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Cézanne’s unfortunate wife

We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its amazing, bottomless collection, but while we were there we visited the Madame Cézanne exhibit. It’s unsettling and, frankly, repellant.

Please note that I understand that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m the sort of museum-goer who likes the works that he likes. I can’t even predict what is going to touch me, much less make sense of it. Which is, I believe, more or less the opposite of how actual criticism works.

The Met has assembled twenty-four paintings and sketches by Cézanne of his wife Hortense. As compositions some are awesome (he is Cézanne after all), but as portraits they seem technically pretty bad: her face is sometimes unrecognizable from one picture to the next, even ones that were painted within a couple of years of one another.

Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850–1922) in the Conservator

Hortense Fiquet in a striped skirt

But what does that matter so long as Cézanne has expressed her soul, or his feelings about her, or both? Or, in this case, neither. You stare at those portraits and ask what he loved in her. Or, for that matter, hated in her? Did he feel anything at all about her?

The exhibit’s helpful wall notes explain that in fact there seems to have been little love in their relationship, at least on his part. The NY Times review of the show musters all the sympathy it can for Hortense and is well worth reading for that.

We know little about Madame Cézanne. And we learn little more from these portraits. It is fine to say that Cézanne was interested in shape, form, and light, not personality. But the fact that he had her sit immobile for countless hours so he could paint a still life made of flesh is a problem, especially since Cézanne seems to have loved his peaches and pears more than he loved this woman.

Cézanne: Still life with apples

Here’s a little more eye-bleach for you: a quick Picasso painting of a woman who sleeping is yet more alive than Madame Cézanne as represented in her husband’s careful artistry:

Picasso's Repose


On the far more positive side, we also went to the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit of Matisse’s cut-outs.

Matisse's cut-outs, at MOMA

I’ve always liked Matisse, but have never taken him too seriously because he seems incapable of conveying anything except joy — although a full range of joy, from the sensuous to the spiritual. I’m sure I’m not appreciating him fully, but not matter what, oh my, what a genius of shape and color. I didn’t want to leave.

If you can see this collection, do. So much fun.

4 Responses to “Cézanne’s unfortunate wife”

  1. I’ve loved Matisse since the opening of the Scaife Gallery in Pittsburgh — where I used to go specifically to see “The Thousand and One Nights”, which incorporates the refrain “Elle vit apparaître le matin; elle se tut discrètement.” I loved the entire huge painting/cut-out; I loved his choice of words (partly, of course, because my high-school French equipped me to read “She saw the morning appear; she discreetly fell silent” and to know that what I just translated “fell silent” might less elegantly be rendered “shut up”); I loved just sitting there, near the Giacommetti you can see in the Carnegie Museum’s header, gazing at the colours and the words and dreaming important adolescent dreams. Thanks for the reminder, David.

  2. Thanks, AKMA. Your comment makes it clear to me that I wouldn’t travel to see any single Matisse, but put ’em together and now you have something! As his house in Nice shows, that’s how Matisse experienced his work as well: as an environment, a garden. So, I’d walk a fair distance to see a single Monet or a single Rembrandt, but not a Matisse. This probably comes down simply to my old-fashionedness: Matisse for me is too much pure design. (I’m criticizing myself, not Matisse!)

    If I’m rambling (yes, I am), it’s your fault, AKMA. You got me thinking. Again. Darn you.

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  4. Hey, what a lovely post it is!

    Lovely paintings indeed. I wish I could have them on my home walls. Nevertheless, great collection!

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