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Cézanne’s Sitters

Shown from the thighs up, a boy wearing a crimson-red waistcoat stands against swags of fabric painted with visible strokes in white, sky blue, harvest yellow, and sage green in this loosely painted, vertical portrait. Painted with choppy brushstrokes, the boy has pale, ivory-white skin, blushing pink cheeks, pursed lips, faint eyebrows, and topaz-blue eyes that gaze down to our right. His shoulder-length, dark brown hair is tucked behind one ear under a brown wide-brimmed hat. His red waistcoat is worn over a long-sleeved, slate-blue shirt. The collar of his skirt is slightly flipped up on his right side, to our left, and a swipe of cobalt blue suggests a tie or scarf between the lapels. A band of sapphire blue could be a belt above olive-green trousers, and dashes of navy blue create shadows. His right hand, to our left, is planted on that hip. The other arm hangs straight and loose by his side, those fingertips almost brushing the bottom edge of the canvas. The boy’s body is outlined in dark blue. The drapery behind him falls in folds that sweep gently to our right. The background is painted with patches and swipes of cool blues and greens, and pale golden yellow. One swag of the drapery, over the shoulder to our left, is painted with a loose pattern suggesting leaves. One back post and a sliver of the curving back of a wooden chair peeks into the composition in the lower left corner.

Paul Cézanne, Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1995.47.5

Throughout his career, Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) experimented with capturing likenesses as part of his constant search for a pictorial language to convey his intense perceptions of the world. His portraits, though modest in number (about 160 out of nearly a thousand paintings), were always an integral aspect of his work. In some respects Cézanne’s portraits are straightforward, depicting subjects in conventional poses in bust, half-, and three-quarter-length formats. Yet these paintings often seem to question the very aim of portraiture. They reveal little about the personalities of their subjects, whom they refuse to flatter. Nor, as with portraits of his wife, do they always resemble the sitter. Cézanne’s radical methods of building solid structure by means of shimmering color, geometric form, and line—most famously in his landscapes and still lifes—proved especially shocking to audiences when applied to faces. Nevertheless, the vivid human presence in Cézanne's portraits contradicts a long-held idea that he painted people no differently than he did apples.

Cézanne regularly painted self-portraits and did not take commissions for his portraits of others, which in almost all cases were not even intended for their sitters. A famously slow and methodical painter, he most often portrayed people he knew and who offered him the patience he required: family and friends, a few figures from the art world, and working-class locals with whom he felt comfortable. This feature introduces the people in his portraits, starting with himself.

The exhibition Cézanne Portraits is on view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, March 25–July 8, 2018.


Cézanne portrayed his own features in some twenty-six paintings and numerous sketches, creating a record of both the changes in his appearance and his evolving style. In most self-portraits he sits, turning his head toward the viewer, gazing directly out—an acknowledgment of looking into a mirror to view his reflection as he worked. Many artists, especially at the start of their careers, have realized that they are their own most reliable, affordable, and convenient model. Cézanne, however, set himself within a somewhat less common tradition of sustained self-examination performed over a lifetime, as carried out most notably by Rembrandt van Rijn.


The son of a wealthy banker, Cézanne was born and raised in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, the oldest of three children. While he was close to his mother Elisabeth Aubert (1814–1897), he had a complicated relationship with his father, Louis-Auguste Cézanne (1798–1886). Nevertheless, in the second half of the 1860s, Cézanne enlisted his father and other relatives as models, most notably his uncle Dominique Aubert (b. 1817).

From around 1860, Cézanne spent nearly four decades shuttling back and forth between Aix and Paris. In 1869 while living in the capital, he met Hortense Fiquet (1850–1922), a bookbinder who became his lover and his most frequent model. The couple moved in together in 1870 and their only child Paul (1872–1947) was born two years later. Although the artist doted on his son, whom he painted several times and sketched frequently, he kept his existence—as well as his relationship with Hortense—secret from Louis-Auguste for years, fearing his reaction. Cézanne finally married Hortense in 1886, but Madame Cézanne’s relationship with her in-laws, from whom she had been hidden for so long, was never a warm one.

Childhood Friends

In Aix Cézanne grew up with a remarkably talented circle of friends, some of whom would go on to prominence in their chosen fields. Several of them played a role in Cézanne’s experimental work in the 1860s: the poet and art historian Antony Valabrègue (1844–1900); the scholar Antoine-Fortuné Marion (1846–1900), future director of the Museum of Natural History in Marseille; the novelist Paul Alexis (1847–1901); and Émile Zola, (1840–1902), Cézanne’s first and best friend who gained fame as a novelist and critic well before the artist became known to the wider French public. The two were as close as brothers, and it was Zola, in the early 1860s, who convinced Cézanne to join him in Paris, where he had moved as a teenager.


Cézanne seems to have had a great sympathy for and understanding of the state of male adolescence. His own childhood and early adulthood were for him a kind of golden age, marked by a carefree immersion in the spectacular countryside of Provence and the affectionate fraternity of a close circle of friends who shared his enthusiasm for literature and art. In the 1880s he painted several portraits of youths who were around the same age as his beloved son—one a friend of the younger Paul, and the other a hired model who posed in Italian peasant dress for a series of paintings that suggest the transition from boy to man.

The Art World

For most of Cézanne’s life, his work was not well known outside a limited circle of friends, fellow artists, critics, and collectors. Among the few who acquired his paintings before the end of the century was Victor Chocquet (1821–1891), a customs official with whom he became close friends. The two bonded over their shared passion for Eugène Delacroix. Cézanne began to receive more critical recognition after the writer Gustave Geffroy (1855–1926) defended his work in 1894 in a widely read article and the Parisian dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939) gave him his first solo exhibition in 1895. During the second half of the 1890s, Cézanne offered to paint both Geffroy and Vollard, as well as several other art-world admirers, though he had difficulty with their portraits, often leaving them unfinished after numerous sessions.

People of Aix

Starting in the 1890s Cézanne turned a close eye to the people in and around his native Aix, where he now lived more or less permanently. The portraits of the working class—primarily peasants and domestic servants—reveal a respect for their subjects without romanticizing them. Cézanne painted them as unaffected, sincere, and hardworking; in his eyes they were essentially unchanging in their traditional ways, embodying qualities he most admired about Provence. The choice of models from Aix—figures unknown to the world at large—removed the pressure to produce recognizable likenesses. Several of the Aix inhabitants appear in more than one painting, identifiable primarily by their clothing.

Alex Danchev, “Dramatis Personae,” in Cézanne Portraits, John Elderfield, with Mary Morton and Xavier Rey, (National Portrait Gallery, London, 2017).

Mary Tompkins Lewis, Paul Cézanne: Painting People, (Princeton, 2017).