Paul Cézanne painted The Boy in the Red Vest between 1889 and 1890 in the oil on canvas technique. This painting is part of Foundation E.G. Bührle’s collection in Zurich.
What is depicted in The Boy in the Red Vest?
The painting represents a boy named Michelangelo di Rosa with a melancholic expression, in a sitting position, leaning his right elbow on a table.
The Boy in the Red Vest – 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.
During his long career, Cézanne almost always portrayed people from his immediate environment. These were usually family members, friends, or co-workers. In the case of the series of paintings The Boy in the Red Vest, this is not the case. Here, Cézanne portrays a young man named Michelangelo di Rosa. Michelangelo di Rosa was a professional model and posed for Cézanne on several occasions during which four paintings were created. The transition from the 1880s to the 90s represents a kind of culminating phase of the maturity of Cézanne’s expression. And in this series of portraits, Cézanne uses motifs characteristic of traditional portrait painting. His reliance on the painting of the great masters is noticeable in the choice of motifs as well as in the poses in which the boy is presented. In a letter to Émile Bernard dated May 12, 1904, Cézanne writes
The Louvre is a good book to consult, but it should only be a means. The real, prodigious study to undertake is the diversity of the scene offered by nature.
The Boy in a Red Vest series of portraits is a successful example of that principle of combining traditional components and a modern approach to painting. The painting, which is kept at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, is the only one that represents the boy in a standing position. Wearing a hat and holding his hand on his hip, in contrapposto, surrounded by drapery, this portrait is often perceived as a sophisticated reminiscence of 16th-century portraits. The painting, which is kept in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, represents the boy in a sitting position, bent over and in profile. All the paintings are a study of the relationship of the same space with the boy portrayed. The painting in the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia is the most detailed study of the young Michelangelo di Rosso’s face. Lavish color and Cézanne’s skillful structuring of the composition based on the complementarity of the colored fields relations are the characteristics of all four paintings. The Boy in the red vest from Foundation E.G. Bührle brings the most dynamically arranged composition. The boy is represented in a sitting position in a slight turn towards the viewer while resting his elbow on the surface of the table. The harmony of this scene rests on the parallel relationships formed by the diagonal lines that follow the drapery, the boy’s body, and the edge of the table and chair – from left to right.
Paul Cézanne painted a series of four paintings, the most famous of which is The Boy in the Red Vest, owned by the Foundation E.G. Bührle in Zurich. The remaining three are in various collections in the United States. At The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. there is the painting Boy in a Red Waistcoat, while the other two bearing the same name Boy in a Red Vest are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.