A Comparison and Analysis of Goya’s Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez (1792) and Cezanne’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1899) Essay
A Comparison and Analysis of Goya’s Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez (1792) and Cezanne’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1899)
Considered to be an artistic visionary and a major influence on Cubism, Paul Cezanne’s use of color, perspective, and structure greatly inspired 20th century art. His planar compositions were later turned by Picasso into cubism; his innovative use of color was admired by other artists such as Matisse. Cezanne was interested in structure and the way paintings can evoke elements in Nature. He frequently made use of slight variations in color, with geometrical forms such as cones, cylinders and spheres – which he found to be abundant in Nature – in his portraits and still lifes, as well as in his landscapes. Through the use of space and color, he was also able to project a wide range of expression.
Cezanne produced numerous portraits, and these were considered still lifes because of his meticulous insistence that his subjects should sit absolutely still. This particular fetish proved to be a nightmare for Cezanne. He was known to be extremely impatient and quick-tempered; worse, he painted very slowly. This is probably the reason why the subjects of his portraits generally look grave and tired. For his portrait, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard reportedly sat 140 times, sitting perfectly still throughout the sessions. But then Cezanne, dissatisfied with his work, abandoned the project with only two spots left unpainted. He informed Vollard, to the man’s horror, that he would only finish the painting when he found the proper color for the spots. He said that by adding even a single brush stroke, the whole portrait would become unbalanced. Cezanne was so disgruntled with his work that he told Vollard that the only thing about it that pleased him was his rendering of the white shirt worn by the subject.
In Cezanne’s eyes, it did not matter whether the subject he was painting was a person or a bowl of fruit. The only difference was the palette and the reflection value of the painting. Ultimately, both the fruit and the person wilted.
The Portrait of Ambroise Vollard is a prime example of how Cezanne’s awareness of underlying structure was manifested in his paintings. Most of his later work are more sparingly composed and open, and are infused with a sense of light and air. The light coming from the window behind Ambroise Vollard provides this effect. As with Cezanne’s other paintings, the portrait does not give any indication of the exact time of day or of the season. There is light streaming in from behind Vollard’s shoulder, but the golden orange color it casts may indicate that the day is nearing either dusk or dawn. The background is created through perspective and unusually subtle differences in tone. Dark tones are used both for Vollard’s suit and the chair he is sitting on, but subtle washes of brown on the seat and fluid strokes of white around Vollard’s outline provide contrast between the two.
Cezanne was known for his use of color to evoke vision and passion. The dark somber tones in the Portrait of Ambroise Vollard suggest a feeling of solemnity, while the sharp golden and amber highlights provide contrast and dimension. The artist used his brush strokes to create structure and lend firmness to his portraits. In Ambroise Vollard, he makes use of broad, heavy strokes to build structure, as well as light, fluid strokes to outline and give contrast.
Francisco de Goya is often recognized as one of the best Spanish artists and one of the leading proponents of modern art. For him, the artist’s vision was more important than the subject, and this new ideology helped art evolve from the usual religious paintings and commissioned portraits. Like Cezanne, Goya is hailed as one of the most important artists of his time, influencing others like Manet and Picasso. Goya’s career spanned more than 60 years. He initially dabbled in Baroque art and eventually came up with his own innovative style. His assorted sketches, paintings, and engravings mirrored current historical issues. He was a court painter, like Velazquez, but his best works were those produced apart from the ones who made for the Spanish court. He was well-known for his uncompromising portrayals of violence, particularly those induced by the French invasion of Spain.
Goya’s modernistic approach was evident in the bold technique he used to create his paintings, in the poignant satire in his sketches, and his philosophy of the artist’s vision being more important than the subject. Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez was created at the time when Goya had established himself as a portrait painter for the Spanish nobility. In it, the Don appears as realistic as natural, his clothes and features clearly defined and detailed. At the time that this portrait was created, Goya was interested mainly in portraying his clients as they are in life, without reference to the social climate at the time. In Don Sebastian, Goya used light, fluid strokes and applied color that blended harmoniously into each other to achieve a natural look. Goya also made use of subtle differences in tone to create depth and perspective.
Both the Portrait of Ambroise Vollard and Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez are painted in very restricted palettes. In Ambroise Vollard, Cezanne makes use of dark hues like black, brown and olive with lighter ones such as white, orange, gold and yellow. Similarly, Goya’s Don Sebastian is painted using shades of brown, orange, white, and gold, with contrasts provided by strokes of blue, black, and gray. However, there is a remarkable difference in the way the colors are applied. The colors in Don Sebastian appear to be more harmonious and blend fluidly into each other. This gives the portrait a more realistic appearance, as opposed to the more abstract Ambroise Vollard wherein Cezanne has used the colors to depict planes and shapes in the portrait.
Cezanne, in response to the lack of structure in Impressionist works, devised a method of using color to create planes and geometrical shapes in his paintings. In Ambroise Vollard, broad strokes of peach, yellow, orange and brown create a background for the subject; while the subject himself is rendered through quick, geometric strokes of olive, white and gold.
The spatial illusion created by Cezanne’s brush strokes is in contrast to that of Goya, whose Don Sebastian provides a rather uncomplicated sense of dimension. In Don Sebastian, the subject is placed against a flat background which appears, through a liquid wash of white that outlines the subject, to have no depth. On the other hand, the viewer can see that the subject in Ambroise Vollard is sitting near the corner of a room because Cezanne has created a complex illusion of spaces and edges. This is accomplished through the use of straight dark lines that run parallel to and opposite each other at angles to depict two walls that form an L-shape. Dark lines also show that the walls are separated into two colors: peach and orange for the upper half and dark brown for the bottom half. The wall behind Vollard is further emphasized through the continuation of the horizontal line into a surface behind him.
The position of the chair upon which the subject sits in Ambroise Vollard is directly frontal but the chair itself cannot be clearly discerned because its dark tones are indistinguishable from those of the background. In contrast, the chair in Don Sebastian, as well as the subject himself, is facing left. The chair is clearly defined and stands apart from the background. Despite these differences, both Goya and Cezanne are able to utilize dark tones and fluid strokes to create structure in their respective portraits.
Another point to be considered is the difference between Goya’s and Cezanne’s portrayal of their subjects. Cezanne perceived his portraits as still lifes; Goya did not. Upon careful examination, a sense of irresoluteness can be felt from Cezanne’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard. In contrast, Cezanne’s Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez appears complete, absolute. Perhaps the disturbing feeling of uncertainty that Ambroise Vollard evokes can be attributed to the fact that the portrait is basically unfinished and that Cezanne intended for it to be left that way. He had discarded the painting after failing to find the proper colors for the untouched spots in the canvas. And yet, it could also be because of the grim and solemn expression on the subject’s face, or of the somber effect that the dark washes of the portrait create.
The viewer will also notice that in Ambroise Vollard the subject’s eyes appear merely to be two black holes, with the subtlest outlines of circles for the irises. This gives the subject, and consequently the entire painting, a sense of detachment. The grim-faced man, in his stiff pose and with his eyes represented as two pools of black, actually seems intimidating, even frightening. If it is to be believed that the portrayal of the subject in the portrait is a direct response to the artist’s perception of him in real life, then Cezanne must have seen his art dealer Ambroise Vollard as a grim and daunting man.
On the other hand, Goya’s Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez appears life-like and regal. The subject’s posture is straight but not stiff and he has an open, amiable look on his face. The colors of his clothing also affect the viewer’s perception. His mustard yellow breeches and blue-striped jacket call to mind not only the fact that the subject is probably a member of the nobility, but also that the artist sees the person as a dignified and good-natured man. In fact, the paper that the subject is holding actually says “Don Sebastian Martinez by his friend Goya 1792” (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/goya/hod_06.289.htm).
In the Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, Cezanne deserted the central perspective, and defied convention by leaving unpainted spots and spaces on the canvas (two unpainted spots can be seen on Vollard’s right hand). His approach was to take the immediate sensory perception and try to structure it into his intended vision through the use of abstractions in form and color. Cezanne, who is often hailed as the “father of modern art”, was, according to the art historian Lawrence Gowing, “reaching out for a kind of modernity which does not exist, and still does not” (http://www.theartgallery.com.au/Cezanne.html). In Ambroise Vollard, Cezanne’s revolutionary use of color as tone, and his fixation on the elements of composition are evident.
On the other hand, Goya’s Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez is a study in realism. This is a portrait, in the true sense of the word. It has no abstractions. Goya merely wanted to render Don Sebastian in the most life-like way possible. During Goya’s employment as a tapestry painter, he became interested in the study of traditional themes and set out to create pictorial studies of his subjects (Tomlinson, 1989). Don Sebastian was commissioned at a time when Goya was beginning his observations of daily life. Thus, the portrait was produced without comment or allusion to the subject’s lifestyle or clothing. Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez is detailed and smooth, just as the client wanted. It would be much later – after the war – that Goya would begin to depict social conditions and portray a sense of social awareness in his work.
This brings us to another difference between Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez and Portrait of Ambroise Vollard. Goya’s Don Sebastian, having been commissioned by an aristocrat, was created meticulously, filled with details, and appeared as even and realistic as possible. The details in the portrait are numerous: the blue and yellow stripes in his dark jacket like water flowing over a dark river bed, the lace in his white shirt like fine clouds. Other features are painstakingly rendered: the buttons on the subject’s jacket and breeches, a hint of white at his cuff, a glimpse of his waistband, wisps of his hair, and the striations on the fabric of his seat cushion. Even the words in the paper that the subject is holding are clearly visible.
In contrast, Cezanne’s Ambroise Vollard is shrouded in darkness, highlighted only by rays of golden light coming from a window. There are few details here. Even the features of the subject’s face are not clearly defined. The viewer has to look closer to see where the subject’s mouth is amidst his beard and mustache, and where the chair is amidst the dark background. It is also unclear whether he is holding in his hand a sheaf of papers, a magazine, or some other paraphernalia.
Both Goya and Cezanne are regarded as major influences on art forms that succeeded their own, as well as artists who lived during and after their time. Both have been hailed as “fathers of modern art” because of their revolutionary techniques in color and structure, as well as their individual philosophies. Thus, both Goya’s Don Sebastian Martinez y Perez and Cezanne’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard are pioneering works.
There are many similarities between the two paintings. Both showcased techniques unique to their respective creators, and both were portraits of people whom the artists had friendships with. Both portraits do not give any indication of the time of day or of the season. Don Sebastian is set in a studio of some sort, without any hint of the outdoors; while Ambroise Vollard is set in a room, possibly a café, with light from outside streaming into the scene. As has been mentioned before, this light does not give any indication of the time of day either.
In the two portraits, both subjects are sitting, and each carries something in his hand. Both Don Sebastian and Vollard are dressed in the typical outfits of their respective times, and painted in ways that reflect the artists’ perception of their respective subjects in real life.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (2006). Timeline of Art History: Iberian Peninssula, 1600-1800 AD. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved from < http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/goya/hod_06.289.htm> on November 17, 2006.
The Worldwide Art Gallery. (2002). Great Artists in History: Paul Cezanne. The Worldwide Art Gallery. Retrieved from <http://www.theartgallery.com.au/Cezanne.html> on November 17, 2006.
Tomlinson, J. (1989). Goya and the Spirit of the Enlightenment. Alfonso E. Perez Sanchez (Ed.). Art Journal. Vol. 48 Issue 3. New York.