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Paul Cézanne’s ‘Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair’ (c1877)

Well, that was a new experience: I walked out of the Metropolitan Museum’s Madame Cézanne convinced that either the curator Dita Amory or I had been overcome by an epic delusion. The exhibition gathers 23 of Paul Cézanne’s 29 portraits of his wife, which the Met presents as open-hearted romantic tributes. This is a show with an unusual agenda: to rescue the reputation not of an artist but of a subject — poor Hortense, maligned as a dull-witted shrew by Cézanne’s friends, family and biographers but immortalised by the love of a genius. Those who would dismiss her, we are told, have imbibed a misogynistic mythology.

Amory invites us to appreciate these paintings as intimate effusions executed with tender mastery. What I see, however, is a parade of stiff and distant studies of an embittered depressive, painted with little warmth and less sympathy. Amory perceives the products of an affectionate partnership, an interchange between a creator and his life-long muse. I see dutiful pictures of a lonely figure trapped in her own emotional world. These two views cannot be reconciled, but they’re not totally subjective, either. One must lie closer to the truth of the couple’s life together. We argue, you decide.

Oddly, Amory defends the psychological truth of her argument by resorting to formal analysis, the talk of brushwork, line and colour that has always permeated discussions of Cézanne. She compares Hortense to a still life, and concludes that she is more . . . alive. “Madame Cézanne was no inanimate equivalent,” she writes in the catalogue. “Her portraits carry a far more nuanced layering than evidenced in a formal investigation of the inter-relationship of still-life objects on a table.” Asserting a human being’s superiority to a bowl of fruit may not seem like much, but she goes on to credit Hortense with helping the development of her husband’s “structural language”. The artist’s wife apparently inspired her companion not by giving advice or honest criticism but simply by sitting there and letting herself be scrutinised — rather like an apple, albeit a sour one.

When Cézanne met Hortense Fiquet in 1869, he was a 30-year-old artist with a solidly bourgeois background in Provence and a tenuous Parisian reputation; she was a 19-year-old bookbinder from the Jura. The painter feared his father’s wrath (and the end of his monthly allowance), because while keeping a lower-class mistress was perfectly fine, even expected, marrying her would have been outrageous. So he kept the relationship secret — for 17 years! — and did his duty by an assortment of other women. The couple did eventually marry and had a son (not in that order), although Cézanne ultimately wrote Hortense out of his will.

‘Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress’ (1888-90)

Such was her popularity among his friends that they nicknamed her “La boule” — roughly the equivalent of calling her “matzo ball”. His family loathed her too, and she evidently returned the sentiment. After Cézanne’s mother died, he consecrated a room in his apartment to her memory and filled it with mementoes; Hortense burnt the lot. Later, she reported that her husband was unaccountably distraught by her rampage. “He just wandered in the country,” she remarked. “He’s an eccentric.”

The show passes discreetly over this juicy background, with its decades of hostility and rage. (The catalogue goes into more detail.) For an investigation into two people’s alleged love, it tells us virtually nothing about them. Yet something in the relationship has evidently charmed Amory. She writes heatedly about the way, in one portrait, Cézanne harmonises the warm colour of flesh with the greenish background. “The sensitivity of the brush as it caresses the canvas is a revelation of intimacy,” the curator declares. I have rarely experienced more cognitive dissonance between an expert’s wisdom and my own perception. Here’s what I see in that same picture: a dyspeptic woman gazing out on to the ocean of her own discontent with a puckered frown, a manly jaw and chickpea skin mottled with bilious shadows.

‘Madame Cézanne Sewing’ (c1880)

Cézanne made these portraits over the course of nearly 20 years, though they’re difficult to date. One striking pair, made a dozen years apart, shows her wearing the same (or a very similar) dress of black-and-grey silk convict stripes, only vertical. In the first, Hortense tilts her face downward and the top of her head climbs like a peak to the upper edge of the frame, so that you could practically drop a pebble down her parting and along the ridge of her nose. In the later picture, having shaken loose her hair, she looks up in misery, her cheeks flushed and her eyes dead.

How strange that these lifeless portraits should have sprung from the hand that shaped those famously animate landscapes. In Cézanne’s repeated renderings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain evolves, its expressive quilt of ochres, browns and blue-greens reflecting his intense feelings for topography and trees. Yet somehow Mme Cézanne appears more geological than that semi-human hill looming over Provence. She never ages, but just sits inertly, shoulders squared and hands in her lap, as if waiting to erode. A personality must lurk somewhere behind those caressing brushstrokes, but Cézanne gives little clue to its nature, other than to suggest a consistently oafish blankness. How could the great observer have spent so much time looking at the woman he lived with and have so little to show for his efforts? Maybe that’s the mystery he was trying to plumb.

‘Madame Cézanne’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, until March 15, metmuseum.org

Photographs: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Metropolitan Museum of Art/Courtauld Institute of Art, London

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