Portrait of Gustave Geffroy
GUSTAVE GEFFROY WAS ONE OF THE FIRST CRITICS to recognize Cézanne's greatness; he wrote about him at length in 1895.
The portrait, so intricate in conception, was done over a period of three months in Geffroy's library. Cézanne despaired of finishing it, although it seems complete enough, a triumph of composition.
It is not a revealing study of the face, but an image of the man of books, the writer among his things. Cézanne often reduces the singularity of human beings; he is most happy with people like his card players, who do not impose themselves, who are perfectly passive or reserved, or immersed in their tasks. The portrait becomes a gigantic still life. The world of objects absorbs the man and lessens the intensity of his person; but it also enlarges him through the rich and multiple surroundings. His repressed activity is transferred to the complicated articulation of his books, the instruments of his profession. Indeed the arrangement of the books behind him, projecting and receding, tilted differently from shelf to shelf and ending in the open volumes below, seems more human than the man, reminding us of a long twisted body in classic counterpoise, like Michelangelo's Slave in the Louvre, a work that Cézanne admired and drew.
The man, by contrast, is fixed symmetrically with arms spread and bent--an immovable pyramid. The chair and table between which he is barricaded are another complex of tilted forms abstrusely counterposed to the wall of books and united to these by common tones, and by surprising correspondences of line. The open books lying on the table and the closed books standing on the shelves, all converging to Geffroy's head, belong to a common structure of balanced directions, although one group owes its tiltings to gravity and the other mainly to perspective. The different accents of orange in the bookcase and on the table confirm the contrast of the vertical and horizontal planes. With what care Cézanne studied the parts we can see in the warm strokes on the brow parallel to the slanting orange book nearby, with white and violet strokes between them, and in the slanting light spot at the right shoulder.
The painting is a rare union of the realistic vision of a piece of
space, seen directly in all its accidents and richness of detail, with
a powerful, probing, rigorous effort to adjust all that is seen in a
coherent balanced structure with its own vitality and attraction. The
whole looks intensely contrived and intensely natural. We pass often
from the artifice of composed forms to the chaos of a crowded room,
and from the latter we are soon brought back to the imposing order
invented by the artist; the oscillation is permanent. No line is
simply a device of design; it has always the quiver of existence in
light and is a product of Cézanne's robust, sensitive touch. The
straightest and most irregular lines are sensitive alike and are
equally parts of the whole in its double aspect of image and
painting-fabric. If the little feminine statuette softens the severity
of the books, it is also in its axis and bent arm a counterpart of the
rigidity of the man; the tulip in the blue vase is inclined with his
arm and his delicately painted, living right hand recalls the distant
-- Meyer Schapiro
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