Cezanne's Perfect Portraits Prove To Be Too Much Of A Good Thing

Cezanne Portraits, National Portrait Gallery ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 14 months ago

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Cezanne's Perfect Portraits Prove To Be Too Much Of A Good Thing Cezanne Portraits, National Portrait Gallery 3
Two similar self-portraits are re-united in this show. Left image courtesy Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Photo: Ole Haupt.

A man who took art from the revolution of Impressionism on to something even more daring. An artist who both Matisse and Picasso were said to have remarked 'is the father of us all'. Paul Cezanne is one of the truly great painters and played a pivotal part in art history.

Now we get to see 50 of his portraits in a show at National Portrait Gallery — that's more than a quarter of all the portraits he painted in his lifetime, making it a massive coup for the gallery.

The loose style that Cezanne was most associated with is visible in this work. Copyright Kunstmuseum Basel.

We're stared at by an intense self-portrait of Cezanne, with pallid flesh and flashes of blood red in his eyes — it's a frightening image. But this can be contrasted with the tenderness he uses in rendering his wife and son. It sums up how versatile Cezanne could be in his paintings.

His use of a palette knife to layer his paintings is what would inspire painters who came after him, and gives his works their signature style. Cezanne's ability to create stillness with such expressive application of paint is one part of his technique we've always admired — and it can be seen clearly in many of the works in this show.

Madame Cezanne sewing away in this domestic scene. Copyright Eric Cornelius / Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

It's the fact that Cezanne has a signature style that is the downfall of the show; it's a style we see repeated over and over again. There's no doubt of the brilliance of the works, but after seeing the first half of the show we're simply seeing more variations of what came before.

When his works hang among his fellow Impressionists, say at The Courtauld Gallery's permanent collection, there's never a feeling of repetition but this show is a case of too much of a good thing , leaving visitors unable to approach the works in the latter half of the show with fresh eyes. It's the exhibition equivalent of gorging on too much chocolate over Christmas and then no longer being interested at the sight of any more.

A serious self-portrait. Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art.

It pains us to say we've had too much of Paul Cezanne, as we never thought it was possible, but it became a reality in this exhibition.

Cezanne Portraits is on at National Portrait Gallery until 11 February 2018. Tickets are £18 for adults. The exhibition is also available to see at cinemas through the Exhibition on Screen programme.  

Last Updated 17 November 2017