The four Paul Cezanne paintings of his wife wearing a red, shawl-collared dress provide unusual insight into his painterly process: although Madame Cezanne is immediately recognizable by her mask-like face, almond-shaped eyes and slicked-back hair, none of the Red Dress paintings is intended as a portrait to capture her likeness.
Paul Cezanne. Madame Cezanne in a Yellow Chair, ca. 1888-1890. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8" by 25 5/8". Fondation Beyeler, Basel.
Although art historians don't unanimously agree on the order in which Cezanne created the Red Dress paintings, most concur that the largest - the Met's version - was his final iteration.
These works can be divided into two pairs according to how Hortense Fiquet is seated: in the Art Institute of Chicago and the Basel works, she is turned to the right; in the Met and Sao Paulo versions, she is seated more frontally.
Madame Cezanne in a Yellow Chair - Basel and Chicago versions
The Basel version (above, left) appears to be the most quickly painted of these four Paul Cezanne paintings. The underpainting and brush underdrawing are immediately visible, and white ground shows in her hands, dress, and face as well as in the yellow chair.
Yet Dita Amory, the curator of the Madame Cezanne exhibition, notes that details were added after the initial paint had cured: these include the dark band atop the wainscot, which is sustantially wider on the left of the painting.
Paul Cezanne. Madame Cezanne in a Yellow Chair, ca. 1888-90. Oil on canvas, 31 7/8" by 25 5/8". Art Institute of Chicago.
In the Chicago work (right), Madame Cezanne is no longer gazing directly at the viewer, and isn't sitting as convincingly on the chair; she almost seems to be standing. Her head, face and body are flatter and more stylized, making this version less natural than the Basel work.
Again, the wainscoting is heavier on the left than the right, as if to counterbalance the heft of Hortense's figure.
Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress - Sao Paolo version
The Sao Paolo version is a sketchy, candid portrait that lacks the yellow armchair and wainscot of the three other versions. Here, the sculptural aspects of Hortense Fiquet's dress are more imposing - and seemingly of more interest to Cezanne - than her face and head.
As with the other subjects Cezanne painted repeatedly, Madame Cezanne serves as a springboard for exploration and experimentation with color and tone - these are not portraits as the art world had known them.
Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress, ca. 1888-90. Oil on canvas, 35" by 27 1/2". Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo Assis Chateaubriand.
Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress - Met version
The largest and most spatially complex of the Red Dress paintings - and one of the most famous paintings by Cezanne - is the Met's monumental Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress.
It would be hard to view Cezanne's other three Red Dress paintings as anything but grand studies for this masterpiece.
Cezanne introduces here an elaborate background with ornate draperies, fireplace tongs, and a hint of a mirrored mantelpiece.
Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress roils with instability and motion, and is rife with contrasts:
- areas of underpainting in her dress are juxtaposed with fine details of the floral curtain;
- the right side of her face is calm and assured, while the shadowed left side is anxious and even unsettled, as her arched eyebrow suggests; and
- the angles of the wainscot band, the mirror, and the yellow armchair was impossible to reconcile.
Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress, ca. 1888-90. Oil on canvas, 45 7/8" by 35 1/4". Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This is the first time these Paul Cezanne paintings have been together since they were in his studio, and it's pure wonder to see this reunion. Do you agree with the opinion that the Met version is the final and most compelling portrait? Do tell.
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