Paul Cézanne was about 40 years old when he painted this self portrait in Paris around 1880–1. He was now middle-aged with a family to support, and the intensity of his earlier self portraits has here given way to a more distant and reflective presence. Although relatively small, the portrait has a monumentality and authority to it. This was a significant period in the artist’s life, as he had stopped exhibiting with the Impressionist group after 1879 and was spending more time in the south of France, away from the capital.
Cézanne stares at us calmly and dispassionately, his face devoid of overt expression. The wallpaper he poses before is not merely a decorative backdrop, but has an important structural role in the composition. By using elements of its pattern throughout the picture, Cézanne has fully integrated himself with his surroundings. Despite the portrait’s simple format, he has created a composition full of subtle echoes and repetitions.
Cézanne was about 40 years old when he painted this self portrait in his apartment in Paris around 1880–1. This was a significant period in his life, as he had stopped exhibiting with the Impressionist group after 1879 and was spending more time in the south of France, away from the capital. He was now middle-aged with a family to support, and the intensity of his earlier self portraits has given way to a more distant and reflective presence. Although relatively small, this portrait has a monumentality and authority to it. Despite its simple format, Cézanne has created a composition formed of subtle dualities and repetitions
Most likely looking into a mirror, Cézanne stares at us calmly and dispassionately, his face devoid of overt expression. The light coming in from the left of the picture, probably from a window, illuminates one side of his head and casts the other in shadow, giving volume to the cranium placed against the flat plane of the wall. Cézanne constructed the dome of the head with layers of paint formed of short oblique patches of colour laid down in parallel strokes. He used the whites, reds and ochre we might expect for skin tones, but his ear and the top of his head are outlined in blue, and there are also bluish shadows and touches of light green on the right side of the head. These colours echo tints in the jacket and in the slightly lighter tones of the dull olive-green wallpaper. On the left, a vertical band of plain pale blue relieves the potentially oppressive effect of the dominant olive-brown palette and suggests space beyond.
The wallpaper itself, which appears in other paintings, is not merely a decorative backdrop, but has an important structural role in the composition. By repeating elements of its pattern throughout the picture, Cézanne has fully integrated himself with his surroundings. For example, he positioned himself against the wallpaper so that the triangle formed by his outline is echoed by the two sides of a triangle behind the top half of his head. He has also deliberately halted the diagonal lines of the wallpaper pattern before they reach him. As a result, his pale head not only stands out more clearly against the dark paper, but his curved cranium is both emphasised by and contrasts with the three straight lines of a large diamond. Like a halo it frames the left side of his head, the curve of which is echoed by the right shoulder. The lines of the wallpaper only make contact with Cézanne himself at his upturned left lapel, its zigzag outline repeating the pattern of the paper. Similarly, the wallpaper’s motif of star-crossed diamond-shaped lozenges, which themselves echo the principal pattern of the paper, is repeated by the shape of his right eye and ear. The eyes themselves are not quite symmetrical: the left is flat and set back in shadow, while the right is fully open and alert. A gleam of light on the iris is rendered by a tiny lick of golden-brown paint.
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