Is This the Greatest Father’s Day Painting Ever?

Last month I asked if Whistler’s Mother is the greatest Mother’s Day painting ever, so it only seems fair to pose a similar question on Father’s Day. Although Mother’s Day evokes thoughts of flowers and flowery cards, Father’s Day brings to mind bad ties and power tools. While Mary Cassatt may be the ultimate artist of the ideal of motherhood, thinking of the chief image-maker for the ideal dad is a bit harder. Perhaps the ideal painting of the ideal dad exists somewhere, but I prefer a great painting of a real, less-than-ideal father.


Artist fathers proliferate throughout art history. Tintoretto’s greatest pupil was his daughter Marietta, who would assist her father on painting projects dressed as a boy until she turned 16. Alas, only Marietta’s reputation (but no works ascribed to her) survives. Some suspect that Tintoretto’s late period of renewed skill and verve can actually be credited to his daughter’s talents. Charles Willson Peale raised a brood of painters, all named for Old Masters: Raphaelle, Rembrandt, and Rubens. (He also named a daughter after his female contemporary painter Angelica Kauffman.) Alexander Calder of the mobile and stabile learned sculpture from his father, Alexander Stirling Calder, and his grandfather, Alexander Milne Calder. If you look from a certain spot in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you can see works by all three generations of Alexanders in a row. Similarly, N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth comprise three generations of American painting stretching across more than a century.

Of all the things that I love about Renoir, perhaps the one that has increased as I’ve aged is how great he was at painting his own children, including future actor Pierre and future actor and filmmaker Jean. As I’ve written previously, the Late Renoir exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2010 really impressed this side of the artist on me. Renoir’s famous for his voluptuous nudes, but it’s the warmth and humor of these portraits of his sons that stays with me whenever I see his art. Renoir had his children later in life, so I see him appreciating them more with the knowledge that his time with them could be short.

As great as those portraits by Renoir are, however, I really want to talk about a son’s portrait of a father rather than a father’s portraits of his sons. Paul Cézanne’s 1866 Portrait of the Artist’s Father (detail shown above) may not be the greatest Father’s Day painting, but it’s my favorite Father’s Day painting for several reasons. Paul’s father, Louis-Auguste, cofounded a banking firm that made his family rich. Although Cézanne was allowed to study art, his father pushed Paul into studying law. In 1861, however, Paul broke with his father and became a full-time artist. Although Louis-Auguste failed to understand Paul’s art, he eventually reconciled with his son and provided the financial support that allowed Paul to pursue his ground-breaking style.

By 1866, Louis-Auguste agreed to sit for a portrait—no small commitment given Paul’s slow painting style, which was better suited to inanimate objects such as fruit and mountains. One look at any portrait of Paul’s wife—dour and unsmiling—and you can feel the pain of anyone enduring the marathon sessions required. At some point, a bored Louis-Auguste picked up a newspaper and began to read. Resigned to his father’s impatience, Paul painted the newspaper in, but with one mischievous difference. Instead of his father’s preferred conservative paper, Paul put the more radical L'Événement in his hands. So, a paper Louis-Auguste wouldn’t be caught dead reading now rests in his hands for all eternity for all the world to see. I imagine Louis-Auguste seeing the final portrait, noticing the switch, and sighing the sigh all fathers sigh at the sight of their child poking fun at them, right before they smile with the knowledge that their child has found their own way in the world. For capturing all those tiny moments of fatherhood in one portrait, I’ll take Cézanne’s portrait of his bristly, but loving father any day. Happy Father’s Day!

[Image: Paul Cézanne. Portrait of the Artist’s Father, 1866.]

Related Articles

Scientists discover what caused the worst mass extinction ever

How a cataclysm worse than what killed the dinosaurs destroyed 90 percent of all life on Earth.

Credit: Ron Miller
Surprising Science

While the demise of the dinosaurs gets more attention as far as mass extinctions go, an even more disastrous event called "the Great Dying” or the “End-Permian Extinction” happened on Earth prior to that. Now scientists discovered how this cataclysm, which took place about 250 million years ago, managed to kill off more than 90 percent of all life on the planet.

Keep reading Show less

Why we're so self-critical of ourselves after meeting someone new

A new study discovers the “liking gap” — the difference between how we view others we’re meeting for the first time, and the way we think they’re seeing us.

New acquaintances probably like you more than you think. (Photo by Simone Joyner/Getty Images)
Surprising Science

We tend to be defensive socially. When we meet new people, we’re often concerned with how we’re coming off. Our anxiety causes us to be so concerned with the impression we’re creating that we fail to notice that the same is true of the other person as well. A new study led by Erica J. Boothby, published on September 5 in Psychological Science, reveals how people tend to like us more in first encounters than we’d ever suspect.

Keep reading Show less

NASA launches ICESat-2 into orbit to track ice changes in Antarctica and Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice
popular

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

Keep reading Show less