Like critic Meyer Schapiro, many 20th-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.
This is, at once, an astonishingly modern painting and one that 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." The boy's pose is that of an academic life study, and for some art historians it has recalled the languid elegance of 16th–century portraiture. As a young man in Paris, Cézanne had learned his art not only from his impressionist colleagues but also through studying old masters in the Louvre.
On the other hand, it is possible to see this so–called portrait as an entity of shapes and colors. Notice the paints used in the hands and face: these greens and mauves have little to do with human flesh. The almost dizzying background of angles and gentle arcs, which are difficult at first to "read" as draperies and a chair back, divide space rather than define it. A work such as this looks forward to the reconstructed pictorial space of the cubists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, leading one noted critic to write, "Cézanne's art ...lies between the old kind of picture, faithful to a striking or beautiful object, and the modern 'abstract' kind of painting, a moving harmony of color touches representing nothing."
(Ambroise Vollard [1867-1939], Paris); sold 1896 to Egisto Fabbri [1866-1933], Paris and Florence, until at least 1925; (Paul Rosenberg, Paris, and Wildenstein Galleries, Paris); sold 1929 to Jakob Goldschmidt [d. 1955], Berlin and New York; his estate; (Goldschmidt sale, Sotheby's, London, 15 October 1958, no. 6); purchased by (Carstairs Gallery, New York) for Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, Upperville, Virginia; gift 1995 to NGA.
- Exposition Cezanne, Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, January 1910, no. 25.
- XII Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte della Città di Venezia, Venice, 1920, no. 9
- Exhibition of Masters of French 19th Century Painting, New Burlington Galleries, London, 1936, no. 94
- Figure Pieces, M. Knoedler & Co., New York, 1937, no. 17, repro.
- Masterworks of Five Centuries, Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, 1939, no. 1, repro.
- Masterpieces of Art. European & American Paintings 1500-1900, New York World's Fair, 1940, no. 347, repro.
- French Painting from David to Toulouse-Lautrec, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1941, no. 8
- Loan Exhibition of Paintings by Cezanne, Paul Rosenberg & Co., New York, 1942, no. 18, repro.
- The Child Through Four Centuries, Wildenstein, 1945, no. 34, repro.
- Loan Exhibition of Cezanne for the Benefit of the New York Infirmary, Wildenstein, New York, 1947, no. 53, repro.
- "What They Said" - Postscript to Art Criticism, for the Benefit of the Museumof ModernArt on its 20th Anniversary. Durand-Ruel Gallery, New York, 1949, no. 10.
- De David à Toulouse-Lautrec, Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris, 1955, no. 3, repro.
- French Paintings from the Collections of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon and Mrs. Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, no. 70, repro.
- Cezanne. An Exhibition in Honor of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Phillips Collection, The Phillips Collection, Washington; The Art Institute of Chicago; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, no.24, repro.
- Art for the Nation: Gifts in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1991, 236-237, color repro.
- An Enduring Legacy: Masterpieces from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1999-2000, no cat.
- Cézanne: Aufbruch in die Moderne [Cézanne: The Dawn of Modern Art], Museum Folkwang, Essen, 2004-2005, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant Garde, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 2006-2007, no. 38, repro.
- Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The National Art Center, Tokyo; Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, 2011, no. 10, repro.
- Henraux, Lucien. "Cézanne della Raccolta Fabbri." Dedalo 1 (June 1920): repro. p. 57.
- Goldwater, Robert. "The Glory that was France." Art News 65 (March 1966): 85, repro. 42.
- Neugass, Fritz. "Jubiläumsschau in der National-Galerie in Washington." Weltkunst XXXVI, no. 8 (15 April 1966): 335, repro.
- Young, Mahonri Sharp. "The Mellon Collections: The Great Years of French Painting." Apollo 83 (June 1966): 432, repro. 427.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 277.
- Rewald, John. The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: a catalogue raisonné. 2 vols. New York, 1996:no. 659, repro.
- Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner's Art Through the Ages. 10th ed. Fort Worth, 1996: 997-998, color fig. 26.74.
- Kuthy, Sandor. Von Matisse bis Dali: Das Legat Georges F. Keller an das Kunstmuseum Bern / De Matisse à Dali: Le Legs Georges F. Keller au Musée des beaux-arts de Berne. Bern, 1998: 99, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: vi, 390, no. 324, color repros.
- Bardazzi, Francesco, ed. Cézanne in Florence: Two Collectors and the 1910 Exhibition of Impressionism. Exh. cat. Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. Milan, 2007: 264 fig. 28.
- Kennicott, Philip. "French Rooms Reopen, With Different Accents." Washington Post 135, no. 55 (January 29, 2012): E25, color repro.
- Harris, Neil. Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience. Chicago and London, 2013: 418.
- Morton, Mary. "Paul Mellon: Private collector for the public." In Collecting for the Public: Works that Made a Difference. Essays for Peter Hecht. Edited by Bart Cornelis, Ger Luijten, Louis van Tilborgh, and Tim Zeedijk. Translated by Michael Hoyle. London, 2016: cover, 35, 36 fig. 12.
Explore This Work
Cézanne’s art...lies between the old kind of picture, faithful to a striking or beautiful object, and the modern “abstract” kind of painting, a moving harmony of color touches representing nothing.
Florentine 16th Century, Ugolino Martelli, mid 16th century
Pontormo, Monsignor della Casa, probably 1541/1544
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 envelops his slender form are reminiscent of 16th-century portraits by mannerist artists.
Cézanne’s orchestrations of pattern and color, despite their astonishingly modern look, did not originate as an exercise in form and abstraction. Instead, they grew out of the artist’s response to his subject. He was, he said, seeking to realize a "harmony parallel to nature." Throughout his life Cézanne stressed that he painted from nature and according to his sensations. It was through color relationships that he made visible the fundamental character and connectedness of what he saw and felt. In the boy’s face and shirt the tones are mostly cool and remarkably varied—pinks, greens, lavenders, blues, purples—a contrast to the reds of his vest. Elsewhere color is more subdued. Autumnal tones in the background, some warmer, some cooler, all lower keyed, function like a moody bass line, tempering the more brilliant accents that play out over them.
The boy, a professional model named Michelangelo di Rosa, is garbed in the romantic costume of an Italian peasant, with floppy tie to match his striking vest. The round-brimmed hat, positioned high on his head gives him a certain naiveté, and the mussed bangs make him seem young, even vulnerable. He appears pale and pensive, his small mouth formed faintly, in Shapiro’s words, like the wings of a distant bird. Cézanne painted di Rosa several times while he was in Paris between 1888 and 1900. He must have found the young Italian an appealing subject, since he usually posed family members and friends.
Paul Cézanne, Self-Portrait [recto], c. 1880/1882
About the Artist
Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence, where his father, originally a hat maker, had become part owner of a bank. Cézanne received a strong classical education and shared his adolescence with Émile Zola, future novelist and critic. At his father’s insistence, Cézanne studied law but was increasingly drawn to art. In 1861 he went to Paris.
Cézanne’s early works were dark and heavy. He applied pigments with emphatic brushstrokes or a palette knife, and his subjects were “difficult,” sometimes violent and erotic, deeply personal. In the early 1870s, under the influence of the impressionists, Cézanne’s style changed. Working alongside his mentor Camille Pissarro, he turned to landscapes and adopted the impressionists' broken brushwork and brighter colors. He exhibited with them in 1874 and 1877 (his submissions provoking some of the most stinging ridicule). Cézanne’s paintings did not sell; in fact, they were seen by few except fellow painters. As he grew disillusioned, he divided his time between Provence and the capital. After his father’s death in 1886, Cézanne moved permanently to Provence (though he kept a studio in Paris and made extensive visits there).
- Web Feature: The Fauves