Paul Cézanne painted Portrait of Gustave Geffroy in oil on canvas around 1895. This painting is part of the collection of the Orsay Museum in Paris.
What is depicted in The Portrait of Gustave Geffroy?
The painting shows Gustave Geffroy sitting at a table in his office, surrounded by books.
The Portrait of Gustave Geffroy – 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. These were usually family members or friends.
In the 1890s, Cézanne’s work received recognition, and the relevance of his expression became unquestionable. Cézanne’s new status was significantly 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, Cezanne withdraws into an intimate circle of people from his immediate environment, when an important series of portraits of Gardener Vallier is created.
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.
Cézanne stayed with Geffroy and spent a lot of time together with him and his family during the three months of work on the portrait. Cézanne most likely initiated work on the painting as an act of gratitude to Geffroy for his praise writing about him. In his book Cézanne, Meyer Schapiro provides an exceptional analysis of this portrait. It is not a revealing study of the face, but an image of the man of books, the writer among his things. Cézanne often reduces the singularity of human beings; he is most happy with people like his card players, who do not impose themselves, who are perfectly passive or reserved, or immersed in their tasks. The portrait becomes a gigantic still life. The world of objects absorbs the man and lessens the intensity of his person; but it also enlarges him through the rich and multiple surroundings. His repressed activity is transferred to the complicated articulation of his books, the instruments of his profession. Indeed the arrangement of the books behind him, projecting and receding, tilted differently from shelf to shelf and ending in the open volumes below, seems more human than the man, reminding us of a long twisted body in classic counterpoise, like Michelangelo’s Slave in the Louvre, a work that Cézanne admired and drew.The man, by contrast, is fixed symmetrically with arms spread and bent–an immovable pyramid. The chair and table between which he is barricaded are another complex of tilted forms abstrusely counterposed to the wall of books and united to these by common tones, and by surprising correspondences of line. The open books lying on the table and the closed books standing on the shelves, all converging to Geffroy’s head, belong to a common structure of balanced directions, although one group owes its tiltings to gravity and the other mainly to perspective. The different accents of orange in the bookcase and on the table confirm the contrast of the vertical and horizontal planes. With what care Cézanne studied the parts we can see in the warm strokes on the brow parallel to the slanting orange book nearby, with white and violet strokes between them, and in the slanting light spot at the right shoulder.
It is important to point out that although this portrait is often rightly qualified as unfinished, it is characterized by an exceptional composition. This kind of structuring and color solution formed by building harmony between warm and cold colors enables a pulsating and contemplative feeling about the space in which Geffroy is located. Cézanne’s great skill in highlighting the crucial psychological components of the character he represents and translating them into the language of color is particularly visible in this composition. Meyer Schapiro writes about the complexity of the displayed space The painting is a rare union of the realistic vision of a piece of space, seen directly in all its accidents and richness of detail, with a powerful, probing, rigorous effort to adjust all that is seen in a coherent balanced structure with its own vitality and attraction. The whole looks intensely contrived and intensely natural. We pass often from the artifice of composed forms to the chaos of a crowded room, and from the latter we are soon brought back to the imposing order invented by the artist; the oscillation is permanent. No line is simply a device of design; it has always the quiver of existence in light and is a product of Cézanne’s robust, sensitive touch. The straightest and most irregular lines are sensitive alike and are equally parts of the whole in its double aspect of image and painting-fabric. If the little feminine statuette softens the severity of the books, it is also in its axis and bent arm a counterpart of the rigidity of the man; the tulip in the blue vase is inclined with his arm and his delicately painted, living right hand recalls the distant books above.
Taking into account the circumstances and the attitude towards the portrayed, the portrait of Gustave Geffroy can be compared to the portraits of Victor Chocquet that Cézanne made during the 1870s and 1880s.