Antoine Dominique Sauveur Aubert (born 1817), the Artist's Uncle, as a Monk,  1866

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Artist Cézanne, Paul

“Courbet is becoming classical. He has painted splendid things, but next to Manet he is traditional, and Manet next to Cézanne will become so in turn... Let’s only trust ourselves, build, paint with loaded brushes, and dance on the belly of the terrified bourgeois. Our turn will come, too....Work, my dear fellow, be brave, heavy pigment, the right tonalities, and we'll bring about the triumph of our way of seeing!” So wrote Cézanne’ friend the painter Antoine Guillemet (1843-1918) in a letter of September 1866 to a colleague from the Academie Suisse, Francisco Oller, who had briefly returned to his native Puerto Rico. The letter was truly prophetic of the pictures Guillemet would witness being done when he joined Cézanne in Aix the following month. At the age of twenty-seven, Cézanne had brought his art to a point that, as Lawrence Gowing has recently noted, “we may if we wish call the beginning of modern art.” The Portrait of Uncle Dominique as a Monk, painted in the company of Guillemet that autumn, is one of the pivotal masterpieces marking Cézanne’ first realization of his tremendously vigorous powers of innovation.

Cezanne’s early development was fraught with passionate exploration for a means of realizing the ambitions he had discussed so earnestly with his childhood intimate in Aix, Emile Zola. Like Guillemet, Cézanne and Zola were determined to make their marks; Cézanne’s means of doing this in the late 1850s and early 1860s was the execution of a group of intensely worked landscapes and figure subjects, often charged with a macabre obsession with violence and intense sexuality. During the summer of 1866—perhaps first in a landscape of the Seine at Bennecourt—he began experimenting with paintings in which he abandoned the brush altogether, working, as Courbet had in his landscapes and flower pictures (although never with figures), exclusively with a palette knife. This method, due to the necessity of swift execution and density of paint, helped him achieve a directness of execution and boldness of image that he would characterize some thirty years later in reviewing his canvases of that time as une couillarde: literally, “ballsy”.  This vividly coarse word aptly summarizes the “ostentatious virility [that] suited the crudity of the attack with which the palette-knife expressed the indispensable force of temperament for a few months in 1866.”

The paint is literally trowelled over a partial underpainting of olive grey, which itself has been swiftly pulled over the coarse, unprimed canvas. The density of the paint is such that there is a sculptural relief to the surface: “the painting of a mason:" Individual strokes do not blend into one another but, rather, were made in an immediate and direct manner, the colours having been mixed on the blade itself, then flowed onto the surface. For the simplicity of the palette—even the laid background is made up of black, white, and just a little blue—the range of tonality is remarkable. The intense contrast of white and red in the face stands apart from the deep black of the sitter’s hair and beard, which are enveloped by the pure white cowl.

Beneath the blue ribbon that holds the more thinly painted, black wooden cross, the whites of the costume are blended with yellow and threads of blue. The massive hands are done in less contrasted tones than is the face, the strokes more elongated and sustained than the staccato attack of the knife that defines the features. The immediacy of the overall image is realized in a centrifugal wave of coloristic and gestural rhythms progressively easing in intensity and contrast from the face outward to the edge of the canvas, where the blade glides of f the surface, leaving the olive underpainting exposed in places. At no time previously was Cézanne so completely in command of his execution, nor was he, until this point, able to achieve a work of such force and vigor.

The sitter is the artists maternal uncle, Dominique Aubert. During the autumn of 1866, and perhaps into the following January, Cezanne did nine portraits of him in various guises. They all seem to have been done at Cézanne’ father’s house outside Aix, Jas de Bouffan, as reported by Antony Valabrégue, who himself had earlier sat for Cézanne: “Fortunately I only posed for it one day. The uncle is more often the model. Every afternoon there appears a portrait of him, while Guillemet belabours it with terrible jokes.” It is altogether a remarkable group of works, for which the uncle must have sat with considerable patience.

Seven of the portraits show him only from the chest up. In another, The Advocate, approximately the same size as this painting, he gestures rhetorically, suggesting, as does his costume, his profession as a lawyer. Regardless of their sizes, all of his portraits are done with equal vigour of handling, although it could be argued that none reaches the density of application of this picture or—particularly through the gesture of the crossed arms—its massive intensity. Part of this may be due to the state of preservation of the present picture, in which the height of the impasto has survived toa remarkable degree.

To what extent this painting is, in any conventional way, a portrait has long been a matter of discussion. Certainly, given the critical role of the picture in the stylistic evolution of Cézanne’s work, much more discussion has been devoted to it as a painting than to its subject. Yet the ferocious presence of the figure brings one back to some attempt to characterize him as a man, a speculation thwarted by the absence of any real information about him. It has often been said that his patience, particularly to the point of posing in various guises, must have been great and his nature pliant. However, it is only here that he is cast in an assumed role, that of a Dominican monk. Whether the white habit was put on simply to accommodate his nephews desire to paint large areas of white or had some further meaning is also unclear.

It has been noted that during the generation of Cézanne’ father, a staunch republican who, like his son, scorned the politics of the Second Empire, the masterful orator and essayist Jean-Baptiste- Henri Lacordaire (1802-1861) was one of the dominant forces in French liberal politics.” Through his sermons at Notre Dame, Paris, and his editorship of the newspaper LAvenir, Lacordaire advocated programs of radical social reform through a revival of moral principles. In 1838, while in Rome, he re-established the Dominican order—the “watchdogs of Christ’—and brought the order back with him in 1840 to France, where he met with only limited success, although he ever afterward called himself a monk. By the mid-1860s an association with Lacordaire carried with it an almost nostalgic identification with lost causes; certainly, the expressive determination and staunchness of Uncle Dominique as portrayed here are in keeping with the character of the historical Dominican. However, we know too little about Dominique Aubert’ religious convictions—or those of the young Cézanne, who was to take on the piety of his mother and sister Rose later in life but who, at this point, was probably more affected by his father’s agnosticism—to draw a firm conclusion. It must also be realized that the white habit may simply be a verbal pun—Dominique/Dominican—an association Cézanne used on other occasions. Yet, even in comparison with all the other portraits of Dominique Aubert, there is in this picture—in the characterization as well as in the costume—a particular force of physical presence that tempts one to extend some type of interpretation beyond the immediate identity of the man, especially in view of the degree to which narrative and literary associations figured in Cézanne’s work during the remainder of the decade.

Whatever its meaning—should there be any—the Portrait of Uncle Dominique as a Monk would continue to provide Cézanne with a kind of figurative resource well after he had abandoned direct palette-knife painting, By the following year, the palette knife would play less and less of a part in his technique, as would an interest in coarse, heavy, worked impasto and a palpable weight of paint. However, the density of surface achieved so swiftly in the autumn of 1866 would continue, albeit with progressively slower and more blended application, through the 1870s. The unity he achieved here between the physical surface and the control of spatial realization would sustain him throughout his life. And the pose itself, a stolid male figure with his arms resolutely folded over his chest, would recur repeatedly, particularly in the 1890s.

As Guillemet had noted to Oller, their gods were Courbet and Manet, the figures they had set out to challenge. At this critical point in his art, it would almost seem that Cézanne was addressing his debt to both in equal measure, while at the same time introducing a kind of innovation from which he, and much of the course of later art, would never turn back. The Courbet influence is most apparent: swift use of the palette knife to apply brilliantly contrasted black and white, interlaced with flashes of intense colour, However, Courbet’s surfaces, even in his most broadly applied palette-knife pictures, never build to this degree of density, nor did he ever abandon chiaroscuro to the extent Cezanne had here. For Courbet, the contrast of sharply juxtaposed lights and darks  was always to a spatial end, hence the dramatic virility and force of his paintings in this manner. Cézanne’s blacks—even those that edge Dominique’s hands and cuffs—are in plane with the whites and blues and are not passively submerged into shadows, as had been the practice to this point in the history of art. The figure is, in the intensity of its creation, literally wrought into space by the density of the paint application; “Cézanne was intensifying Courbet’s least acceptable peculiarity, making it obtrusive, systematic and obsessional."

The debt to Manet is less obvious, yet the very notion of posing a friend in costume may have derived from Manet, as in such pictures as the Bon Bock, in which the figure is cast in a nearly theatrical role. And, perhaps more profoundly in comparison with the same picture, Cézanne’s interest in a completely controlled tonal harmony through an animation of applied brushstrokes may owe much to Manet, as radically different in temperament as the two artists were and as contrasting as their two achievements may be.

The early works such as the Portrait of Uncle Dominique as a Monk were, ironically, among the last to be seriously appreciated. In their seemingly obsessive vigour of creation and implicit violence, they have often been placed into a vague category of Cézanne-before-he-be-comes-Cézanne—that is, before the calming influence of Camille Pissarro (1831-1903) at Pontoise in the early 1870s and Cézanne’s evolution into a more studied, analytical painter. (Yet it was Pissarro who first recognized the innovative genius of the young painter and saw the accomplishment in the pictures of the later 1860s.) At best, it was only recently that works such as this have been understood both for their intrinsic worth, as products of a fully mature and launched artist, and for their place in his later development. This rather abrupt development in his career has, in turn, done much to misguide our understanding of the often implicitly narrative aspects, as well as the more impassioned, less cerebral elements, of his later art, which more formal interpretations have often set aside. The confusion about early Cézanne, which continued into this century, is illustrated by the history of the Portrait of Uncle Dominique as. a Monk. It was bought by the Frick Collection in 1940 and perceptively discussed in a news release prepared by the collection.  Noted in a 1947 handbook of the collection, it was contrasted with the later Chestnut Trees at Jas de Bouffan (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts), as a work that “might be by a different hand” and that “recalls the romantic period of Cézanne’ youth” (Cézanne was twenty-seven years old at the time he painted it)—only to be sold in 1949.

For all the swiftness of execution and barely disguised passion of this painting, it also has a formal resolution and control, the surface vitality completely in balance with the spatial effect, and stands completely on a par with the achievements of the following four decades. Furthermore, the picture seems to have pleased the sitter (one hopes out of more than pure sentiment), who kept this one throughout his lifetime, Hugo Perls buying it from his estate outside Aix. As late as 1903, with the death sale of Emile Zola, at which several pictures of this period were sold, the admittedly highly reactionary critic Henri Rochefort, in an article on the “love of Ugliness,” could declare such pictures mere traditions of Rembrandt, Velazquez, Rubens, and Goya. Ironically, such sarcasm can be credited with some insight if turned into the positive: the Portrait of Uncle Dominique as a Monk now rests comfortably within the grand artistic lineage as outlined by Rochefort.



Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 65.1 x 54.6 cm