Who Was She?

Sight Unseen: Cezanne’s Mysterious Wife

An exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art features 24 portraits of the French painter’s wife, but her mystery remains intact.

Anyone familiar with Paul Cézanne’s portraits will recognize the solemn woman with the oval face, tight lips, and large dark eyes, her dark hair invariably pulled back and parted in the center. But very few know this woman as the French painter’s wife and muse, Hortense Fiquet.

Fiquet has been largely overlooked, if not outright disdained, by critics and art historians. But a new exhibition, Madame Cézanne at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, reexamines her influence on the Post-Impressionist master’s work.

The exhibition brings together for the first time 24 of the 29 portraits of Hortense Fiquet—oil and watercolor paintings as well as graphite sketches—in an unprecedented tribute to the woman who sat for more portraits than any of the artist’s other models.

To the untrained eye, there are few details distinguishing one portrait of Cézanne’s wife from the next. Her facial expression does not change considerably (she never smiles); she is frequently depicted in the same dress or coat; she is often leaning forward, as though about to fall off her seat. And, with the exception of one painting from Cézanne’s infamous “red chair” series in which she is sewing, there is no narrative.

Hortense has long been shrouded in mystery and critical contempt, in part because so little is known about her. We know that she was 19 and working as either a model or a bookbinder when, in 1869, she met Cézanne in Paris. Three years later, the couple’s only child, Paul, was born.

But Cézanne kept their romance and partnership hidden from his family until they were married in 1886 in Aix-en-Provence, a union to secure young Paul’s inheritance rather than celebrate the couple’s love. (When Cézanne wrote of Hortense in letters to friends like Emile Zola, it was frequently about going to great lengths to prevent his family—particularly his father—from knowing of her existence.)

With so little biographical information about Hortense to extrapolate from, art historians frequently projected character analyses on Madame Cézanne based on her physical appearance: plain-looking, distant, unfeeling, and ill-humored.

Roger Fry, an early 19th century English art critic and fan of Cézanne, blamed Hortense for her husband’s uninspiring landscapes. “Perhaps that sour-looking bitch of a Madame counts for something in the tremendous repression that took place,” he wrote in a 1925 letter to a friend.

Such observations cemented Hortense’s unflattering reputation; Cézanne’s family believed her to be profligate with her husband’s finances and referred to her as “The Reine Hortense.” She was also crudely nicknamed “La Boule” in a reference to the ball and chain.

It wasn’t until recently that her legacy as the artist’s subject has been revisited—most notably in Susan Sidlauskas’ 2009 book, Cézanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense—and deemed crucial both to Cézanne’s development as an artist and our understanding of his work.

The exhibition at the Met also showcases Hortense’s dedication to her role as subject and muse—posing for twenty years, sitting for hours without moving—even if she did not inspire Cézanne in a particularly romantic way. The few portraits that convey tenderness were painted early on in their relationship, including a tiny oil-on-canvas in which Hortense wears only a pendant, her dark hair cascading down her back.

Others speak to the constancy of their relationship and how Cézanne preferred working with motifs that were familiar to him, like the landscape of Mont Sainte-Victoire in Aix-en-Provence and various fruits. (Hortense was no exception). That familiarity allowed him to delve deeper into his work, often obsessively, whether while exploring color relationships or perfecting composition.

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We see this in his numerous later (1880s) portraits of Hortense wearing a red dress, her expression slightly different in each one, as well as in another series of her seated in a red chair. One of the red chair paintings elicited fulsome praise of the painter (and his subject) from poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who gushed that she “memorized [the painting], digit by digit,” in a 1907 letter to a friend:

“Seated in the red armchair, which is a personality in its own right, is a woman, her hands in the lap of a dress with broad vertical stripes…In the brightness of the face, the proximity of all these colors has been exploited for a simple modeling of form and features: even the brown of the hair roundly pinned up above the temples and the smooth brown of the eyes has to express itself against its surroundings. It’s as if every part were aware of all the others…”

The exhibit ultimately reveals much more about Cézanne—his exacting technique, the way he perceived structure in terms of color relationships—than it does about his muse. Madame Cézanne is ultimately about the figure in the portraits rather than the person, who remains a tantalizing enigma.