History And Context
Cézanne painted scores of self-portraits, many of them in exactly this pose and on canvases of about the same size, recording his appearance and self-image as well as his progress as a painter. In this powerfully modeled portrait, painted when he was about forty years old and at an age that invites self-appraisal, Cézanne looks at himself unflinchingly, objectively reporting his knobby features and generally lumpy, unrefined, and shaggy appearance. His jacket, loosely and roughly painted, looks, in places, to be of the same fabric as the canvas. Cézanne’s hair reaches his collar and his neck hides behind his clothing and his messy beard. A hint of mouth is visible, but mustache and beard conceal most of it. Little skin shows. Cézanne models his ruddy, blotchy face and large, balding head in short unblended brushstrokes, built up to a thick impasto. This literal edifice of paint serves as a defense, behind which his sharp eyes peer out. It is the psychological guardedness of this man (who is otherwise completely candid about his ugliness) that makes the painting so compelling. Vigorously and freely painted in a dark and limited palette, his work has more in common with the old masters than with impressionism. The Phillips Collection’s painting was the first self-portrait by Cézanne to enter an American museum. Phillips was very proud of it, describing “that head of an old lion of a man, the pride and loneliness of him so directly conveyed by purely plastic means.” He was almost exactly the same age when he bought the painting as Cézanne was when he painted it. History shows that, at forty, both were just getting started.