Madame Cézanne, Metropolitan Museum, November 19, 2014–March 15, 2015
by Jai Imbrey, PhD.
Cézanne made 29 portraits of his mistress and eventual wife, Hortense Fiquet, yet in most she is profoundly absent. He reduced his bride to nothing more than “…dust, color on canvas, and an image,” writes Zola in his novel Le Chef d’œuve, loosely based on Cézanne’s Life1. “Her portrait is none other than an insurmountable wall between them,” the author laments. Yet, in the Metropolitan Museum’s brilliant exhibition, Madame Cézanne, curated by Dita Amory, this “wall” reveals itself to be nothing less than a pictorial revolution.
Since ancient Rome, portraiture has been chiefly about the individual. It has focused on facial character, enhanced by attributes of status, rank, and profession (or lack there of) with reference to notable achievements and interests. In the great French academic circles from which Cézanne had begun to detach himself, portraiture ranked second only to history painting, the calling card of all great artists. Portraits were about physiognomy, whether real or idealized, and preserving a likeness for future generations. Cézanne’s portraits of his wife mark a radical departure, culminating in the gradual erasure of the face—effectively closing the window of the soul and personality—in favor of mass, color and form. Here, formalism trumps individualism.
By grouping all four of Cézanne’s magnificent portraits of his wife garbed in a red dress on a single wall in the Lehman Wing, the curator allows the the viewer to gain a more nuanced understanding of the artist’s approach. Painted between 1889-1890 in an unknown order, this series shows Madame Cézanne in a cherry colored dress against a light blue background. In each, she wears her dark hair severely pulled back and parted down the middle, holding her hands loosely in her lap. The portraits range from relatively representational, with views of the artist’s studio in the Metropolitan version, to the highly abstract Museu de Arte of São Paulo portrait, featuring no props, not even the chair on which she sits. In all of them, Hortense’s expression remains impassive with a touch of resentment. Oh, those long, long hours of sitting!
In these works, Cézanne has omitted or dashed off the customary details of hairstyle, jewelry and dress that denote status or taste. Is that ruffled thing in Hortense’s hand a rose? Nothing makes these omissions more apparent than casting an eye down the neighboring hall to Ingres’s famous Portrait of the Princesse de Broglie(1853), where the artist has painstakingly captured the sheen of her azure satin gown, her gleaming hair and rings that draw attention to each perfectly manicured finger. What remains in Cézanne’s portraits are the solid folds of her gown, the myriad tonalities of red in relation to the soft harmonies of the blue wall and the sense of her physical form coming forward in space. By stripping away the external trappings and focusing on mass, Hortense has become almost a generic presence, a vessel for the red dress, an abstraction of womanhood, and an armature for the artist’s experiment in form.
While Cézanne does not pay much attention to mundane details, his attentiveness to brushstroke and color are on par with Chardin, the great 18th century still-life master. His painting is largely about process. It took him forever. He painted on canvases primed with off-white, often with a yellowish cast. He then drew in bold strokes with a carbon-based pencil to set up the composition, but most of the painting was carried out a la prima, (painting directly on the canvas). After blocking out the contours, he returned to make multiple adjustments, often allowing for the pale under layers of paint to emerge, constantly varying his brushstrokes for texture and accent.
Perhaps the most compelling work in the show is Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, an exploration of color harmonies played out though the contrasting blocks of blues and greens with the crimson and pinks of the chair. Note how these two color chords come together in the face and hands to create smooth transitions between surfaces. This painting reads more like a Diebenkorn landscape with planes of color than a sensate form. In a major departure from such painters as Courbet and Renoir, all of the portrait’s sensuality lies in the vibrant play of color rather than in the rendition of flesh.
When the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke saw this portrait in a 1907 Paris exhibition, he dashed off a letter to his wife Clara declaring that he could even feel its effects in his sleep and in his blood. “For if one says, this is a red armchair (and it is the first and ultimate red armchair in the history of painting)…,” Rilke insists, “it is that only because it contains latently, within itself, an experienced sum of color, which whatever it may be, reinforces and confirms it in this red.”
The show displays many views of Madame Cézanne, peacefully reading, sitting in the conservatory, in a garden, often occupied with her work, weary, or staring dully into space. Much has been made of the hardships she experienced as the artist’s wife and mother of his only son, never fully accepted by his family, moving constantly, ignored, and strapped for money. Cézanne was difficult, intensely private and moody. He could not tolerate that anyone watch him at work. Yet through it all, Hortense sat for him. Nothing indicates that she shared a rich intellectual life with her husband, and few of her own letters survive to prove the contrary. According to Matisse, she appears to have been, “a solid, patient fixture that offered all the comforts of a well-constructed table.”2
All this may be true, but ultimately for me this is not the subject of the work. Cézanne chose to paint Hortense because she was simply there, tranquil, free of charge and, above all, deeply familiar. In this way, Cézanne’s paintings of his wife are perhaps better understood as human still lifes rather than portraits proper. He could explore through her stolid face the incidence of light and the profound working of tonalities at his leisure. Perhaps Cézanne most clearly revealed his purpose in one of the rare Hortense portraits omitted from the show. In Madame Cézanne from the Barnes Collection (a work that is not allowed to travel), also painted around 1889, Cézanne left out most of the details of his wife’s face, neglecting in fact to include the entire left side. Hortense emerges as a massive black form relieved only by with the blurry white oval of her face and barely finished hands.
To understand Cézanne‘s modernity, you have only to go down the street to the Frick Collection to view Sargent’s arresting Portrait of Lady Agnew, on loan from the National Gallery of Scotland. It is hard to believe that she was painted within four years of the Cézanne’s Barnes portrait. Lady Agnew’s gaze and pose are singularly new and direct, yet for all that, Sargent’s approach dutifully follows in the great English academic tradition of Joshua Reynolds, kowtowing to the rich aristocrats of the time and displaying them in all their finery. While, humble and boring Madame Cézanne announces Matisse, Kokoshka and DeKoonig. She is the building block for the great cubist portraits of Picasso and Braques. She comes to stand for a new form of beauty, not that of society’s darlings or the fleshy sirens of Renoir, but the implacable truths of everyday life and the eternal allure of forms defined by color and shadow.
1. Zola, Emile. The Masterpiece. Trans. Thomas Walton, Oxford, Uk. ; Oxford University Press: (1889) 2008, 239.2.
2. Matisse, Henri, Letter to Andre’ Rouveyre, Venice, June 3, 1947 in Matisse, Rouveyre, Correspondance, ed. Hanne Finsen, Paris, Flammarion, 2001, 445. Note that Matisse owned a portrait of Madame Cezanne.