Like critic Meyer Schapiro, many twentieth-century artists also saw Paul Cézanne as a sort of spiritual forbearer. Pablo Picasso called him a "mother hovering over"; Henri Matisse said he was a "father to us all." As much as it is a portrait of a wistful young man, this painting is equally, and perhaps as essentially, an arrangement of colors and shapes. We can see it as a kind of stepping-off point for modern art, one with direct links to those younger artists’ work. The greens and mauves Cézanne used in the boy’s face and hands, for example, are like the “wild” colors that won Matisse and his colleagues the title “fauve” (wild beast), arbitrary touches with little connection to human flesh. The background—it is hard even to “read” it as floral-patterned drapery—is fractured and flattened into a kaleidoscope of angles and arcs in a way that looks forward to the reconstructed spaces of the first cubist experiments by Georges Braque and Picasso.
Yet it would be a mistake to view this painting only in terms of what comes next. Boy in a Red Waistcoat also reflects Cézanne's admiration for and connection to the past. He said himself that he "wanted to make of impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of the museums." He spent many hours teaching himself to be a painter by studying old masters in the Louvre. This boy’s pose, with hand resting on cocked hip, and the air of languid elegance that envelopes his slender form are reminiscent of sixteenth-century portraits by mannerist artists.