It was no secret that Cézanne had trouble applying the final swipe of his paint-filled palette knife to his canvases. The artist, who has often been called the father of modern art, was a perfectionist who was never satisfied with his own work, even when his peers were bowled over by it. (For that matter, he also never trusted their compliments or praise.)
The artist ripped up nearly complete paintings that didn’t please him. He abandoned finished canvases in the fields in which he painted them. And countless other works he simply didn’t finish for reasons spanning from dissatisfaction and loss of interest to just plain procrastination.
“I would rather smash my canvas than invent or imagine a detail,” Cézanne once said.
So, it’s probably no surprise that after asking the art critic Gustave Geffroy to sit for him in 1895, and then subjecting the poor man to three months of posing, Cézanne failed to put the finishing touches on the portrait. The artist almost completed the work… almost. But he just couldn’t bring himself to paint the pesky hands or facial features of the critic.
For reasons that are no more clear today than they were over 100 years ago when Cézanne abruptly stepped away from the canvas, the artist not only lost interest in the portrait he was painting, he also developed a sudden and strong dislike for his sitter.
Geffroy was pleased with how the portrait was going, even later writing that “in spite of its unfinished state, [it] is one of his most beautiful works” (though his critical eye may have been blurred by vanity). But no amount of pleading could get Cézanne to return to work.
It was an interesting turn of events given that Geffroy had been one of the first critics to see something in Cézanne’s work, and that his support only two years before the portrait incident had helped reintroduce the artist to the more mainstream Parisian art community after he had withdrawn from it for nearly two decades.
From a very early age, Cézanne's passion for art was so strong that he fought his father to be allowed to attend art school in Paris and to pursue his calling.
He knew his technique—the way he painted, the way he used color, and his approach to composition—was innovative and departed from what was fashionable in the mainstream art scene. He not so modestly called his style couillarde, or “ballsy.”
He bragged about his artistic prowess—“I will astonish Paris with an apple,” he once said—while at the same time feeling he never fully lived up to his gift.
He was also a ball of insecurity who was upset by every rejection. First he wasn’t accepted into the premiere École des Beaux Arts. Then, he was ridiculed by his studio-mates at Atelier Suisse. He submitted his work to the annual Salon each year, “carrying his canvases on his back like Jesus his cross,” The Smithsonian reports a critic at the time said. But he was often denied.
Cézanne was accepted into two shows of Impressionist works in 1874 and 1877. But after his work failed to be embraced, he largely retired from the public art scene to focus on honing his craft and his eye for naturalistic details in the countryside near Aix-en-Provence, his hometown.
While the artist no doubt craved acceptance and acknowledgement of the genius he was sure he possessed, his time spent in the fields developing his skills suited the loner.
During this time, the artist wasn’t working in total obscurity; he had his champions.
Cézanne had been best friends with the prominent author Émile Zola since childhood when the future-artist was beaten up for defending the future-writer. The dynamic changed in adulthood when it was Zola who became the defender of his friend against constant panning by critics and rejection by the art establishment.
In 1894, Geffroy became one of the first critics to write positively about Cézanne’s work (quite possibly doing so at the urging of Monet). Following the good review, Monet arranged a meet and greet at his home.
On November 28, 1894, Monet gathered a group for lunch that included Auguste Rodin, Georges Clemenceau, Geffroy, and Cézanne. Later, the art critic wrote that Cézanne “appeared to us immediately to be a loner, shy yet violent, emotional in the extreme.”
It was at this lunch, and their first time meeting, that Cézanne followed a common practice of the day and asked Geffroy if he could paint his portrait out of gratitude for the kind review. The critic agreed.
Beginning in April of the following year, Cézanne arrived at Geffroy’s house nearly every day for three months to work on the portrait. The almost-complete painting shows a man seated at his desk, which is tilted at an odd angle towards the viewer in order to display its scholarly contents—open books, a Rodin statue, a pot of ink, and a rose. Behind the sitter is a fireplace and a packed bookshelf.
At just a quick glance, it might appear to be a finished work. But on closer viewing, one soon begins to notice that the writer’s hands disappear into hazy smudges and his facial features are not fully defined, producing something of an ominous effect.
In Geffroy’s later musings on their sessions, he writes that everything seemed to be going splendidly. Cézanne would often eat lunch with Geffroy’s family and the only sign of trouble was that he kept putting off the face and hands.
And then one day he abruptly abandoned the project.
Geffroy reported that his excuse at the time was that “this task was too great for his powers.” He was convinced to return to the project, but after a week, he left again, this time for good. A year later, he requested all of his supplies be mailed back to him.
Despite the excuses Cézanne gave to his most supportive critic, many today agree that Cézanne left the project after suddenly souring on his sitter, though the reason remains somewhat obscure. According to the Musée d’Orsay, “Cézanne's gratitude gradually gave way to irritation with his subject whom he found too eclectic in his artistic tastes and too disrespectful of religion.”
In 1896, it became clear the Portrait of Gustave Geffroy had officially joined the ranks of brilliant, yet unfinished Cézanne works, an oeuvre that Picasso would become intrigued with just a decade later, following Cézanne’s death.
Cézanne was a passionate and brilliant artist, but the same attributes that led him to be revolutionary in his field also led him to be volatile in his personal life. Geffroy wasn’t the only defender that Cézanne discarded.
Zola and Cézanne had been the best of friends for most of their lives. They had stuck with each other through the good times and the bad, but, it turns out not through perceived literary slights. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Zola sent Cézanne a finished copy of his new book L’oeuvre, whose protagonist is a failed artist who eventually commits suicide in the face of his inability to complete his masterpiece.
It was common knowledge that the main character was based, at least in part, on Cézanne, and Zola’s literary inspiration was more than clear to the artist. According to Susan Stewart in Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, Cézanne sent a note of thanks to Zola for the book… and then never spoke to his dearest friend again.