John Elderfield: Working on Cézanne Portraits

ElderfieldI first published a text on Cézanne in 1971, a review for Artforum of an exhibition of his drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, because Rosalind Krauss said she didn’t want to do it. By the end of that decade, I had become friendly with two great Cézanne scholars, John Rewald and especially Lawrence Gowing; and, as a young curator at the Museum of Modern Art, had assisted William Rubin on his great 1977 exhibition of the late work. Since then, I had long wanted to curate a Cézanne exhibition myself, but it never seemed right for the MoMA schedule, so I followed the continuing exhibitions from the sidelines, writing the occasional article, my fascination with his work increasing and increasing. It wasn’t until 2008 that I found myself in conversation with London’s National Portrait Gallery about curating an exhibition of Cézanne’s portraits.

My initial reaction had two parts: delight in the opportunity to do this, and uncertainty about what it would mean to pull the thread of Cézanne’s portraits from the rest of his oeuvre. The uncertainty at first increased by my learning that there never had been a survey of the portraits. Then it gave way to the realization that, precisely because this would be the first such exhibition, it offered the unique opportunity to try to draw the first map of the place they occupied in Cézanne’s work. I was specifically interested in the following questions:

How did the chronological development of Cézanne’s portraiture practice unfold? What were its persistent characteristics, and how did things change with respect to style and method, on the one hand, and to an understanding of resemblance and identity, on the other? To what extent did particular sitters inflect the character and development of the practice? What is the image of Cézanne as artist and person as viewed through the filter of his portraits?Cézanne

The questions kept accumulating. Even as they did, some things began to become clear: Our knowledge of the portraits from Cézanne retrospective exhibitions, which required their curators to choose very selectively from similar works, minimized the importance of his creation of pairs and series of versions of the same subject. The idea that Cézanne treated his portrait subjects just like his still-life subjects—an idea that had taken hold even before Cézanne’s death in 1906—was simply not true. To the contrary, their pictorial inventiveness and their vivid depiction of human presence are mutually reinforcing. The idea that he was constantly besieged by doubt was only one side of the equation; the other was that he was an extremely systematic, highly methodical painter. And, looking from one portrait to the next, standing where Cézanne stood when he painted them, yes, he does seem present to us as we follow his career; more vividly so than with his landscapes, still lifes, and invented figure compositions. His own presence and the presence of the portrait subject are inseparable.

Exhibition Schedule:
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (March 25 to July 1, 2018)

John Elderfield is chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. His many books include De Kooningand Henri Matisse. He is currently the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator at the Princeton University Art Museum and lecturer in the Princeton University Department of Art and Archaeology.