“Everything in nature is modeled according to the sphere, the cone and the cylinder,” Cézanne famously wrote to his painter friend,
. “One must learn to paint with these simple figures; one can then make whatever one would like.” Inspecting the 1900 self-portrait, it almost seems like the artist was more interested in recreating the geometric puzzle pieces that composed his face, rather than produce a physical or psychological likeness.
This is part of what makes Cézanne’s portraits, in many ways, like his still lifes. Cézanne scrutinized his sitters, trying not to capture their psyches, but other particulars instead: the precise oval shape of his wife’s head, for example, or the arc of an eyebrow. His sitters were objects, with no more or less visual value than the apples he arranged on a table in his studio. He was disparaged for this during his lifetime by Parisian critic Charles Morice, who wrote in 1905 that “Cézanne takes no more interest in a human face than in an apple.”
But his human sitters weren’t exactly like apples, of course. They had the irritating habit of wanting to move while sitting under Cézanne’s unnerving gaze for hours on end.
Vollard once recalled that during one of his alleged 115 sessions posing before the artist—for a single portrait—Cézanne growled at the dealer to stay still. “You wretch! You’ve spoiled the pose!” Vollard recounted him saying. “Do I have to tell you again to sit like an apple? Does an apple move?”
This might help explain Madame Cézanne’s customary mask-like expression, as well. “His wife, whom he painted nearly 30 times, looks miserable,” Elderfield commiserates. “I mean, if you had to sit for this guy 100 times [for one] portrait—you would feel a little miserable.”
Despite their need to speak, itch, and get up every once in a while, people did have at least one advantage over Cézanne’s apples: They didn’t rot. At times, the artist took so long to render a still life in oil paint that his apples and other materials decayed in front of his easel—causing him to occasionally use artificial fruit or fake flowers.
Though his still lifes of plastic fruit have historically canonized Cézanne as the father of modern art, his lesser-known portraits (usually painted from the original) were a constant in his artistic practice. And they were something he aspired to perfect; according to Vollard, Cézanne once asserted that “the goal of all art is the human face.”