the relationship between finish and completion, which varied from work to work. In any event, I wanted to have some works in the show where we see Cézanne unsure of where he is going, and some where we have a sense of him struggling to make the painting. 

Rail: The late pictures, including Old Woman with a Rosary (1895-96), the three versions of The Gardener Vallier (1902-06) are among epic examples of his monumental struggle to cope with his own mortality, among other haunting, ambivalent issues of life.

Elderfield: Some artists and scholars love these pictures, of course, including for the humanistic reasons that you do. And, of course, there is support for this view in [Theodor] Adorno’s famous essay on the late Beethoven. I myself feel that we have to be very careful not to pathologize these paintings. In the period from the late 1890s to his death in 1906, as he became aware of his diminished energy and eyesight, he acknowledged that he could no longer see contours very well. As we know, he was constantly obsessed with the contours of things—about how things fit together in space. In his late watercolors, multiple contours vibrate, yet claim their places in space. In the late oils, like those you mention, we can see that he went back and forth over the contours to produce a crusted, grout-like connection between adjacent forms, while also making the demarcation between positive and negative space, between figure and background become indeterminate: to blur and become indecisive. I think of this as an extension of the acceptance of disorder, with order, that I mentioned earlier: here an acceptance of formlessness with form. 

Rail: We can see why Giacometti admires these late pictures. As he confesses in his own problem with portrait painting, “The human face is as strange to me as a countenance, which, the more one looks at it, the more it closes itself off and escapes by the steps of unknown stairways.” The prevailing of existential angst is intensely visible.

Elderfield: That is certainly how Cézanne came to be appreciated by Giacometti and others in the Existentialist generation. And it is plausible to think that, most especially as he approached the end, he may have felt, “I don’t have to complete it.” And one thing certainly very relevant to this part of our discussion on finish and completion is that he didn’t exhibit and he didn’t sell very much, at least until the Vollard exhibit in 1895. 

Rail: Which is the last 11 years of his life.

Elderfield: Exactly. Prior to that period, he had a lot of his own paintings in his studio with no urgency to complete them for exhibition or sale. And we may presume that this attitude had become ingrained. In any event, it is from this last period that we know most about Cézanne’s practice and his thoughts, including his doubts about completing his works, and the temptation is to apply all of this knowledge to all of his work. But these thoughts clearly were based on his experience of making his late paintings. And these painting do seem as if he could have continued and continued to work on them—which we are left to decide for ourselves.

Rail: As a forever project, beyond their own death for sure. Now we can come to Picasso’s 1935 remark, “What forces our interest is Cézanne’s anxiety—that’s Cézanne lesson.” This seems so interesting to consider Cézanne through Picasso’s own evolution. It’s true that in his early years Picasso saw in Cézanne’s painting an art of pure formal construction, which led him to Cubism, especially from 1907 to 1914.

Paul Cézanne, Gustave Geffroy, 1895–1896. Oil on canvas, 46 1/16 × 35 1/4 inches. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, gift of the Pellerin family, 1969. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

Elderfield: The story actually begins a little earlier, with Picasso’s 1905 – 06 portrait of Gertrude Stein, which clearly refers to Cézanne’s portrait Madame Cézanne with a Fan (1886 – 88), then owned by Stein and now in the collection of the Foundation E.G. Bürhle Collection in Zurich. We know that Picasso and also Matisse were already visiting Vollard’s gallery; therefore, would likely have learned of the dealer’s experience of posing for Cézanne well before he published his account of it in 1914. Vollard famously claimed it took Cézanne 115 sittings to paint him. So, when Picasso says it took him more than ninety sessions to paint his portrait of Stein, we wonder whether or not it is true. Then, in 1914, when Vollard published the account, Matisse painted his portrait of his wife Portrait of Madame Matisse, which was based on one of the paintings of Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress.

Rail: The Art Institute of Chicago picture.

Elderfield: Right. And Matisse said it took him over one hundred sittings. At any rate, this idea of Cézanne as an artist who took a long time to finish a work is one that grows through time, and it became particularly potent in the period between 1935 and 1945. Picasso’s remark was also his own defense against the charge of being facile.

Rail: Which makes sense since facility is not something Picasso lacks. Yet, the issues of the generalization of “de-skilling” from a Post-modernist perspective can be misleading and problematic. 

Elderfield: I couldn’t agree more. Picasso is saying: look at Cézanne. He’s not facile. He’s anxious. It’s also interesting that 1935, the same year that Picasso made that statement, Matisse, for the first time, agreed to the publication of images of his works-in-progress in a book written by—who else—Roger Fry. The message was: “It took time and effort for Matisse, just like Cézanne, to produce a painting. Cézanne worked through different stages to get to his picture. Matisse does the same.” And then in 1945 at Galerie Maeght, Matisse exhibited six paintings, each shown with large framed photographs documenting their evolution. And then the next and most famous moment occurred in 1948 when (Maurice) Merleau-Ponty’s essay “Cézanne’s Doubt” was published, which begins with the sentence, “It took him one hundred working sessions for a still life, one hundred-fifty for a portrait.” The translators upped the number to 500 sittings for a portrait.

Rail: Like the way art is restored in accordance to the taste of the time.

Elderfield: Exactly. Existentialism was the prevailing sentiment of the post-World War II period, which made Cézanne as a prototype of the anxious artist. For me, the great moment of pouring water on this issue is when [Willem] de Kooning, who had been reading the first bible of Existentialism, Fear and Trembling by [Søren] Kierkegaard. De Kooning says, “If one takes the idea of trembling, for instance, all of a sudden most of art starts to tremble. Michelangelo starts to tremble. El Greco starts to tremble … Cézanne was always trembling but very precisely.” 

Rail: De Kooning never fails to deliver his wit. On a related front: there always seems to be another consistent thread of unusual and awkward devices that Cézanne used throughout his career, be it the disruptive brushstrokes in the background and partially extended over the shoulders of the portrait of Marie Cézanne, the Artist’s Sister (1866 – 67)—on the verso of which Cézanne painted a portrait of his mother, The Artist’s Mother (1867)—the asymmetrical depictions of the eyes, among other strange, unstable forms … I wonder whether they were painted intentionally or unconsciously? 

Elderfield: Lawrence Gowing proposed an interesting hypothesis on the wild brushstrokes that appear around Cézanne’s sister in his portrait of her, which is mainly painted with a palette knife: as he began painting the portrait of his mother on the verso with a brush, he began wiping the brush on the recto, around his sister’s head, then elaborated on these marks. However they got there, he must have felt that an interruption of some kind would add vital energy to the picture, which compelled him to leave them as they are. They are obviously non-depictive marks. And there are other cases where you assume that Cézanne is depicting something, but when you look more carefully, you can’t tell what it depicts; for example, in the middle, slightly to the right, at the bottom of the portrait of Gustave Geffroy (1895 – 96), there’s a strange, round object, which I don’t think anyone knows what it is. 

Rail: The same can be said of what appears to be a finial of a wooden chair to the left, and a small exposed fragment of a front leg of a chair or table. Why were they painted on or through the tabletop? 

Elderfield: And the stack of paper or softcover books about to fall over on the bottom right corner! There are also illogical things that appear here and there, like a spoon that stands straight up in the coffee cup on the table to the right of Woman with a Cafetière (1890 – 95) for example. It’s just so great. I have this wonderful fantasy that if I turn around it’s going to fall down. [Laughs] And then I turn back and it’s stood back up again. [Laughs] It’s one of Cézanne’s endless inventions that are integral parts of his presentation of the immobility of the figures, while also invoking the suggestion that movement can actually start up again. That time is going to start again. We can see, for example, in the great Metropolitan Museum picture of Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1880 – 90), where the space around her is ready to start spinning. 

Paul Cézanne, Woman with a Cafetière, 1890–1895. Oil on canvas, 51 3/16 × 38 3/16 inches. Musée d'Orsay, Paris, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Jean-Victor Pellerin, 1956. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski.

Rail: A vertiginous effect for sure. Not to mention that strange and prominent blue brushstroke on the top right and middle of her left hand.

Elderfield: Strange indeed. And then there are times when Cézanne’s intrusiveness doesn’t quite work: for example, in the painting of the Seated Peasant (1900 – 04) holding a stick—a work which I think is just too formalized—something has been lost in translation. In contrast, the generally underestimated pictures of children have wonderful anomalies: For example, in Girl with a Doll (1896), odd appearances abound. You don’t quite see them at first, but then you do see that her neck is very short; then that the doll only has one leg; then the leather band around her waist—surely wider than a belt for a dress—makes her look as though she is confined in her chair. Old Woman with a Rosary (1895 – 96) is strange in another way; in this case underestimated by tough-minded critics who thought it was over-sentimentalized. I remember standing in front of the painting at the National Gallery in London with David Sylvester, a close friend, who said “Oh come on. Why are we supposed to take pity, or weep for this poor, old woman?” I said “David, look at her cunning face. She doesn’t beg for your sympathy,” but I don’t think he was convinced. In this case, though, we know that the sentimentalization has been stoked by a convenient fiction: That this woman was a nun who had lost her faith, climbed over the wall of her nunnery, and turned up at Cézanne’s door asking for help. And he painted her. She was in fact the former servant of a local lawyer. [Laughter.] 

Rail: Again, we can’t reduce any of Cézanne’s paintings to one or two readings, or the characters they depict. To change the subject a bit: from the formal perspective, how do you think the Cubists read and perceived Cézanne’s paintings, say between 1907 and 1914?

Paul Cézanne, Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888–1890. Oil on canvas, 35 1/4 × 28 1/2 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, in Honor of the 50th. Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art.

Elderfield: Unquestionably the highly formalized paintings were deeply influential—most famously, I suppose, the c. 1866 views of Gardanne, like the one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with buildings like little boxes. But I think those that continue to resonate with endless subtleties are the ones both Picasso and Matisse also paid great attention to. It’s often not evident at first, but then you look carefully at, for example, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston 1877 picture of Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, and realize that the left of the figure is very frontal while, on the right side, it pulls forward, coming even closer to the surface .

Rail: The lower part of her dress is like one of his paintings of quarries; it drops down like an abyss in the front, hence there’s no foreground. No viewer can enter the picture.

Elderfield: And you still think, “Am I really seeing this properly?” In other pictures, like the National Gallery of Art [Washington, D.C.] picture Boy in a Red Waistcoat (1888 – 90), he achieves a similar spatial warp in the composition of the figure. At first sight, the contrasting curves of his right arm and his impossibly long left arm, hanging straight down as a vertical line, appear to shape a flat image—then all kinds of spatial twists and turns start happening. This is very different to, say the Impressionist and then the Pointillist conception of the picture plane as a flat screen. Seurat’s work is very much to the point. With single figures, he can create volumetric form, to an effect not dissimilar to that of traditional modelling, by changing the size of the dots and dabs as they go around the form. Bathers at Asnières (1884) at the National Gallery of London is a wonderful compilation of such figures. But when Seurat paints something grander and more complex like A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884 – 86), and relies on silhouetted forms, the method falters. I was recently re-reading the Kenneth Clark book on landscape, Landscape Into Art (1949), a wonderful, massively opinionated book. He loves the Bathers at Asnières but says that the Grande Jatte resembles “pasteboard figures in a toy theater.” [Laughter]

Rail: Well it’s kind of true. Yet you cannot say the same thing about Cézanne’s bathers. 

Elderfield: No, you can’t; and his bathers, we know, were extremely influential for both Picasso and Matisse in their search for new expression of the figure.


Rail: As early as 1907 when Matisse painted his Blue Nude and Picasso his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, based on the small Cézanne painting Three Bathers (1879 – 82) that Matisse had bought from Vollard in 1899.

Elderfield: And Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle (1907 – 8) as his response to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles. The rivalry went on and on. [Laughter] The exhibition Cézanne: The Bathers, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Basel that was organized by Mary Louise Krumrine in 1989, was wonderful in revealing the extraordinary range of these extraordinary paintings, making one realize how useful they were for early modern artists. Actually, a pleasure in doing this exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits was similarly to pull the thread, and see how one of his works next to one of another genre would look together; and, I hope, generate new perspectives both on the work itself and what it meant for later artists. Seeing it on gallery walls in Paris, London, and now Washington, D.C., I have come to realize how pulling this particular thread brings you very close to the artist himself. Looking at each portrait, you can say to yourself, “I’m standing where Cézanne stood when he painted this picture.” And with each self-portrait “I’m standing where Cézanne was, looking in the mirror.”

Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888–1890. Oil on canvas, 45 7/8 × 35 1/4 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry lttleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1962.

Rail: As you’d mentioned what Cézanne told Vollard when he was posing for Cézanne, “While the subject ‘must sit like an apple,’ nonetheless ‘the goal of all art is the human face.’” Cézanne would strive for this ultimate aim even at the fear and expense of failure.

Elderfield: Which is what actually makes those portraits so human. There is a point at which you feel some works just got away from him. But I do not think that Cézanne was in pursuit of perfection. It was rather a pursuit of order, which acknowledged the existence of the unordered. If he was after perfection, he was going after it in absolutely the wrong way. I remember Richard Wollheim writing on Ingres’s practice of tracing and retracing, and saying something like, “It’s not the search for perfection. As you trace, you get further away from the subject; you don’t get closer to it.” With Cézanne, his obsessive contouring does the same.

Rail: Right, so the spatial distortion of his figures is well conceived, not accidental.

Elderfield: Absolutely. How consciously conceived is another matter, though. It was not until I was working on the installation of the exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London that I noticed how few of the portraits include the floor of the room in which the figure is sitting. There are a few exceptions, beginning with his two early portraits of his father, and the small 1877 Columbus painting of Victor Chocquet. I came to realize soon that Cézanne felt the need to get as close as possible to the person he was painting, bringing the figural image right up to the surface; in fact, visible on it: on the surface of the painting, not in the space of a room. Take the Metropolitan picture of Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, for example, where the sense of solidity of the figure in space is extraordinary until you look at the bottom of the painting where the figure essentially fades into vapor. If Cézanne had been foolish enough to paint the floor, he couldn’t have gotten this to work. And, here again, the effect of extreme proximity of Madame Cézanne to us that he achieves is, I think, at once a representation of his closeness to her—at least while he is painting her—and of our standing in his place. 


Phong Bui

PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.