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Have you ever heard the quote, “What others say about you says more about them than you“?

I couldn’t stop thinking about that quote as I walked through the current exhibition of Cézanne‘s Portraits at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The 60 portraits gathered in this exhibit said much more about Paul Cézanne than his subjects.

How do the following portraits make you feel? What are some adjectives you might use to describe them?

I thought: Fierce, dark, brooding, anxious…

But do those adjectives describe the artist’s sister, uncle, gardner and peasant (as seen above) OR do those words more likely describe the artist himself?

What he says about other people says more about…

This exhibit feels intensely personal. It’s almost as if it allows you to enter into the fun-house room that is Cézanne’s mind. These were the people that populated his vision; this was how he saw the world.

Prior to today, I would’ve said I favored looking at self-portraits to get to know an artist intimately, but this exhibit convinced me that portraits of others can often communicate more about the artist than self-portraits.

On the left is a self-portrait. On the right, his famous Boy in a Red Waistcoat. The left one feels distant somehow, doesn’t it? Like he’s putting on airs or holding back… But on the right, the boy is alive — I FEEL Cézanne’s passion for his work, his innovativeness, his COLOR.

Cézanne on the left. His wife, Hortense, on the right (He painted his wife even more often than he painted himself; he painted her OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN). On the left, I can’t get in. On the right, I feel the love. I feel HOME.

Cézanne versus his father. Yes, this time the artist is looking directly out at us, looking — and I do have a clear sense of him — but don’t we learn even more by what the artist is saying about his father? Distant, head in his paper, proper clothes, proper chair, legs folded… To me, that picture speaks volumes about the artist’s relationship to his father… and therefore to himself.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you DO learn more about an artist by looking at his self-portrait, but from now on I’m never going to make the assumption again. For a moment I’m going to try NOT to obsess over the self-portraits of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, or Frida and instead I’m going to focus on their portraits of other people to see if their true selves are revealed through those they paint.


Cézanne Portraits
Now through July 1, 2018
National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Admission — as always — is free