Cézanne Portraits; Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys – review

By Rachel Cooke

National Portrait Gallery; Courtauld Gallery, London
Bringing more than 50 of Cézanne's portraits together underlines their unyielding quality. Plus, the wildly original Chaïm Soutine

Paul Cézanne's first portrait is thought to have been a painting of a man in his early 20s: a brooding, liverish fellow straight out of the Grand Guignol, or a novel by Mary Shelley. Dressed in a coat of blood-red velvet, his skin is tinged with green, his lips with a peculiar shade of tangerine. If his brow seems unnaturally wide, the forehead of a phrenologist's dreams, then his inky moustache is certainly too sinisterly drooping. Above all, there are his eyes: joke-shop globes of black, white and scarlet that stare accusingly at all who stand before him. For a moment, I considered the thatch of his tobacco-brown hair. If I looked hard enough, would I find a pair of tiny horns in its midst?

It's with something of a start that you discover this painting, arresting but just a little ridiculous, depicts none other than the artist himself (Self-Portrait, c1862-4). Cézanne, after all, claimed to be uninterested in human psychology; his portraits, stark and emotionless, are a “record of the thing regarded” (my italics), not an effort to capture the soul of the sitter. This one, however, is all mood, and little else: here is Cézanne's notoriously combative personality reduced to an elaborate cartoon, a Halloween mask by way of Caravaggio. As such, it makes you wonder all the more about the later portraits (he painted almost 200 in his career). The gap – we might better call it a chasm – between this early intensity, and the sculptural blankness of the faces that followed is undeniably bizarre. Why, you ask yourself again and again, are there no shades in between?

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Source: Cézanne Portraits; Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys – review