Cézanne Portraits review – clay pipes and rustling skirts captured by a questioning genius

By Adrian Searle

National Portrait Gallery, London
Every touch of paint has purpose in Paul Cézanne's inquiring studies of his wife, father and friends in this magical show

Perhaps everything Paul Cézanne did was a portrait, whether he was painting mountains, fruit, the land, the light, people. Whatever he paints, Cézanne paints himself observing, amplifying, flattening, skipping over one thing to alight on another. Sometimes I think his paintings are about to unravel. This keeps them alive.

Coarseness and delicacy, observation and invention – as if the two could ever be distinguished – certainty and doubt. There is so much to Cézanne. What there is most of all is a spirit of inquiry and curiosity, about the things he painted and about painting itself. Madame Cézanne seated at her sewing, or doing nothing at all; a man with a clay pipe enduring being painted and wondering, perhaps, at the point of it all; Cézanne's father reading the newspaper, indulging his painter son by staying still, seated forward in a high-backed armchair that has as much presence as the man who occupies it. Cézanne used the same chair as a throne for his affectionate portrait of the artist Achille Empéraire. A misshapen little man of great, stilled dignity, and one of two paintings (the other is Cézanne's Self Portrait with Palette, 1886-7) whose omission I really miss in the London leg of this travelling exhibition, the first to focus only on Cézanne's portraits since 1910.

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