Paul Cézanne painted Portrait of Vallier in oil on canvas in 1906. This painting is in Private Collection.
What is depicted in the Portrait of Vallier?
The painting shows Cézanne’s gardener in a sitting position with a straw hat that appears in almost all of his portraits.
Portrait of Vallier – Analysis
Cézanne was committed to the long process of working on the painting. That work was based on the principles of unifying what he sees and what he feels and thinks about the model he is painting and the environment that surrounds him. In portraits, he begins to apply the technique he developed in landscape painting – the technique of the so-called constructive brushstrokes. This technique involves arranging patches of paint of similar size in parallel or diagonal directions, treating the figure and face of the portrayed person and the objects in his environment in the same way. During his long career, Cézanne almost always portrayed people from his immediate environment, usually family members or friends.
The modernity of Cézanne’s painting was reflected in his attitude towards sensations in nature, i.e. translating those sensations into elements for building an image. The structure of Cézanne’s painting is formed by complementary relationships of integrated color fields as well as on the principle of three dominant forms in nature. Cézanne believed that all scenes in nature can be represented using the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.
In a letter to Emile Bernard, dated 15 April 1904, Cézanne writes To treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, everything put in perspective, so that each side of an object, of a plane, leads to a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, be it a section of nature or, if you prefer, the spectacle that Pater Omnipotens Oeterne Deus spreads before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. Now, we men experience nature more in terms of depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient quantity of blue tones, to give a sense of atmosphere.
Since the 1890s, Cézanne’s position on the French and European art scene has been continuously improving. His exhibiting activities are becoming more and more frequent, so in 1903 he exhibits for the first time at the Paris Autumn Salon, where he will again have a very successful exhibition the following year. His exhibition was set up in London in 1905, but in the wake of the growing public interest in him, he decided to retire to a place north of the Aix-en-Provence along the Chemin des Lauves. There he built a studio in 1902, where his last paintings were created, including portraits of the gardener Vallier. Alexis Clark writes in the review of the exhibition Cézanne Portraits: In the last decade of his life, when he lived apart from Fiquet Cézanne, the artist turned his paintbrush to his servants and peasants in Provence. Lightening his touch in paintings like The Gardner Vallier, Cézanne dissolved the figure, making him into an abstracted, playful patchwork of dappled, bright color and varied strokes. Other portraits after Vallier represent him in profile, with his hands patiently folded and placed in his lap. In paintings like these, executed at the sunset of his life, Cézanne seems at his most Impressionist. With his eyes shaded by his straw hat and slight curl that crosses his lips—a small smile reminiscent of Choquet who struck a similar pose—Vallier’s casualness attests to the artist’s comfort with those from different ranks and classes. During the last phase of his work, Cézanne often returned to the theme of vanitas. Although his health was deteriorating, he continued to paint with the same dedication. Many researchers recognize in the portraits of the gardener Vallier elements of Cézanne’s own self-portrait. A portrait of the gardener Vallier, which is in a private collection, shows an old man in profile in a sitting pose. The composition is characterized by the dramatic relationship between the contrasting surfaces of the dark background and the light gardener’s shirt. Green fields permeate the fabric of the painting, creating balance and an impression of almost mystical sublimity.
After 1900, Cézanne completely turned to create portraits of the people who surrounded him. Instead of art critics and collectors, Cézanne portrays members of the working class who either worked on his estate or in the immediate vicinity. Researchers state that Cézanne’s turn to portraying workers does not contain an ideological component, as previous bourgeois portraits did not. Therefore, Cézanne treats the people he chooses to portray as given motifs on the basis of which the composition should be realized. The sense of community and the dignity of the dark tones of these portraits in Cézanne’s late phase has often led writers of Cézanne to draw comparisons with Rembrandt’s work. Two approaches can be recognized in Cézanne’s work on the series of portraits of the gardener Vallier. The first is characterized by strikingly dark tones and Cézanne painted them in the studio. To this group belong the portrait of Vallier from a private collection as well as the one kept in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Another approach involved plein air painting and these paintings were executed in a significantly lighter color. This approach is represented by the works held at Tate Modern and the E.G. Bührle Collection. It is important to point out that the workers portrayed by Cézanne in the last years of his life were not represented at work. Unlike Millet, Cézanne painted workers in moments of rest.
In addition to The Gardener Vallier which is in a private collection, the remaining portraits of Vallier from the 1906 series are in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Tate Modern in London, and the Foundation E.G. Bührle Collection in Zurich.