Madame Cézanne: An Act of Love


The work of Paul Cézanne is a study in the art of practice, of painting the same subject over and over and over again—not to attain perfection, but rather to experiment with color and the process of painting. Cézanne is more widely known as the early father of Cubism and for his paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. What is less well known is that he painted twenty-nine portraits of Hortense Fiquet, his companion, wife, and model of twenty years. The curators at the Met have brought together twenty-four of those twenty-nine portraits from cities such as Chicago, New York City, London, Paris, and Berlin for a new exhibit, Madame Cézanne—on display from November 19, 2014 until March 15, 2015—to present the French Post-Impressionist’s experiment with shape and color. In doing so, the curators ask viewers to consider the kind of relationship a painter has with his subject—in this case, the relationship of Monsieur and Madame Cézanne.

On the outer walls of the exhibit hang oil portrait after oil portrait, painted between the years 1873 and 1890. In several, Madame Cézanne sits in an armchair in Cézanne’s apartment; in others she is set against a uniform color background; in another she is sitting in a conservatory. In all, Hortense wears a modest, dark gray blue dress. People walk from portrait to portrait, pausing briefly to consider the different choices Cézanne made for each iteration of her portrait. They whisper their opinions softly to one another.

“He was using her to try different things,” an older man says. “Poor thing looks like she’s in mourning,” a woman responds, looking at a portrait of Hortense from 1886 in a dark blue dress, the green wall of Cézanne’s flat behind her. “She looks like a very severe woman,” says another. Her expression certainly is contemplative, possibly solemn. She must have been a serious person. Did she enjoy sitting for Cézanne for hours at a time?

Upon looking at Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory from 1892, a woman quietly says, “breathtaking.” In front of a yellow and lush green background, and with a bouquet on the side, Hortense sits with her hands folded over one another, holding a steady gaze with her artist. Her cheeks have the slightest blush,and though her face borders on austere, her eyes are full of expression. What was she thinking about during those long hours?

There is an early portrait of Hortense in 1873 called Young Woman with Loosened Hair. It is a very small bust painting; she wears only a necklace and her long dark hair falls around her shoulders. The brushstrokes are wide with an unfinished look, and Hortense takes a modest position, one arm across her chest, face tilted downward. This is the young woman Cézanne first fell in love with, with whom he had a secret affair, and for whom he fathered a child. However, this is the only nude portrait of her. After Cézanne married Hortense, she modeled wearing decent, yet fashionable dresses of the day.

Cézanne gives loving attention to the detail of Hortense’s shape and figure. At first glance there is nothing remarkable about her, nothing unusually beautiful or outstanding. But Cézanne must have found her so, to spend so many hours capturing what he saw with his vibrant brushstrokes and colors. Hortense sits straight and still, gazing at Cézanne as he attempts to put to canvas the things he finds captivating—her round eyes and cheeks, her melancholy expression, the tension in her folded hands.

In Cézanne’s watercolors and sketches of their daily activities, Hortense sews or lays asleep under an unfinished tree. “It’s so interesting to see the background of a great painter’s work,” whispers a woman looking at these unfinished sketches. Cézanne filled eighteen sketchbooks in his life, many pages covered with drawings of Hortense, whom he would observe and sketch for hours.

At the center of the exhibit hang the Red Dress Paintings. Cézanne painted all four of them in 1880. On the plaque beside them, a quote from Cézanne reads, “no one paints the color red like I do.” Hortense is beautiful and shapely. She also looks familiar, not quite as severe as she first seemed.

Cèzanne has a way of seeing and painting his subjects, partly passed down from the Impressionists, according to shape and color. His portraits capture something different about his subjects than a picture-perfect representation of reality. If this were not the case, multiple portraits of Hortense would be uninteresting to view. Each portrait of Hortense shows the things about her that Cézanne saw, things captivating and beautiful in their own way.

Cézanne and Hortense did not always live together. His family and friends never fully accepted her. But the act of painting her over and over again was an act of love, just as it was an act of love for Hortense to sit and model for Cézanne over and over and over again, just as Cézanne’s portraits draw viewers to consider Madame Cézanne again and again.