The Courtauld Gallery is on a roll.
Once again it has come up with a splendid, tightly focused exhibition in “Cezanne’s Card Players.” This London show is small -- just one room -- yet rich in masterpieces. If it doesn’t resolve the problems concerning these celebrated pictures, such as why, where and in what order Cezanne (1839-1906) painted them, that isn’t the curators’ fault.
Cezanne was enigmatic. There’s no solid information on his motivation in choosing this subject nor the chronological sequence of the pictures, though that hasn’t prevented generations of art historians from speculating on these points.
The models were employees on the family estate outside Aix-en-Provence, the Jas de Bouffan. In all, he produced five versions of the “Card Players,” three with two figures, and two with three. From the lining-up-the-ducks point of view, the major flaw of the exhibition is that it only has three of those five on show. Still, together with a number of drawings and oils of individual figures, they give a powerful sense of Cezanne’s mind at work.
His effort was to produce the maximum possible precision of the weight, mass and geometrical form, while -- here’s what makes him truly modern -- acknowledging that in the end such accuracy is impossible. As the critic Roger Fry wrote, there are few pictures after the early Italian Renaissance that give such an “extraordinary sense of monumental gravity” as these.
True enough, though there’s always something that doesn’t fit. The bottle in the two-figure pictures, for example, seems to be poised in space rather than resting on the table. In “The Smoker” (c.1890-92), it takes awhile to realize that the still life behind the man’s elbow is actually a painting on the wall. Looking at Cezanne, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle comes to mind: however hard you try to fix one thing, there always will be something else that eludes you.
If Cezanne was one of the most profound painters in art history, Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) was one of the most superficial. Not necessarily in a bad way as the exhibition “Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance” at the National Portrait Gallery makes clear. Lawrence was literally superficial in that he was a master of surfaces. Few painters have been better at evoking silks and satins -- look at Elizabeth Farren (1790), whose white, fur-trimmed cloak shimmers like Op Art.
Lawrence was good at making his sitters appear glossier, more glamorous and more elegant than -- one guesses -- they actually were (a useful knack for a portrait painter, also employed by Titian and Van Dyck). You suspect that at times he’s using skills like those of a society tailor to enhance his sitters. Several look as if they’ve been given a discreet thigh extension to produce an effect of elegant tallness. Miss Farren (later Countess of Derby) gives the viewer a come-hither look like a supermodel.
Lawrence was a prodigy. He was commissioned, aged just 20, to paint a state portrait of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and produced a tour de force. Given the right sitter, he could come up with a portrait of true depth. Princess Sophia (1825) is an example. She was a royal daughter forbidden to marry for reasons of state but who, nonetheless, had an illegitimate child. He presents her, at 48, as reflective, spirited and evidently still ready for a bit of fun.
“Cezanne’s Card Players” is at the Courtauld Gallery, London, through Jan. 16, 2011. “Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power & Brilliance” is at the National Portrait Gallery until Jan. 23. Information: http://www.courtauld.ac.uk and http://www.npg.org.uk.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud.” The opinions expressed are his own.)