The poet Rainer Maria Rilke saw the retrospective of Paul Cézanne at the 1907 Autumn Salon in Paris. Overcome by Cézanne’s “infinitely responsive conscience,”1 recognizable in the painter’s shifting fragments across the canvas, he returned to the exhibition daily until its close. In his writings on the exhibition, Rilke’s most jubilant praise was lauded to Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair (ca. 1877).
Already, even after standing with such unremitting attention in front of the great color scheme of the woman in the red armchair, it is becoming as irretrievable in my memory as a figure with many digits. And yet I memorized it, digit by digit. In my feeling, the consciousness of their presence has become a heightening which I can feel even in my sleep; my blood describes it within in me….2
Rilke’s description, famously captured in letters to his wife, may seem overly emotional and self-absorbed, but he goes on to lend astute observations of the simultaneously confounding and mesmerizing effect Cézanne’s work had upon the avant-garde painters of the early twentieth century. “It’s as if every part were aware of all the others—it participates that much; that much adjustment and recognition is happening in it; that’s how each daub plays its part in maintaining equilibrium and in producing it; just as the whole picture finally keeps reality in equilibrium.”3
Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair is positioned as the first painting in the Met Museum’s Madame Cézanne (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), through March 15. A small painting of only 28.5 x 22 in., it nonetheless has an arresting effect, made no less so by the knowledge that I was standing before an image that had equally transfixed the great Austrian poet, among others. That same year, Pablo Picasso was completing the infamous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, a work that would forever change form on the two-dimensional surface. The next year Georges Braque traveled to L’Estaque, where Cézanne had also painted many landscapes, to lay the groundwork for Cubism. They referred to Cézanne as “the father of us all,” and there was no painter of the Post-Impressionist period to have such singular impact upon modern art.
But Cézanne’s influence has been most often attributable to his landscapes and still lifes, painted from about 1890 and until his death in 1906. There is less written in regard to his portraits, of which no subject was repeated more than his wife, Marie-Hortense Fiquet. For the first time since the artist’s death over a hundred years ago, the Met has pulled together 24 of her 29 portraits (two are in the non-lending Barnes Collection, one in Zurich, and two others are lost) along with sketchbooks, drawings, and small watercolors. This seminal exhibition, touted by some critics as the must-see of the year, is a ground-breaking contribution to scholarship on Cézanne that has only recently begun to treat the role of his wife and model with more compassion and proper consideration.
In short, Cézanne met Hortense in 1869 while an art student in Paris. He was from the bourgeois class, she was a poor bookbinder who may have also modeled. In 1870, Cézanne installed Hortense in nearby L’Estaque while he returned home to Aix-en-Provence at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, and at this time his mother, to whom he held a stronger bond than his father, discovered the affair. Cézanne’s father, who also provided the struggling artist and his secret family with a needed allowance, would not have looked upon a marriage to poor, uneducated Hortense favorably. By 1872, she had bore the artist his only child, Paul fils, and the three moved from city to country, and from apartment to apartment, frequently. The secrecy went on for seventeen years and mandated that while Cézanne return home to his beloved Aix, Hortense and young Paul often remained in Paris. Conjecture is that Cézanne and Hortense finally married in order to legalize their son’s legitimacy.
Fiquet-Cézanne’s character, class status, and relevancy to her husband’s work were attacked in accounts by Cézanne’s friends and admirers. Art historians thereby have treated her with equal dismissal and contempt, most notably by Cézanne’s primary biographer, John Rewald, who claimed for instance she chose to keep an appointment with her dressmaker rather than pay respects at her husband’s deathbed. However, Cézanne’s biography is rife with incomplete information, and there are virtually no textual records from his wife’s point of view, save for two letters. No letters between Cézanne and Hortense survive. All we know of her irrefutably is that her trade was as a bookbinder (ironically portending the patriarchal literature that would later disavow her) and the seemingly disinterested assessment by her husband that she “loved Switzerland and lemonade.”
In absence of letters or diaries and with only second-hand accounts that were often conflicting, Cézanne’s work resists biographical approaches. Yet in the investigations on the portraits of Madame Cézanne, misogynist art historians have certainly tried. Sullen, aloof, unattractive, disinterested, such displeasing assessments made toward the sitter have been connected to her unhappy union with the painter. (While in the viewing gallery, a woman behind me dismissively chuckled “She looks grumpy.”) But the dour appearance of his wife is no more consistent than the background, positioning, or even physiognomy with which he treated the paintings over their twenty-year execution. They have historically served to evidence how little Cézanne loved Hortense, and that she was the source of his unhappiness, wastefully spending his money, disdaining his eccentric character, and generally proving too intellectually inferior to support yet alone understand his genius.
Comparatively little is analyzed in terms of the artist’s effect on his wife, and not near enough to warrant in that “biographical” methodology the assumption that it’s no wonder she looked so “grumpy.” He was ill-tempered, paranoid, reclusive and had an aversion to physical contact. Fits of rage isolated him from friends, and deep anxiety plagued his process. It is known that Hortense read to him during his bouts of insomnia, and sat for his portraits for hours—he notoriously took up to twenty minutes between brush strokes, and demanded his subjects not speak. And as for showing no interest in her husband’s work, we know that she had come to assist him in managing the sudden interest in his paintings and requests for exhibitions during the final decade of his life.
The push-pull dynamics of Cézanne’s abstraction, in all his portraits, seem to reveal his legendarily difficult temperament and anxiety over human contact, which he both craved and resisted. Cézanne held his wife at arm’s length as he painted her image, fixing her at a reassuring distance while holding her close enough to observe her exhaustively for hours. The most credible revisionist research of Madame Cézanne is seen in Susan Sidlauskas’s Cézanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense (University of California Press, 2009) and she suggests that to think of the images of Hortense as “inexpressive”―the adjective most often applied to them―is to profoundly misunderstand them, because they reveal how Cézanne encountered his world psychologically. And it’s with no other sitter—not his son Paul, nor his mother and sisters—that he sustained such a human relationship in painting. He said that he “painted a head as if it were a door,” meaning that it was not aspects of personality or biography that mattered, but everything was subordinate to form, to his unique reordering of the world through his own precise science melded to the tradition of painting—and in these works his wife was his tireless collaborator.
I had not given much thought to the portraits of Cézanne’s wife—or really any of his portraits—until a friend and poet allowed me to read a prose story she had written in homage to Fiquet-Cézanne, prompting me to complete a video-performance last summer based on the prose and its subject. The research into that piece led me to Sidlauskus’s book, which was published the same year curator Dita Amory conceived the Met exhibition. Something is in the air about Madame Cézanne; beyond her obvious importance to her husband’s life and work, she deserves recognition for herself as one of many, many forgotten women who supported their difficult, genius partners as well as a testament to patriarchal nomenclature. No one will ever know or understand the nature of feeling between the Cézannes, but the portraits trace the inexorable distance and closeness that occurs between lovers, the unknowable truth of an intimate relationship to the outside world — even as it eludes its players — and how women in history are defined, contained, and too often misrepresented.