"Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap," by Paul Cézanne (1866–1867)
"Uncle Dominique in Smock and Blue Cap," by Paul Cézanne (1866–1867)

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Art lovers seeking the most recent exciting exhibition are probably headed to The Renwick for No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man. And for good reason: It’s large-scale, it’s interactive, and it’s selfie worthy. It has all the bells and whistles of the spectacle-trend in museum curation, making it a must-see for the season. So why would anyone bother to go view a quiet showing of 19th century painted portraits of relatively unknown people, contained in five modest rooms at the National Gallery of Art?

It is indisputable that Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) was singular to the redirection of painting, leading to the advent of modernism in the 20th century. This is a point well worn in the National Gallery’s framing text to the exhibition, and one hammered into the canon of art history for about a century now. In the era of high-tech art and stunning installation—and the fervent reawakening toward the disenfranchisement of women and people of color—it may seem prosaic, and even a little irresponsible, to rehash the well-established admiration for his work. Or, it may challenge viewers to consider the work in a new way.

Cézanne was a bit of a rebel. From 21st century eyes, it can be hard to understand how revolutionary his paintings were. Even his earliest portraits, evident in a series of his uncle, reveal his lifelong commitment to what he called “plastic equivalents,” to create such a solid, structured image it could exceed its two-dimensional limitations. In the portraits of Uncle Dominique, he attempts plasticity though impasto, a visceral application of paint with a palette knife so heavy an art critic called them “mason’s painting.” Later, he would achieve his aims to model solidity through patches of carefully placed, complementing colors.

Cézanne’s radicalness was contradictorily tempered by prudent conservatism. While his Impressionist contemporaries depicted new dimensions for portraiture, emphasizing figures busy in the activities of modern life, Cézanne’s approach to composition remained traditional; half- or shoulder-length views, seated with largely empty backgrounds. But this allowed him to focus on the rudimentaries of the medium itself. A known recluse with an aversion to human contact, it was his relative disinterest in a sensitive portrayal of their individuality that allowed him to pare down a visionary experimentation.

It’s that undercurrent of disinterest that is confounding and mesmerizing. Within Cézanne’s portraiture it is adhered to the subject he painted more than any other: his wife, Hortense. Little is known about their life together—none of their letters survived, and second-hand accounts have proven unreliable—but her seemingly dour portraits became the basis on which early male art historians misapplied biography to his work. Aloof and inexpressive, they seemed to evidence the source of his unhappiness, although he notoriously took up to 20 minutes between brush strokes and demanded his subjects not speak (who wouldn’t look unhappy?). An exhibition at the Met in 2014-2015, Madame Cézanne, brought together most of the paintings and drawings he made of her and provided a revisionist account of the role she played in his life that the NGA reasserts, if only by ignoring the topic altogether.

It’s in his portraits of the anonymous, laboring class around his hometown of Aix-en-Provence that, ironically, convey a tender reverence—perhaps because we don’t expect it here. Under his brush they represent the rural landscape where he found refuge. In absence of photos, we cannot assess their likeness; but, as recognized by Michelle Obama’s portrait, verisimilitude isn’t really the point. Cézanne usually painted the same subject twice, ensuring they never looked the same and relentlessly overwhelming their individuality to his own investigations. He said that he “painted a head as if it were a door,” meaning that it was not aspects of the person that mattered but that everything was subordinate to form, to his unique reordering of the world. Fixed at a reassuring distance his subjects were in service to him; before us now the results crystallize a moment of two people fixed to one another in space, sustaining an intimacy that is both real and artificial.

At the National Gallery of Art to July 1. 6th & Constitution Ave. NW. Free. (202) 737-4215.nga.gov.