This portrait is cropped from around the shoulders and Cezanne is dressed in a thick coat which he would regularly be seen in, whether working or otherwise. His look would appear fierce in many of his self portraits, and his hair had slowly thinned over a number of years. He would now be entirely bald across the main centre of his head, leaving just some thick hair around the back and sides. His beard was beginning to grey by this stage but was fairly smartly trimmed. The lighting in this piece is fairly dark, as is his clothing, and it may have been in autumn or winter that the work was created. He loved all of the different seasons, and saw opportunities within them all for his work, mainly through the changing conditions of the outdoors around him. Within this portrait he does allow enough light to come in across his forehead and down the right hand side of his face with the opposing side darkened and turned away from us.
The painting is dated at 1883-1884 and is fairly small at 25 × 25 cm. It is possible that it might have originally been larger before being cropped down, but this has never been confirmed. Part of the theory behind that is that part of the artwork is unfinished just around the bottom of the canvas and it might have been that Cezanne chose not to complete a larger composition and so cut away to just work on this more focused piece. The original French title that he would have given to the piece was Portrait de l’artiste regardant par-dessus son épaule, although in some cases it is actually later owners or exhibitors who name items in order for them to be differentiated from each other, as he also produced a large number of self portraits across his career.
The piece changed hands several times between different Paris-based collectors and its current owner has held onto it since 1957, though most likely it would have been passed down through their family. An interesting fact about this work is that Alberto Giacometti made a pencil sketch of it in 1937, underlining the love that he had for the technical brilliance of Cezanne. Discussion around the painting often centres on the wide range of subtle tones that can be viewed up close which will surprise many who from a distance will assume otherwise. This was one of the trademarks of his style and allowed him to achieve some incredible detail with such a subtle touch.