A brush with poetry – An Irishwoman’s Diary on Paul Cézanne and Seamus Heaney

Paul Cézanne: ‘Self-portrait in front of pink background’, 1875 (detail)

Paul Cézanne: ‘Self-portrait in front of pink background’, 1875 (detail)


Seamus Heaney visited Paris in June 2013, two months before his death. He and his wife Marie attended an exhibition of paintings by Eugène Boudin, Monet’s teacher. They called on the Anglo-Belgian artist Anthony Palliser, who was painting Heaney’s portrait.

Heaney said Paul Cézanne was his favourite painter.

He read An Artist, his poem about Cézanne, at the Irish College. So I thought of Heaney in the “Portraits by Cézanne” exhibition, at the Musée d’Orsay until September 24th. I daresay he would have loved it.

John Elderfield, honorary chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a professor at Princeton University, curated the exhibition.

It was my good fortune to have this courtly gentleman, born 74 years ago in Yorkshire, as a guide.

We study self-portrait after self-portrait by Cézanne, “His forehead like a hurled boule,” as Heaney wrote.

“The late British art critic Adrian Stokes said it was fortunate for Cézanne to have lost his hair so soon, because he then had the subject of that great oval volume to paint,” Elderfield says.

There could not be one portrait for Cézanne, because faces change constantly. Long before Monet painted series of poplars, haystacks and Rouen Cathedral, Cézanne invented the serial portrait. He painted himself 26 times, his wife Hortense 29 times.

Cézanne’s style evolved. In early portraits, he applied paint directly onto the canvas with a palette knife, what he called his couillard or ballsy period. He tried patches of colour, diagonal brushstrokes, then diamond-shaped islands; all to build form with colour.

He worked fast in his youth, painting a head of his uncle Dominique every afternoon.

Then he slowed with age. “As his legend grew, so did the interval between each brushstroke,” says Elderfield.

Some of the portraits convey almost dizzying movement, others a silent stillness.

Elderfield pauses before the majestically calm Woman with a Coffee Pot. A spoon stands vertically in a coffee cup.

“I have this little fantasy that if I look away, the spoon will fall, that it’s my attention that keeps it upright,” the curator muses.

Cézanne grew more irascible with age, in part because he suffered from diabetes. He separated from Hortense and withdrew from Paris society to his native Aix.

Though he liked to play the coarse Provençal peasant, “Cézanne was the most educated” of late-19th-century painters, Elderfield says. “He could read Latin and Greek and in the long train rides from Aix to Paris, he would translate Virgil.”

When Edouard Manet went to shake Cézanne’s hand, the latter famously declined, saying his hands were too dirty.

Heaney captured Cézanne’s anger and obstinacy, “The way he was a dog barking/at the image of himself barking . . . the vulgarity of expecting ever/gratitude or admiration, which/would mean a stealing from him.”

Claude Monet held a lunch at Giverny to introduce Cézanne to important figures in the art world.

The sculptor Auguste Rodin, who had just been awarded the Légion d’Honneur, was also present.

“Cézanne dropped to his knees in front of Rodin on a path in the garden and said, ‘Oh, Monsieur Rodin, I can’t believe you want to say hello to me!’” Elderfield recounts. Rodin had a high opinion of himself and apparently did not detect the irony in Cézanne’s gesture.

Cézanne had a huge influence on subsequent painters. Modigliani imitated his style. Matisse and Picasso called him “the father of us all.”

So was Cézanne the first modern artist? I ask Elderfield.

“He would have hated being called that,” the art historian replies. “He hated modernisation. Towards the end of his life, he petitioned against Marseille installing electric street lights, because he said it would spoil the twilight.”

This is the first exhibition of Cézanne portraits since 1910. Paradoxically, the portraits may have been neglected because the classical genre contradicts his reputation as a pioneer of modernism.

“His still lifes and landscapes gained appreciation from the 1890s as someone who was moving towards abstraction,” Elderfield explains.

“Portraits can never be that, so they were somewhat pushed to the side.”

If you dig deeply enough, every story has an Irish connection. Elderfield’s son Matthew was Ireland’s financial regulator during the bailout. Elderfield relishes telling me how when he visited, the immigration officer at Dublin airport recognised his name.

When he began losing his hearing, Elderfield’s speech therapist had him read the poems of Elizabeth Bishop aloud. He raves about Colm Toíbín’s biography of Bishop.

Our visit ends where it started, at that ineffable place where poetry and painting meet.