On ViewThe Metropolitan Museum Of Art
November 19, 2014 – March 15, 2015
This exhibition of Paul Cézanne’s images of his most frequently portrayed model, his wife, Hortense Fiquet (1850 – 1922), includes 24 of the 29 known paintings of her, three watercolors, fourteen drawings, and three sketchbooks. These materials are brought together for the first time; the show is thus a rare opportunity to view them as a group, as no two of the paintings are alike. Look, if you will, from “Madame Cézanne Leaning on a Table” (1873 – 74), the first of these portraits, to “Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory” (1891), the last. If one didn’t know better, one would be hard-pressed to accept that they address the same subject.
Surely this once-in-a-lifetime gathering of her portraits deserves a better space than they are given, sequestered in a smallish room in the Robert Lehman Wing and spilling out unceremoniously into the hallway. The fully illustrated catalogue does them more justice, featuring essays by seven writers, including Philippe Cézanne, the painter’s great-grandson, which discuss in full detail Fiquet’s relationship with her husband, the procedures used by her husband to make these pictures, and the influence of these paintings on Juan Gris, Henri Matisse, and a host of other later artists. Thanks to his correspondence and friendships with the Impressionists, and the partial-portrait of him in The Masterpiece by his childhood friend, Émile Zola, we know a great deal about both Cézanne’s ways of thinking about art and his marriage. What then is surprising, but perhaps not unexpected, is the difficulty of understanding these visual materials.
Cézanne, it is fair to say, is the most universally admired modernist painter. Certainly we share the view that he was a very great artist. But it is also the case that all evidence points to the conclusion that he was an impossible man, especially in dealings with his wife, behaving in ways that nowadays we rightly find deplorable. Only rarely did they live together—and only in 1886, 14 years after their son Paul was born, did he legitimize their marriage and make her financially secure.
In her catalogue essay, curator Dita Amory credits art historian Susan Sidlauskas with bringing attention to the importance of Cézanne’s portraits of his wife via her comprehensive 2009 study, “Cézanne’s Other.” As the catalogue points out, the overwhelming tendency of prior commentators was to marginalize these portraits in favor of his still lifes and landscapes, implicitly denying that Hortense had any positive influence on his art. Nor does Cézanne’s correspondence suggest that he shared his ideas about painting with her. May we presume that he depicted her more frequently than anyone else simply because she was a convenient submissive subject? The catalogue for this exhibition doesn’t really answer this question. His pictures of her were often said to be mask-like in their detachment. As Alex Danchev writes in his recent biography, Cézanne: A Life:
The accounts of Cézanne’s friends are all about what Cézanne had to put up with. Historically, Hortense lacks allies who wrote letters. Biographically, she seems immune to treatment. Until very recently she was completely ignored. The vogue for the “significant other” passed her by. On the contrary, by omission or commission, Hortense became the “insignificant other.”
Hilary Spurling, whose searching catalogue essay builds upon her biographies of Henri Matisse to compare the roles of Amélie Matisse and Hortense Cézanne, puts the best possible spin on the relationship between Cézanne’s life and art:
Cézanne’s contact with other people became increasingly morose, superficial, and one-sided in his last years, when the devouring love that could not be shown to another human being found its purest, most intense and durable expression in his work.
The proposition here is that Cézanne’s working traits—his extreme difficulty in finishing, his refusal to let anyone (except his wife) watch him, his general cantankerousness—may mark the personality of a misanthrope, but that this unloving, unlovable man contained a “devouring love” expressible only in his artistic practice. This seems a romantic reach, a means to reconcile the persona of a man only interested in himself and in art with the sheer magnitude of the art in which his wife appears—a means to love the man, as well as his art.
It seems more reasonable to imagine that these portraits, so different from anything that came before them, document the painter’s use of his wife—not as an endlessly fascinating subject or object of beauty, but as a quotidian yet reliable presence with which he could explore, develop, and record his radical ideas about painting. To this end, the lack of a recognizable likeness of Hortense in the paintings (less so in the finely executed pencil drawings) forces us to contemplate the nature of their strange and inexplicable appeal. This is especially true of the showstopper, the four consecutive paintings of Hortense Fiquet in a Red Dress arranged in a series against a deep blue wall. Perhaps one searches in these faces for a sign of tenderness or other emotion that would humanize the irascible painter who dispensed with any conventional semblance to reality. Meyer Schapiro found some gentle pathos and weariness in the example from Brazil. Then again, maybe Hortense was just tired of her endless sitting.
Certainly we can trace the development of Cézanne’s art within the group as a whole, from the impressionistic impasto of the earlier examples to the later non-finito canvases with their delicate washes of color, visible charcoal drawing, and thinned, glaze-like layers of paint. We are accustomed to seeing the roots of Cubism and abstraction in his landscapes, but not so much in his portraits, so it is something of a revelation to see again and again the simple geometry of a door, the pure oval of a woman’s face, the abstraction of features in highly deliberate brushwork. These pictures themselves are deeply challenging, both because they are so visually suggestive, and because, even given everything that we know about Hortense, her portraits continue to evade commentary or interpretation. If they hold their mysteries, this exhibition decisively confirms that Madame Cézanne was—and is—a most significant “other.” That in the process of painting his wife, Cézanne turned portraiture on its head seems merely an afterthought, if a revolutionary one.
Dita Amory, “Newly Seeing the Familiar” and Hilary Spurling, “Cézanne and Matisse Paint Their Wives,” in Dita Amory, Madame Cézanne (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014), 159.
Alex Danchev, Cézanne: A Life (New York: Pantheon, 2012), 161.
Susan Sidlauskas, Cézanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).