Fans of Cezanne paintings recognize various motifs that recur in his work – arrays of fruit, a plaster cast of Cupid, the view of Mont Sainte-Victoire (see some of these famous Cezanne paintings). One frequent theme, however, has not received its due: portraits of his wife.
This changed with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Madame Cezanne, the first show of drawings, watercolors and paintings of his wife, Hortense Fiquet (1850-1922).
Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) created 29 Madame Cezanne portraits, more portraits than of any other model (except himself) during his prolific and lengthy career.
An astounding 24 of these Madame Cezanne paintings are exhibited in this gem (a somewhat sleeper) of a show.
Why Has Madame Cezanne Been Unknown?
Cezanne met her in Paris in 1869, and three years later, she was modelling for him (see Young Woman with Loosened Hair, right). Fearing disapproval and loss of financial support from his overbearing father, Cezanne closeted his relationship with Hortense and his out-of-wedlock son, Paul. It was 17 years later that they married.
Hortense didn’t fare well with her husband’s friends or critics, either:
- some referred to her as “La Boule” (the ball);
- the art historian John Rewald contended that she neither influenced nor understood her husband’s art; and
- the English art historian Roger Fry dismissed “that sour bitch of a Madame” as the reason her husband’s landscape paintings were unsuccessful.
(History doesn’t record whether Fry gave Hortense credit for any of the successful paintings, but an educated guess suggests not).
And then there were critics who cited her stiffness, impentrable gaze and unsmiling demeanor.
What the Exhibition Reveals
Because there are so few relics of Hortense Fiquet’s life – for instance, only two letters she wrote have survived – there was ample room for conjecture.
Even if Hortense did not comprehend her husband’s aesthetics (and she was far from alone on that front), she deserves enormous credit for her commitment as a model, a sacrifice that was even acknowledged by John Rewald:
Cezanne rarely painted any other woman, and it must have entailed considerable sacrifice on the part of his lively and talkative wife to lend herself to the endless sittings he inflicted on her. (1)
Further, we know through the French art dealer Ambroise Vollard that Cezanne would often pause 20 minutes between brushstokes.
Who can hold a smile that long?
Madame Cezanne Paintings
Viewing these paintings, drawings and watercolors as a group reveals an inescapable tenderness in the attention taken in portraying her. That he perceives form in terms of color relationships is clearly revealled in Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair.
Hues of blue, gray, green, violet and brown interrelate so freely in the canvas that Hortense’s flesh tones hint of the same palette as her jacket bodice and the patterned wallpaper. The loose, fluid quality of the brushstrokes are juxtaposed against her implacable, stoic gaze; with any other demeanor, she would compete with the other energy in the canvas.
Instead, she is secondary to the imposing red chair and her voluminous striped skirt. It feels more calculated than coincidental.
Which of these portraits do you find most complling – which reveals more of Hortense Fiquet’s personality, if any do?
These three Madame Cezanne paintings alone are reason enough to visit this show, which runs through March 15, 2015. (And if you’re at the Met, use the ebook, Famous Paintings at the Met to explore other masterpieces there!)
Stay tuned for more reasons to see this show in the next post – the four “Red Dress” paintings, exhibited together for the first time since they left Cezanne’s studio!
(1) Madame Cezanne by Dita Amory, page 10.