Paul CÉZANNE | Gustave Geffroy

France 1839 – 1906

Gustave Geffroy 1895-96
oil on canvas
canvas 110.0 (h) x 89.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of the Pellerin family 1969
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Cézanne’s work faced the wrath of the French press during the 1870s. At the third Impressionist exhibition of 1877, his portrait of friend and patron Victor Chocquet was described as having a face that looked like it had been run through a mill, and so yellow it would give an unborn child yellow fever.1 It was not until the critic Gustave Geffroy praised Cézanne in 1894 that the artist began to consider a re-entry into the Paris art world.2 Monet believed that his old friend Cézanne had yet to receive the patronage that was his due, and explained to Geffroy how Cézanne had ‘come to doubt himself far too much’, while being ‘touched’ by Geffroy’s comments.

A meeting was arranged by Monet, and Cézanne subsequently asked to paint Geffroy’s portrait.3 Geffroy is shown as a modern man of letters, seated in his library. Cézanne has tipped the desk towards the viewer to emphasise the sitter’s engagement with writing. The desk is covered with open books, papers, and a cropped plaster figurine.4 The writer gazes directly at the viewer. Perhaps Cézanne had in mind Degas’ groundbreaking portrait of Edmond Duranty, shown in Paris in 1880 in the fifth Impressionist exhibition. The precedent of a portrait of a modern writer in a modern context had already been set by Edouard Manet, who had painted Cézanne’s friend Emile Zola.5

Geffroy sat for Cézanne almost daily for three months from April 1895, and was painted, as the writer observed, ‘with meticulous care and richness of tone, and with incomparable harmony’.6 Yet something was amiss. Cézanne appeared incapable of completing Geffroy’s face, only sketching his features. In mid June, Cézanne asked to be relieved of his commitment. At the writer’s request the artist returned, however his heart was no longer in it.7 Cezanne then left for Aix. In the following year, incapable of rendering the face of one of his great admirers, he wrote to Geffroy asking that his props be returned. The two men never met again.

Jane Kinsman

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. Cézanne was also advised to wear glasses. Charles S. Moffett (ed.), The new painting: Impressionism 1874–1886, 4th edn, Geneva: Richard Burton 1986, p. 215.
  2. At a sale of Théodore Duret’s collection, writing in Le Journal, 25 March 1894.
  3. Gustave Geffroy, Claude Monet: sa vie, son temps, son œuvre, Paris: Crès 1922, quoted in Michael Doran (ed.) and Julie Lawrence Cochran (trans.), Conversations with Cézanne, Berkeley: University of California Press 2001, p. 4.
  4. Identified by Geffroy as the work of Auguste Rodin. Geffroy, in Doran and Cochran, p. 197.
  5. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.. Manet’s painting had been selected for the Salon of 1868. Devoid of archaisms, Zola is shown at his desk with books, papers, ink pot and quill surrounded by favourite images such as a Japanese print by Kuniaki II and Manet’s Olympia 1863.
  6. Geffroy, in Doran and Cochran, p. 5.
  7. Geffroy, in Doran and Cochran, p. 6.