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The sourest, meanest mouth in the history of portraiture

Paul Cézanne. “Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress,” 1888–1890.
Paul Cézanne. “Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress,” 1888–1890. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
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Paul Cézanne was a stubborn, self-absorbed grouch who spent his life in a rolling revolt against urban elites. He hated insincerity, was allergic to falseness, distrusted suavity, and fled from even a whiff of like-mindedness.

Modern art would be unthinkable without him.

When Cézanne painted portraits — and his portraits are the subject of a riveting show at the National Gallery of Art (through July 1) — he didn’t want puffed up professionals or expert models schooled in the art of posing. He preferred cloddish, authentic types. Good, rural folk who were, in the words of the exhibition’s curator, John Elderfield, “unselfconsciously heroic.”

There are 60 paintings in the National Gallery show, the first devoted to this crucial — if often baffling — aspect of Cézanne’s oeuvre. They take us from the 1860s, when Cézanne painted like a hormonal teenager head-butting everything in sight, through the 1870s when, using first himself, then his son, then Hortense Fiquet (later Madame Cézanne) almost as scientific controls, he tried to adapt his developing outdoor idiom to the demands of indoor portraiture. In the 1880s and 1890s, his portraits became as commanding and classic — and in some ways as impenetrably odd — as the rest of his work.

If you don’t fall instantly in love with Cézanne’s portraits, don’t worry. Only painters, in my experience, truly love Cézanne. The rest of us, uncomprehending to the degree that we don’t have brushes in our hands, must content ourselves with being in awe of him.

You may come away from the show, as I did, with questions. Why, for instance, is that man’s ear missing? Why is that woman cross-eyed? Why are the hands unfinished? And why, above all, after so much looking, don’t I feel I know any of these people?

These questions, pressed on, may open trapdoors onto pitchy voids. But let your eyes adjust, give the paintings the benefit of your unprejudiced attention, and you may come away with a feeling for the ways in which Cézanne’s honesty, his integrity, and his ever-present doubt (the quality Picasso most admired in him) constitute one of the spiritual pilot lights of modern culture.

Born and raised in Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne died there, too. He made a great show, when in Paris, of not wanting to be polluted by the corrupt mores of Second Empire Paris. Watching him eat with his hands, Mary Cassatt remarked on his “total disregard for the dictionary of manners,” while admiring a deep level of courtesy in him.

When, years earlier, on meeting the debonair Edouard Manet, whose nonchalant but provocative painting Cézanne revered, Cezanne made a sardonic show of declining to shake his hand, because, he said, he hadn’t washed in eight days. (I try to imagine Manet’s response: Did he exchange amused, quizzical glances with his friends? Or did he just shrug? Either way, I’m certain he resolved to keep an eye on the sly southern bumpkin.)

Cézanne was a loner. His disdain for the smug sentimentality of urban sophisticates (he would have loathed today’s hipsters), far from being incidental, is somewhere near the core of his enterprise. When it came to portraiture, he wasn’t going to fall into the usual cliches.

He rejected the sentimental fancy that someone’s eyes might be a window onto their soul. He would neither promote the sitter’s social status, nor fall for the fad of placing them in their natural habitat — a businessman in his office, say, or a writer in his study. (His only real attempt in this vein, a portrait of the critic Gustave Geffroy surrounded by books, was inspired by Degas’s portrait of Edmond Duranty. He left it unfinished.)

Instead, he seemed to look around and ask, “What honest work can be done here?” And from there, he set to it.

His earliest portraits are charged by a sense of the hard labor involved in their making. Made with palette knives rather than brushes, they have the gloopy textures of cake frosting. Yet there is surprising nuance in their construction. Certain effects — the bulge and sheen of a brow, the way the shadow under an eye meets the outline of a cheek — are bravura, and anticipate the almost geological painterliness of portraits by Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach.

The most persuasive of them is a series of brutish portraits of Cézanne’s uncle Dominique, a court bailiff. Dominique donned various costumes for these pictures — a turban, a lawyer’s cravat, a monk’s habit — so that, despite their feral appearance, they tap into a playful spirit that links them with Rembrandt and, more recently, Manet.

After this, the brutishness and playfulness both vanish. The show has clear standouts, among a few works that can seem undercooked. They include “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair”; a self-portrait from London; the four huge, tilted portraits of Madame Cézanne in a red dress; the insouciant “Boy in a Red Waistcoat”; “Woman with a Cafetière”; “Man in a Blue Smock”; and the celebrated portrait of Ambroise Vollard.

But my own favorites are the four small format portraits of Madame Cézanne, painted in 1885-86. In two of them, she looks directly at us. In the others, she looks down and away. There is an ambient tenderness to all four.

But it is Cézanne’s treatment of Hortense’s mouth — surely the sourest and meanest in the history of portraiture — that is truly riveting. Its slightly pursed look and off-center placement make her look beyond fed up.

Understandably, this has fueled more than a century of stories about Madame Cézanne and her cantankerous painter husband. But what if they’re the wrong stories? What if the received idea that Madame Cézanne was either mean, or put-upon, or both, is just our own, shortsighted projection? What if psychologizing of this kind held no interest at all for Cézanne?

My suspicion is that he cared nothing for his wife’s expression, let alone for what posterity would make of it, and cared only about the challenge, on this particular day and in this light, of capturing the thin shadow between her lips that is strong on the right but disappears to the left; that he fussed over how to balance that dark line, tonally, with the eye on the same side, which seemed weirdly larger in the more penumbral light. . . . And so on.

In his mature works, Cézanne goes to great — you could say inhuman — lengths to be objective. He wanted to paint human presence on a par with an apple’s presence; to bring out what D.H. Lawrence called the “appleyness” in each sitter. (The lovely term derives from Vollard’s report after sitting for Cézanne: “Do I have to tell you again you must sit like an apple?” the painter vented. “Do apples move?”)

In painting this appleyness, Cézanne, wrote Lawrence, “was also deliberately painting out” all that seemed false to him: “the so-called humanness, the personality, the ‘likeness,’ the physical cliche.”

I think that’s spot on. But where does it leave us?

Cézanne’s success can be as hard to stomach today as it was a century ago — though for different reasons. Schooled in the idea of the male gaze, we fancy that a clean line separates the virtuous ideal of objectivity (disinterest, impartiality) and the sin of objectifying (what male painters do to women’s bodies). But the line may be more smudged than we think.

In the same way that the currently discredited idea of “art for art’s sake” can be seen as a valiant, if doomed, way of trying to protect art from attempts to co-opt it for other purposes (propaganda, say), Cézanne’s fiercely objective approach to portraiture can be seen as an attempt to protect his human subjects from false feeling, projection and all the distortions of desire.

It’s in this sense that his paintings are spiritual. Like a Zen adept, Cézanne tries to let go of the idea that one thing is more important than another. It’s an idea that can be applied easily enough to landscapes. But such letting go is hard to achieve in portraits, where a subject’s eyes, by convention, are supposed to be more important than her face, her face more important than her body, and her body more important than the background.

In place of such hierarchies, there is a warp and weft quality to Cézanne’s best portraits, and it’s never more apparent than in “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair,” a painting which Rilke claimed to have memorized “digit by digit,” until he could feel it “even in my sleep.” In front of it, it’s hard to be sure which brushstroke is in front and which behind, and impossible to say which part is more important.

Life, it announces, is not hierarchical, like a newspaper article, or linear, like a line of dominoes. It is fluid and multifaceted, like a rippling mosaic. Instead of cause and effect, there are only clusters of interlocking circumstances which mysteriously give rise to new circumstances.

Cézanne couldn’t adjust one part of his paintings without attending to — and altering — the other parts. The process involved dueling loyalties: to the subject, in all its variability; and at the same time to the canvas, in all its variability. The circumstances kept changing, and with it, so did the picture.

Looking at Cézanne’s pictures, as a result, is also a process. A meditative one. Not everyone loves it. You have to be in the mood. But if it makes you want to take up painting — well, you wouldn’t be the first.

Cézanne Portraits is on view at the National Gallery of Art through July 1. For information visit