Upon word of Paul Cézanne’s death, painter Émile Bernard said “he takes his secrets to the grave.” Nabis artist Maurice Denis mused, “I have never heard an admirer of Cézanne give me clear and precise reasons for his admiration.” It may be easier to understand Cézanne as the so-called “Father of Modernism,” whose artworks led to Cubism, than to see his paintings as they are.
Cézanne’s work is hard to grasp in part because his canvases accomplish seemingly irreconcilable ends. His paintings are at once solid compositions of weighty shapes that lock together on the picture plane and delicate tapestries of lacey strokes exuding light and air. His oils distort form, calling attention to the flatness of the canvas, while convincingly conveying three-dimensionality.
Adding to the difficulty, Cézanne’s portraits, still lifes and landscapes avoid sentimentality and storytelling. Unlike Renoir’s and Monet’s more relatable canvases, expressing a vibrant sun-dappled joie de vivre, Cézanne’s artworks communicate the multifaceted nature of human experience.
In recent years, Cézanne’s art has been scrutinized from countless angles in museum exhibitions spotlighting his creative exchange with Pissarro, his relationship to the countryside of Provence, his artistic legacy and, this past summer, his still lifes.
Madame Cézanne, now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, is focused on portraits of Cézanne’s most frequent model: his wife, Hortense Fiquet. Remarkably, curator Dita Amory has gathered 24 of the 29 portraits known to exist. Complemented by sketches and watercolors of Madame Cézanne, this exhibit is impressively thorough.
Ms. Amory contends that Hortense Fiquet played a key role in the artist’s work, but that “her vital partnership as model, mistress, wife, and mother has been willfully overlooked.” Arguing that Madame Cézanne has been unfairly maligned as “ill humored, discontented, remarkably plain, sullen, remote,” Ms. Amory hopes with this exhibit to shed “light on the most personal dialogue of all, that of artist and muse.”
Though this exhibit is, indeed, marvelous, Ms. Amory’s revisionist history is a distraction. Although the curator claims “a tender interchange” can be detected in Madame Cézanne’s gaze, museumgoers searching for signs of affection in these portraits will be disappointed.
What is remarkable is how unrecognizable Hortense Fiquet is from one painting to the next. Going from portrait to portrait is disorienting precisely because these paintings are not concerned with likeness; nor do these works seek to express Hortense Fiquet’s personality.
Rather, the paintings here seem to convey the inevitable gulf between people. Trapped inside his limited perspective, these works reflect the artist’s unbiased study of the outside world. Cézanne said above all he hoped for “certainty.” Careful not to project his personality onto his subject matter, he struggled to see his environment with fresh eyes while composing beautifully designed paintings.
Though Hortense Fiquet was his most frequent model, Cézanne painted more self-portraits. Rilke, writing about a canvas at the Salon d'Automne in 1907, mused on how Cézanne “reproduced himself with so much humble objectivity, with the unquestioning, matter-of-fact interest of a dog who sees himself in the mirror and thinks: there’s another dog.”
The portraits here of Hortense Fiquet have that same admirable detachment. Cézanne painted his wife wearing a few different outfits. Grouped according to dress, the canvases look spectacular on the skylit walls of the Met’s Lehman Wing.
In “Portrait of Madame Cézanne,” ca. 1885-87, Hortense Fiquet wears a Robert de Niro ‘You talking to me?’ scowl. But despite her exaggerated frown, the facial expression is complicated, changing the longer one looks at the picture. One moment she wears an expression of irritation, the next moment a look of calm, then boredom. Cézanne resisted pat caricature, striving instead for a portrait that conveyed the difficulty of reading someone’s mood.
The lines of Madame Cézanne’s shoulders here move in opposite directions. Her eyes are slightly different sizes and, strangely, seem to disconnect from and hold their position on her face. The hard edge of Hortense Fiquet’s cheek is sharp against the background yet curves convincingly around.
Nearby, a painting from the same period, previously owned by Mattisse, bears no resemblance to the frowning model. In “Portrait of Madame Cézanne,” ca. 1885-88, Hortense Fiquet wears a blue smock and a sphinxlike gaze. Mouth and nose barely articulated, the head of Cézanne's wife is reduced to basic forms. It is easy to see why Matisse was drawn to the oval-on-cylinder depiction of Hortense Fiquet; the simplified portrait seems to prefigure Matisse’s own reductionism.
Other standout paintings include a pair of portraits in a black chinoiserie blouse. In one Madame Cézanne is posed in three-quarter view, accentuating the diagonal planes of her body. In the other painting the V of her collar echoes the part in her hair, abstracting her head into an urn-like shape.
In fact all the works here have much to offer, with two exceptions: “Madame Cézanne,” ca. 1886-88, is sketchy and unresolved. And “Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress,” ca. 1888-90, looks like it has been tampered with. Here a decorative light blue background bears no spatial relationship to the seated figure, a mistake so fundamental it is hard to fathom the error is by Cézanne.
Though there is not much documentary evidence on Cézanne’s marriage, accounts from various sources paint a picture of Hortense Fiquet as less than a supportive spouse. Maurice Denis recounts that, after his mother died, the painter “kept personal items which reminded him of her… In a fit of jealousy one day, his wife destroyed all these souvenirs. Accustomed to his wife’s foolishness, Cézanne came home, found everything gone, left the house, and stayed away in the country for several days.”
Mary Cassatt said Cézanne was “one of the most liberal artists.” Despite a gruff exterior, Cézanne showed “a politeness toward us which no other man here would have shown.” Yet, after Cézanne’s death, his widow reportedly told Matisse, “You understand, Cézanne didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know how to finish his pictures. Renoir and Monet, they knew their craft as painters.”
The implication that Hortense Fiquet was Cézanne’s collaborative partner is not borne out by the evidence. And it is an injustice to Cézanne to cloud already complicated pictures with the very sentimentality he sought to avoid. With masterpieces on loan from museums around the world, this exhibit of a single subject shows Cézanne’s struggle to express a deep truth about the world around him beyond appearances.
Madame Cézanne, on view through March 15, 2015, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, 212-535-7710, www.metmuseum.org
More information about Xico Greenwald's work can be found at xicogreenwald.com