In the summer of 1866, Cézanne returned to his family home at Aix-en-Provence, executing a series of portraits of his mother, sister, father and, more than any other family member, his maternal uncle Dominique Aubert. A local bailiff, Aubert featured in a series of nine paintings; six smaller, more focused heads and three half-length portraits, where Aubert donned varied guises (see figs. 1 & 2). Executed with a palette knife, the texture of these works and their aggressive painterly quality spoke of awakening and realization in the young artist for the power of oil paint and of his own powerful perspective.
“The palette-knife pictures were exceptional,” writes Lawrence Gowling, “Looking at them stacked against his studio wall thirty years afterwards, Cézanne called them une couillarde—and the coarse word for ostentatious virility suited the crudity attack with which the palette-knife expressed the indispensable force of temperament for a few months in 1866” (Cézanne: The Early Years, 1859-1872 (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 10).
Throughout his life, Cézanne worked slowly. Of the almost one thousand paintings that he created over the course of his lifetime, a little more than one hundred and fifty of them are portraits. Cézanne would focus much of his attention on creating the perfect apple or manipulating the planes of color of the distant hills in Provence. Unlike the more commercially successful artists in contemporary France, he did not support himself on portrait commissions from the upper echelons of Parisian society. Portraits were, for him, as with all of his work, a way to explore representation, perspective, color and elusive corporeal weight.
The Uncle Dominique canvases represent the first concentrated effort at portraiture in his corpus. In them he fully explores the use of heavy pigment application with a palette knife, a technique which he gleaned from Courbet’s practice (see fig. 3). From Eugène Delacroix, the other major influence on Cézanne’s early years, came brilliant, bold coloration and Cézanne would routinely execute his own oils after the master.
Aside from Cézanne’s wife, son and his patron Victor Choquet, few other sitters would become the focus of so many of Cézanne’s portraits as Uncle Dominique, especially not as in the concentrated sequence which occurred in 1866. In varying the frontal pose of his uncle and providing him with different elements of costume—a cap in the present work (which would appear nearly ten years later in a self-portrait; see fig. 4), the uniform of a lawyer, monk and artisan in the three half-length portraits—he both varied the visual display and provided himself with the concentration on one subject that allowed him to fully explore variations and possibilities in paint handling, coloration and shaping. “This phase was not only the invention of modern expressionism,” Lawrence Gowing writes, “although it was incidentally that…. But beyond this Cézanne was the first man in the [Impressionist] group, perhaps the first man in history, to realize the necessity for the manner in which paint is handled to build up a homogenous and consistent pictorial structure…. Underneath the rudeness of Cézanne’s way with paint in 1866 there was the idea of an order of structure that would be inherent in the paint-stuff” (ibid., p. 10).
L'Oncle Dominique en casquette has an important early provenance. Acquired from the artist by his dealer Ambroise Vollard, the work then passed into Auguste Pellerin’s collection. Pellerin, a hugely successful entrepreneur with businesses across Europe, was an avid collector, at one time owning more than ninety works by Cézanne as well as many examples of Manet’s works. At least a third of the Cézanne’s in his collection were from the artist’s early period and he owned at least seven of the nine canvases of Uncle Dominique. It is little surprise that the majority of the works in this series are now found in museum collections, including the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where two works are held.
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