By David Galenson
Professor of Economics, University of Chicago.
Paul Cézanne painted his uncle, Dominique Aubert, at least nine times in 1866 when the artist was 27 years old. These portraits—four of which are in the current exhibition of Cézanne portraits at London’s National Portrait Gallery—are not recognisable as works by Cézanne, which is to say that they look nothing like the mature paintings we think of as Cézannes.
These early portraits were painted predominantly in black and white, with heavily encrusted paint slathered on with a palette knife—think Chaim Soutine or the late Lucian Freud. And they are all different: Dominique has a hat in some but not in others, wears different clothes, his expressions are different, and even the sizes of the paintings are different. Cézanne’s motive for painting his uncle so frequently is not known, but this was clearly not an exercise in replication.
Cézanne’s experimental method
What these paintings demonstrate is that Cézanne, even before he was influenced by impressionism, painted through repetition and experimentation. Before the impressionist Pissarro opened his eyes to nature and he found his true subject, Cézanne was already experimenting with his art, developing his style by trial and error. Cézanne’s uncle was evidently among the first to experience this style of painting at the expense of his own time. Indeed, Ambroise Vollard later reported that he sat through 115 sessions for a portrait Cézanne considered unfinished.
Cézanne would later become a master of colour and would invent new methods of representing space, but all of these artistic developments would emerge within the same framework of his trial-and-error method. Looking at this selection of his portraits brings home the point that for Cézanne art was less about the product than the process. No painting was ever truly finished because the quest for that vague and elusive resolution he called “realisation” was never complete.
The unattainability of his goals
Roger Fry’s study of Cézanne led him to conclude that “for him, the synthesis was an asymptote toward which he was forever approaching without ever quite reaching it; it was a reality, incapable of complete realisation.” In fact, however, Cézanne seems to have come to recognise that realisation was not an asymptote—it was not a fixed goal he could approach, but rather a moving target that receded from him faster than he could progress toward it.
Paradoxically, Cézanne discovered that his task became more difficult as he became more skilful. A month before his death he reported to his son that “I am becoming more clear-sighted before nature,” continuing, “but the realisation of my senses is always painful. I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses, I have not the magnificent richness of colouring that animates nature.”
As he grew older, his constant experimentation made his vision acuter, allowing him to distinguish ever smaller gradations of colour and form in nature. However, this made it even more difficult to recreate the precise colours on his palette, and to make the necessary marks with his brush that would accurately render his perception of the objects of his art.
The fictional idea of the artist
In The Unknown Masterpiece, published in 1837, Balzac created the fictional master Frenhofer, who had spent a lifetime pursuing an evasive artistic ideal of beauty. An admirer of Frenhofer recognized Cézanne’s predicament, describing him as “a man who sees higher and farther than other painters,” but who “by dint of so much research…has come to doubt the very object of his investigations.” Cézanne famously came to identify with Frenhofer. Emile Bernard described a conversation at dinner during Bernard’s visit to Aix in 1904:
“One evening I spoke to him of The Unknown Masterpiece, and of Frenhofer, the hero of Balzac’s tragedy. He got up from the table, stood before me, and striking his chest with his index finger, he admitted wordlessly by this repeated gesture that he was the very character in the novel. He was so moved by the feeling that tears filled his eyes. Someone who had lived earlier, but whose soul was prophetical, had understood him.”
In the abrupt ending of Balzac’s novella, Frenhofer kills himself, after burning his canvases, in frustration at his inability to achieve his impossible goal. Cézanne felt this same frustration but he did not yield to it, ultimately fulfilling his vow to die painting.
Though he could never satisfy his lofty ambitions, his late work directly influenced every important artistic development of the next generation and remains a monument to the beginning of modern art. His career demonstrates not only that perfection is the enemy of the good, but that it can be the enemy of the great. The unattainability of Cézanne’s dream should not blind us to the fact that his art and life were, in truth, a triumph.
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius