Erasing Portraiture: Cézanne’s wife as “Dust, color on canvas, and an image”

Madame Cézanne, Metropolitan Museum, November 19, 2014–March 15, 2015

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839­1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress Oil on canvas, 35 x 27 ½ in. (89 x 70 cm) Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand
Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839­1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress Oil on canvas, 35 x 27 ½ in. (89 x 70 cm) Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand

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!

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, Montauban 1780–1867 Paris) Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn (1825–1860), Princesse de Broglie 1851–53 Oil on canvas, 47 3/4 x 35 3/4 in. (121.3 x 90.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, Montauban 1780–1867 Paris) Joséphine-Éléonore-Marie-Pauline de Galard de Brassac de Béarn (1825–1860), Princesse de Broglie 1851–53 Oil on canvas, 47 3/4 x 35 3/4 in. (121.3 x 90.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

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.

Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839–1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair About 1877 Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 55.9 cm (28 1/2 x 22 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Robert Tree Paine, 2nd
Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839–1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair About 1877 Oil on canvas, 72.4 x 55.9 cm (28 1/2 x 22 in.) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Bequest of Robert Tree Paine, 2nd

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.

Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839­1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850­1922) in a Red Dress 1888­90 Oil on canvas, 45 7/8 x 35 1/4 in. (116.5 x 89.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1962
Paul Cézanne (French, Aix-en-Provence 1839­1906 Aix-en-Provence) Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850­1922) in a Red Dress 1888­90 Oil on canvas, 45 7/8 x 35 1/4 in. (116.5 x 89.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1962

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.

Why we can’t have enough of those beautiful Victorians?

Pre-Raphaelites Legacy: British Art and Design, Metropolitan Museum (New York), May 20-October 26, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

Those wistful gazes and fiery locks, those petulant maidens in their rose gardens … no wonder we often see Pre-Raphaelite art as a guilty pleasure. In this day of post-modernism’s anti-aesthetic, it is hard to admit our attraction to its voluptuous beauty. The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “The Pre-Raphaelite Legacy: British Art and Design” plays on our yearning for the chivalry of a distant age, unabashedly appealing to a generation hooked on Game of Thrones. It makes us long for beautifully crafted objects of lasting value in familiar settings. At the same time, this intimate show reveals just how much the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was prepared to flaunt convention and refine the role of the artist. It invites parallels with the contemporary conception of the artist as transcending genres and erasing the boundaries between painting, sculpture, furniture, music and the printed word.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899): Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 20 3/16 x 17 5/16 in. (51.3 x 44 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882) and Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899): Lady Lilith, 1867. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 20 3/16 x 17 5/16 in. (51.3 x 44 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Housed within the Lehman wing, the exhibition makes you feel as if you have just walked into a London mansion such as the Leighton House in Holland Park. The domestic setting creates an immersive experience, allowing you to almost touch the fine paintings and furnishings that were such an integral part of this movement. Setting the tone, Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s Lady Lilith, (ca. 1868) draws all eyes with the magnetism of a celebrity sitting incognito in a boutique hotel. She has the familiar flawless skin and tumbling russet hair idealized in todays countless photoshopped magazine covers. Yet this Lilith prefigures Eve as Adam’s first wife, an ancient Talmudic woman associated with the primal danger of female beauty. Lilith’s closely cropped body seems to pour out of the canvas while her gaze remains self-absorbed and aloof. Her cruel red lips suggest a Victorian dominatrix.

Philip Webb (1831–1915): Cabinet (The Backgammon Players), Painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1861. Painted pine, oil paint on leather, brass, copper. H. 73 in. (185.4 cm), W. 45 in. (114.3 cm), D. 21 in. (53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Philip Webb (1831–1915): Cabinet (The Backgammon Players), Painted by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898). Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., 1861. Painted pine, oil paint on leather, brass, copper. H. 73 in. (185.4 cm), W. 45 in. (114.3 cm), D. 21 in. (53.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The poet and critic Algernon Charles Swindburne called her, a “serene and sublime sorceress,” with “no life but the body.”[1] Like many of his fellow Victorians, he obsessed over women as either lily white virgins or bold temptresses. Here, Rosetti contrasts her alabaster skin with the blood red of her rose and ribbon. In testament to the Pre-Raphaelite belief in the synthesis of the arts, he also warns of Lilith’s fatal allure in his sonnet Body’s Beauty. Further alarm bells sound when you consider that Lilith was based on Rossetti’s mistress, Fanny Cornforth, who was also his ‘housekeeper’ after his wife’s death. Later, he repainted her face in the image of the model Alice Wilding, possibly at the suggestion of his young patron, the shipping magnate Fredrick Richard Leyland. Today, it is difficult to see Rossetti and his cohorts as rebels. Yet, early critics declared their work “abhorrent” and the “ product of a diseased imagination.”[2] When the Pre-Raphaelites were formed in 1848, they strongly rejected the classical British academic tradition as rigid and vacuous. Focusing instead on Medieval and Renaissance traditions prior to the 16th century, they emphasized brilliant color as well as detail and line over chiaroscuro and classical models/modeling. Founded by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Rossetti, the brotherhood soon attracted the Oxford theology students Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. The group worked with a number of distinctive models such as Elizabeth Sidall, Fanny Cornforth and Maria Zambaco. Whether as muses or wives, fellow artists and poets, these striking women with their wide-set light eyes and chiseled full lips fueled the groups’ notoriety.

In the Lehman’s handsome salon, it is hard to apprehend the ugliness of the new Victorian industrial age, full of soot, clanking noise and mass-produced goods. Smog – known as the London Particular- was often so great that you could barely see a few feet ahead. Rejecting the unchecked expansion of manufacturing, the Pre-Raphaelites favored hand-crafted artifacts that reflected centuries of tradition. Their new found pleasure in artistry recalls our own age’s fascination with street art, vintage clothes, hand-made crafts and even micro-breweries, manned not by poor immigrants but by Ivy-League graduates.

The Met’s show features the ultimate in hand-made collaborative design in the form of a Philip Webb and Edward Burne-Jones cabinet made of painted leather and wood with brass and copper fittings. On the doors, a man and woman leisurely play backgammon in a style akin to Renaissance painted marriage chests, known as cassone. In addition to furniture, Morris’s company sold in its elegant Oxford street store, “work of genuine and beautiful character,” including exquisite textiles, carpets, wall-papers, stained glass and ceramics.[3] Morris, its savvy owner and director, sympathized with socialist reforms favoring the poor. Ironically such an expensive piece of hand-made furniture would have only been accessible to the most wealthy. Like Rosetti, Morris wrote poetry and collected books and rare manuscripts. At the end of his life he founded Kelmscott Press Books, notable for its extraordinary engraved bindings which can be seen in the show.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898): The Love Song, 1868–77. Oil on canvas, 45 x 61 3/8 in. (114.3 x 155.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898): The Love Song, 1868–77. Oil on canvas, 45 x 61 3/8 in. (114.3 x 155.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition’s great masterpiece, known as Le Chant d’Amour by Edward Burne-Jones, with its languid figures in medieval costume, may appear staged and overly saccharine to the modern eye. Even back in 1877, the London Times poured scorn upon the painting, calling it “the strange and unwholesome fruits of hopeless wanderings in the mazes of mysticism and medievalism.” Fortunately for the Metropolitan, art critic Roger Fry, who also acted as curator from 1904-1910, championed this work. Taking almost ten years to complete (1868-1877), it depicts a lovelorn knight resting on a parapet while he contemplates an innocent maiden playing an organ as Cupid pumps the bellows. Set in a Venetian-style landscape inspired by Giorgione, Burne-Jones captured a mood of wistful reverie. The parapet lends a story-book quality that sets the tale at a remove. Known for his vivid palette and the precision of his brushstrokes, Burne-Jones had once declared, “I love to treat my pictures as a goldsmith does his jewels.”[4]

The painting was inspired by a Breton love song, (Helas, je sais un chant d’amour) composed by the artist while listening to his gifted wife Giorgiana play the piano. The critic Walter Pater, who admired the Pre-Raphaelites, wrote that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music”. [5] With his emphasis on mood and atmosphere, Burne-Jones may well have aspired to elevate his art to the level of music, which was seen as the most abstract, formal and pure of the creative expressions.

While the show is tiny, it draws from over 11 departments, marking an important interdisciplinary trend in recent exhibitions. This form of curating exploits the museum’s own stellar collection while bringing new meaning and context to its pieces. It comes in the wake of the great joint exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites and the Victorian Avant-Guard at the Tate and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Yet through its intelligent curating by Constance McPhee and Alison Hokanson, it manages, in one quick stroke, to lift the lid on a beautiful lost world and whet our appetite for binge viewing.


[1] Rosetti, William Michael and Algernon Swinburne. Notes on the Royal Academy Exhibition 1898, quoted by Prettejohn, Elizabeth, Rossetti and his Circle, London and Princeton, 1997, p. 30.

[2] Harry Quilter, a critic for the Times, wrote scathing reviews, see, Quilter, Harry, Preferences in Art, Life and Literature. London, 1892, 6; ibid., Art Journal, 1864, p. 170.

[3] Rossetti, William Michael, Ruskin: /Rossetti:Preraphaelism : Papers 1854 to 1862, London, 1899, pp. 268-70.

[4] De Lisle, 1904, pp. 170-171

[5] Pater, Walter. The School of Giorgione, in Lawrence Evans, Ed. The Renaissance, Chicago, 1978, p. 139.