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movie review

Painting a portrait of Cézanne as portrait painter

A self portrait by Cezanne.Ole Haupt

The “Exhibition on Screen” documentary series focuses on a current or recent art exhibition. It’s like standard art documentaries in that it includes talking-head interviews with curators and other experts, biographical information about the artist, and close-up views of individual works. The series is different in frequently putting the camera within the galleries where the exhibition is hung. It tries to offer an equivalent, however distant, to being there.

The latest documentary in the series, “Cézanne: Portraits of a Life,” looks at “Cézanne Portraits.” The exhibition is at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, through July 1. It previously ran at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.


The documentary opens at the Museum of Fine Arts April 11 and screens various dates through April 27.

What’s extraordinary about the exhibition — besides the paintings, of course — is that it’s the first devoted to Cézanne’s portraits. On the one hand, this makes a kind of sense. Cézanne is best known for his still lifes and landscapes. On the other hand, it makes no sense at all, since Cézanne is . . . Cézanne.

“Everybody has been a little afraid of the subject,” Laurence des Cars says in the film, “because Cézanne did not think himself a portrait artist.” Des Cars is director of the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie (also in Paris). She’s one of several excellent talking heads in the documentary. Others include Cézanne’s great-grandson and John Elderfield, of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a curator of the show. The analyses and descriptions are consistently cogent and valuable (not always the case in the series).

“Cézanne was not interested in providing a great deal of information about the inner life of the people he painted,” Elderfield says. “He was interested in recording the human presence in front of him.” In that sense, portraiture with Cézanne can be seen to reside on a continuum with landscape and still life, such is the sense of solidity, weight, and gravity he imparts to his sitters.


There are things to dislike about the documentary. The score is laid on with a trowel. Brian Cox reads Cézanne’s letters with a beefsteak self-regard. The many shots of Paris and Aix-en-Provence, the geographic poles of Cézanne’s existence, are mostly touristic filler (unlike the shots of Cézanne’s studio and his family home, both in Aix).

Such complaints are secondary. It’s the paintings that matter, and the paintings are magnificent. Try to watch the documentary and not want to go to Washington before July 1.

Of local note: the MFA’s “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair” and “Self-Portrait with Beret” figure prominently in both film and exhibition. Also, on May 23, Elderfield will deliver a lecture at the museum, “Cézanne’s Portraits: Painting and Repainting the Presence of Someone Seen.”

★ ★ ★

Written and directed by Phil Grabsky. At Museum of Fine Arts, various dates, April 11-27. 87 minutes. Unrated. In English and French, with subtitles.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.