Paul Cézanne painted Self-Portrait with Palette ca.1890 in oil on canvas technique. The painting is part of the Emil Bührle Collection in Zurich.
What is Depicted in the Self-Portrait with Palette?
Self-Portrait with Palette presents a standing figure of the painter in the three-quarter pose. The painter painted himself to the torso level next to the easel. The lower segment of the composition is dominated by the palette and the brush he is holding in his hand.
Self-Portrait with Palette – Analysis
Paul Cézanne is perceived as a Post-impressionist, although he collaborated with the Impressionists and exhibited at impressionist exhibitions. Even then, however, the difference between Cézanne’s approach to painting and the one encouraged by the Impressionists was very noticeable. Cézanne’s methodical and long-term painting process differed from the impressionist sketching of the unique experience of the moment. The inventiveness that Impressionism brought to the realm of color, as well as Plein air, was of great importance to Cézanne. Together with the Impressionists, Cézanne shared an independent status on the French art scene. However, the differences between Cézanne and the poetics of the Impressionists were multi-layered. The transformative capacity that a change in lighting opens up to objects, as well as the spectrum of themes related to the experience of modern city life, was not Cézanne’s focus. 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 Émile 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.”
Cézanne’s portrait painting
During his lifetime, Cézanne exhibited mostly landscapes and still lifes. Portrait painting, although a continuous part of his oeuvre, was not the focus of both gallerists and art theorists for a long time. It is now clear that important changes in the direction of the development of Cézanne’s artistic expression can be traced through the portraits and self-portraits he made from the 1860s until the end of his life. Cezanne spent the first half of the 1860s in Paris. During that time, he came into contact with the leading impressionists. In 1863 he exhibited at the first Salon of the Rejected together with Gustave Courbet, Édouard Manet, and Camille Pissarro. At that exhibition, all rejected works for the official exhibition of the Salon de Paris were presented to the public. Cézanne will apply for exhibition at the Salon from 1864 to 1882 without success. It wasn’t until 1882 that the first Cézanne painting appeared at the Salon, thanks to Antoine Guillemet. During the 1860s, Cezanne painted a series of portraits of his uncle. This series, completed in 1866, is characterized by a special palette-knife technique that Cézanne would later develop. In the same year, 1866, Cézanne also completed a portrait of his father under the name Father reading L’Événement. This portrait also features the palette-knife technique, but in a more precise and measured form. Cézanne submitted a portrait of Achille Emperaire for the Salon 1870 and was rejected.
After 1870, Cézanne returns to Provence, where a new phase in his painting begins. The influence of Camille Pissarro is increasingly noticeable, which is also reflected in Cézanne’s acceptance of the Plein-air painting. Cézanne’s techniques of image realization and coloristic shaping of sensations from nature can be seen in Self-Portrait from 1875. In 1877, Cézanne creates a very successful portrait of Victor Chocquet, which is characterized by a more radical approach when it comes to the organization of colored fields. During the seventies, Cézanne began portraying Hortense Fiquet, who would later become his wife. Cézanne will create almost thirty portraits of her in several series. The portrait of Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair created in ca. 1877 is particularly important. The modeling that Cézanne develops in these paintings will significantly influence later avant-garde painting.
The 1880s were a time of intense comparative portraiture. This process involved taking a portrait of a posing model and later varying that portrait based on a photograph or sketches made at the time. 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.
In the 1890s, Cézanne’s work received recognition, and the relevance of his expression became unquestionable. Cézanne’s new status was also contributed to by the laudatory tone in which Gustave Geffroy wrote about him. One of the most successful portraits from this phase is precisely the Geffroy portrait from 1895. In the late period of his work, Cézanne withdraws into an intimate circle of people from his immediate environment, when an important series of portraits of Gardener Vallier is created.
Self-Portrait with Palette, painted by Cézanne ca. 1890, is an example of the authentic modernity he generated with his technique. In the domain of genre and even the spectrum of motifs, Cézanne had an almost traditional approach. And in this self-portrait, he presents himself with the associated attributes of a painter, however, the revolutionary is in the domain of technique and the new role of color in structuring the composition. Meyer Schapiro writes about this painting in his book Cezanne: “It is one of the most impersonal self-portraits we know–and not simply because the face and especially the eyes are unfinished. The painter stands behind his easel and palette, assimilated to their lines even in small details. The rectangle of the canvas is felt within everything it contains; the head and body are rectangularized and framed by the palette and easel. The color of the head is very close to their tones and to the jacket. Within the broadly rectangular face, the inner edge of the hair and beard is curved like the rounded corner of the palette; the indentation of the beard on the cheek corresponds to the outline of the thumb on the palette, and to the notch of the lapel. The most human element is bound to the non-human and both are stable and constrained. This bond reaches its extreme in the surprising continuity of the vertical edge of the palette and the sleeve, which seem to form one body, parallel to the frame. (Similar is the ending of the tips of the brushes at the line of the coat.) The normal, irregular overlapping of things has given way to a constraining form. Submitted to the same strict, closing pattern, these carefully realized objects assume an air of artifice and abstraction, like the diagram of a building plan. Yet the whole is intensely objective and monumental, with a stony strength of modeling in the limited depth between the palette and the wall. The lower left corner–a reddish table–has the flatness and severity of a Cubist work. This rigorous and forced cohesion is what the Cubists admired, among other things, in Cezanne and carried further in their own art. The palette continuous with the body appears in an early self-portrait of Picasso.”
“A purely formal interpretation is hardly just to the expression of the painting. The devices mentioned not only reduce the depth and adapt the picture to the rectangle and surface plane of the canvas. They carry also an affect of self-isolation in forms that otherwise advance boldly into the spectator’s space. Cezanne comes forward here, more than most painters would venture in a self-portrait; but he does not face the observer or move freely in space. Concentrated on his canvas, he is absorbed in the closed world of his own activity. The palette, with its naively objective form, unforeshortened and attached to the painter’s body, is a barrier against the outer world. If the palette projected towards us, it would create a convergent shape, drawing us more rapidly into the depth of the picture. In their actual form, the palette, the head, the body, and easel are analogous patterns of stability and detached existence, all adapted to the ideal rectangle of the picture, a closed plane surface. “
Self-Portrait with Palette is one of the numerous self-portraits Cézanne made during his long artistic practice. Among the most significant are Self-Portrait, 1878-1880, Self-Portrait from 1880-81, and Portrait of the artist in the white cap 1881-82.