Sunday, January 24, 2016

#MadameCezanne was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Madame Cézanne Sewing, ca. 1877
(Nationalmuseum, Stockholm) 
We are in the middle of a record breaking blizzard on the East Coast, and while we are enveloped in the tranquility of mountains of snow,  I thought it a perfect opportunity to tackle my own mountain... of photographs taken at numerous museum visits and exhibitions. Since it was Cézanne's birthday this week - he was born on January 19, 1839 - and there was an incredible exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, I decided to post some of my favorites from the exhibit with some notes from the gallery labels that I found interesting. Madame Cézannean exhibition of 25 of the 29 portraits the artist painted of his wife and partner Hortense Fiquet, included oils, watercolors and graphite studies, as well as pages from sketch books. Filled with intimate sketches, I loved seeing Cézanne's sketch books and getting an unguarded glimpse into how he observed his world.

Madame Cézanne Leaning on a Table, ca. 1873-74
(Private Collection)
Whether he was painting apples and oranges or his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire,  Paul Cézanne is renowned for his obsessive exploration of the many ways of observing and interacting with a particular object or landscape he found interesting. Although I was familiar with Cézanne's portraits, I had never considered portraits of Madame Cézanne along the same lines as his bowls of fruit of Mont Sainte-Victoire, subjects he returned to time and again. After viewing the exhibition and listening to the presentations given at the colloquium for the exhibit, Hortense's position in the artist's life and artistic oeuvre became more clear. Taking in her stoic countenance and plain visage, Hortense Piquet was always disparaged by critics and art historians as being a most unpleasant female that was responsible for holding the artist back. This led me to ponder the meanings we assign to works of art and what it says about our culture as opposed to the artist's intent. Especially with an artist like Cézanne, who constructed his canvases very deliberately brush stroke by brush stroke, it seems so misleading to think of Hortense's portraits as mere likenesses revealing her inner persona. As the Met website states "the portraits attest to the constancy of a relationship that was critical to the artist's practice and development."

Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1886-87
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Cézanne's carefully constructed canvases are an infinite source of fascination for me, as I roam their surfaces, following his contours as they outline forms, becoming more pronounced, dissolving into the background or just stopping in midair. The many layers of color used to build up his paintings create an oscillating effect constantly shifting and generating movement. I find Cézanne's paintings intriguing not only for the full experience of space they convey, including different points of view, angles as well as shifts in light and shade but also for what he tried to achieve. According to the late Philipe Conisbe, who used to be the senior curator of European Art at the National Gallery in Washington:
Maybe his greatest goal was to try to put into permanent artistic form, his feeling of engagement with the world. His sense of being in the world... his existential experience as a man and an artist.
So, here is a selection from Madame Cézanne, an extraordinary exhibition for an extraordinary subject ...

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, ca. 1877
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
When poet Rainer Maria Rilke discovered this portrait at the 1907 Salon d'Automne, he was overcome with emotion. Writing to his wife, he described the intensity of the color relationships even in his sleep, "color coming into its own in response to another, asserting itself, recollecting itself... in this hither and back of mutual and manifold influence, the interior of the picture vibrates, rises and falls back into itself, and does not have a single unmoving part."
Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1890-92
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1877
(Private Collection)
Cézanne emphasizes the interiority of his model; she is positioned close to the picture plane, with head titled forward and eyes lowered. It may be the most abstract of all the portraits. The hair, with its wide central part, is highly simplified and the stripes on the dress emphatically refuse to model the torso. These vertical lines echo across the canvas. 
Portrait of Madame Cézanne in a Striped Dress, ca. 1883-85
(Yokohama Museum of Art) 
This portrait, one of the few portraits of Hortense shown in Cézanne's famed 1895 exhibition at Ambroise Vollard's gallery in Paris was also came to the Armory Show in New York in 1913. 
Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1885-87
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)
There has been much speculation about the curtain-like abstraction of flowers and leaves at the top of this painting. Technical investigation reveals that Cézanne reused this canvas and that these forms were appropriated from an earlier composition, a floral still life that was in turn based on the contours of an abandoned figure. 

Portrait of Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory, 1891
(Metropolitan Museum of Art) 
The varying degrees of finish in this portrait allow us to track its evolution from the Conté crayon or graphite underdrawing to the application of colored washes and body color, which are accumulated to balanced perfection in the head. 

Madame Cézanne in Blue, 1888-90
(Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)
Each portrait of Hortense has its own color scheme. Cézanne established a subdued version of his palette in the underpaint, and then went on to articulate brighter hues across the canvas Color correspondences, sometimes quite subtle, eventually tie the structure together. Working with a narrow palatte in this example, the artist laid passages of ochre in the sideboard and wallpaper, and gray-blue in the dress and paneled door. He then syncopated these colors throughout the canvas in small calculated touches. 

Portrait of Madame Cézanne ca. 1885
(Private Collection, on loan to Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)
Cézanne's brushwork and paint density thins in the 1880s. This shift is nowhere more apparent than in this ravishing bust-length portrait of Hortense, which itself is very similar in structure and curlicues choreograph the pattern while individual strokes of paint fill in the anatomy. Soft pinks and flesh tones describe a tender face, gazing head on, as if in dialogue with the artist. 
Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1885-87  (Musée d'Orsay, Paris)
The application of paint in this work has more in common with watercolor technique than with oil. For most of the portraits in oil, beyond the underpaint, Cézanne mixed his colors with white, which added opacity. Here, by contrast, the artist built up color very thinly with glazes and semiglazes.  
Portrait photography by Albert Eugene Gallatin
of Henri Matisse with this painting, in his Nice
apartment, 1932
Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1885-88
(Musée d'Orsay, Paris)

Sketch of a Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1883
(Richard and Mary L. Gray and the Gray Collections Trust)

Woman Nursing Her Child, 1872
Young Woman with Loosened Hair, ca. 1873-74

 These two tender images of the young Hortense are the earliest traceable painted portraits of her. As a rare snapshot of family life, the portrait on the right is a poignant artifact of a lifelong partnership, here in its nascency.


Still Life with a Watermelon and Pomegranates, ca. 1900-1906
Bathers, ca. 1890-92
Bathers by a Bridge, 1900-1906
In the Oise Valley, ca. 1870-80

Portrait of the Artist

Page Studies, Including Madame Cézanne Sewing, 1877-80
Cézanne employed his sketchbooks for visual notations of all kinds, often using the same sheet over several years. Here, the near horizontal Hortense, bearing a somewhat dismayed expression, shares the leaf with a study of Victor Chocquet, a drawing of a table end, and a sketch of a woman sewing, laid out in framing lines. It is very possible that Cézanne used Conté crayon rather than graphite to achieve the jet-black definition of form. 

Portrait of Madame Cézanne, ca. 1890
This unfinished sketch offers clues to Cézanne's methodology as a watercolorist. He outlined his composition in pencil and then laid in form using blue watercolor both for the figure and background.
Sketch of Madame Cézanne
(Private Collections)

Over the course of is lifetime, Cézanne returned repeatedly to his earlier sketchboooks, filling in empty spaces with more drawings. This practice is evident from the different pencil tones on the pages and the often odd assemblage of images. This charming study of Hortense (right), with her head tilted, is evocative of many of the artist's oils. There is a tenderness to her expression and to the later inscription above her, probably in the hand of young Paul.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888-90
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Portrait of Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Chair, 1888-90
(The Art Institute of Chicago)
Madame Cézanne in a Yellow Dress, 1888-90
(Fondation Beyeler, Basel)
Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, ca. 1888-90
(Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand)


Madame Cézanne Exhibit, Metropolitan Museum of Art (link)


  1. Many thanks for the insightful post! The quote by Rilke gives a fascinating perspective on Cezannes's use of color. And it is wonderful to be able to follow the portraits of Mme. Cezanne side by side in this way.

  2. Hi Amy,
    I am glad you appreciated my post.


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