He is the father of us all,” Picasso is quoted as saying of Cézanne. In this remarkable exhibition of 60 portraits from Cézanne’s entire career, on view at The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. until July 8, his influence on his contemporaries, upon the artists that followed, and on Modern Art itself is inescapable.

Cézanne was not someone who did portraits on commission and portraiture held little interest for him beyond what they could teach him about painting. The portraits offer little insight into the sitters but much more about the issues Cézanne was tackling in his work. His sitters are like the bowls of fruit Cézanne painted—three dimensional objects rigorously analyzed until broken down into the brushstrokes that generated not a simulacrum but a painting of striking authenticity.

It is this integrity present in the portraits that is so stunning. These are neither his best paintings, nor the best subjects for his art, yet the visible struggle in them is all the more exhilarating. The best of Cézanne’s work reveal a truth not present in nature, i.e. the fruit could never hold those positions in a bowl, and yet they seem all more alive for their impossibility.

Cézanne is pushing at and exploring paint, color, perspective in a search for what animates a rendering of what we see – this is Cézanne’s version of Impressionism—a use of technique to deliver what we recognize to be a painting but that is at the same time real. In some portraits the background is flattened, the chairs tilt at impossible angles, the bodies are elongated and/or contorted to give the impression of sitting.  Sometimes the focus is on one detail while the rest remains almost unfinished—such as his early work, “The Boy in a Red Waistcoat,” where the face and left arm are merely suggestions compared to the three-dimensionality of the waistcoat itself. Read more