Lonely Planet Writer

A new DC art exhibit proves there’s more to Cézanne than landscapes

Cézanne’s vibrant landscapes and colorful still-lifes have long been lauded in art exhibits around the world. But for the first time since 1910, the French Post-Impressionist’s portraits are being spotlighted exclusively in a blockbuster exposition at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC.

Cezanne portrait exhibtion gets underway in Washington, DC
A woman looks at the painting Antony Valabregue, 1869-1870, by Paul Cezanne, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC on March 23, 2018.Photo by: OLIVIA HAMPTON/AFP/Getty Images)

“When you think of Cézanne, you don’t think of portraits,” said the French Ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, at a preview ceremony. “But Cézanne painted 200 of them and he painted them throughout his life.”

Organized by London’s National Portrait Gallery, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the NGA, “Cézanne Portraits” brings together 60 paintings culled from collections near and far, some of which have never been exhibited in the United States. The NGA, where the paintings will be on display through July 1, 2018, is the exposition’s third stop, after Paris and London.

The show ranges from Cézanne’s earliest portraits of the 1860s—dark, thick, made quickly with a palette knife—to later portraits displaying his large, multicolored patchworks of paint. In effect, they convey the evolution of his style and method, of his determination to break down a composition to its geometric forms.

The Paul Cezanne portrait exhibition in Washington, DC
A woman looks at the painting Gustave Geffroy, 18951896, by Paul Cezanne, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC on March 23, 2018.
Photo by: OLIVIA HAMPTON/AFP/Getty Images

“He treated his portraits no different from the apples in his still-lifes,” said chief curator John Elderfield. “No one had painted anything like this before.”

And that’s the genius of Cézanne. Later avant-garde painters, including Matisse and Picasso, took note of it. “It’s a good way to see the evolution of cubism,” said Ambassador Araud.

Cézanne did not accept commissions. Instead, he painted people he knew as part of his ongoing experimentation. So on the walls we see self-portraits; his wife, Hortense Fiquet; his son Paul; his uncle Dominique Aubert; his art dealer Ambroise Vollard; critic Gustave Geffroy; as well as locals in the painter’s beloved Aix-en-Provence.

One of Cezanne's famous portraits in the NGA, Washington
A woman looks at ‘The Artist’s Father, Reading L’Evenement’ by French artist Paul Cezanne at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.Photo by: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Highlights include Cézanne’s first self-portrait, painted from a photograph in his early twenties; “The Artist’s Father, Reading L’Evenement,” filled with autobiographical notes (including one of his still-lifes hanging on the wall); “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair,” a symphony of colors and patterns that marked a new direction in his painting; and “Woman with a Coffee Maker” (c. 1895), with its emphasis on geometric shapes.

The show was 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.

As part of the exhibition, curator John Elderfield will present a lecture about the exhibit on 3 June. In addition, the exhibition is accompanied by a 256-page catalog with essays by the exhibition curators, and the museum’s Garden Café is featuring Provençal-inspired dishes.