Madame Cezanne with Hotensias is a study by Paul Cezanne

Mme Cezanne at the Met

“For nearly seventeen years, Cézanne would conceal his affair with Hortense from his father…” —Philippe Cézanne

Paul Cezanne's wife, Hortense, in a 1877 portrait
“Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair” (about 1877) by Paul Cézanne, oil on canvas; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

As I studied the sketches and paintings in the Madame Cézanne exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was compelled to ask the sullen woman peering back at me, “What would it mean to live with you hovering above a console table? How would it feel to find you lurking in a sunny alcove set with an elegant settee, your hair drawn tightly up, an elbow seeming to crave contact with the red whorl of the chair’s arm? Who are you Marie-Hortense Fiquet Cézanne beyond a lover-turned-wife struggling to find footing in a life that seemed bent on rejecting you? And what would you, Mme Cezanne at the Met, want to say?”

Madame Cézanne at the Met

In an attempt to find out whether it was pain, resignation or boredom marking her expression, I went in search of her backstory. There isn’t much there. Even her great grandson Philippe Cézanne admitted there is precious little known about her. Odd, isn’t it, how she lives most fully in these parsed-out one-dimensional visages dotting the museum’s walls? Paul Cézanne’s letters only mention her in relation to asking his friends for money. She was, by his account, the breadwinner.

“My wife, charged with the task of providing our daily bread, knows the trouble and worry that entails,” he told Victor Chocquet in 1879. His missives to his boyhood friend, the writer Émile Zola, were peppered with requests for money, always accompanied by the caveat to send the funds to her wherever she was residing at the time—a string of addresses dotting Paris and the Midi. He told Zola the attempts to keep Hortense and their baby a secret from his father took on “the air of a vaudeville farce.”

Such an angst-ridden tale, I thought as I read her husband’s letters and this telling summation by her great grandson: “For nearly seventeen years, Cézanne would conceal his affair with Hortense from his father, and for fourteen the birth of his son, Paul…That did not make their life together easy.” The words hung in the air as I unfurled the set of postcards I bought at the museum, marveling at the aching sense of gloom ruminating from the six accordion images snaking across my desk. Not one of them shows her smiling.

A portrait of Hortense Cezanne painted in 1891
“Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory” (1891) by Paul Cézanne, oil on canvas; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960.

Rightfully so, I thought, considering she was the bone of contention between her husband and his father—a precarious position given how the painter called his dad a “parental authority” at the surprisingly advanced age of 39. He referred to him as the author of his days because he held the purse strings, and the elder Cézanne was simply obsessed with the idea of liberating the painter from Hortense once he found out about their relationship and child.

The Letters of Paul Cézanne

“I seem to be on the verge of having to fend for myself, if indeed I’m up to it,” Cézanne wrote to Zola, explaining how a letter from Chocquet had outed them by providing his father with conclusive proof of the baby’s existence. “He had nothing better to do than to unseal and be the first to read the letter that was sent to me, even though it was addressed to Monsieur Paul Cézanne artiste peintre.”

On the postcards in front of me, this famous “artist painter’s” wife levitated—her glances so solemn they are less magnetic than the tree draping its laden leaves behind her. Even the suggestion of foliage enveloping her in one portrait and the cinched drapes flowing toward the floor beside her in another reflect more personality than her gaze.

She seems to have gone missing as she clasps one hand in the other, the sheer fingerless gloves darkening her skin seeming like moody extensions of the severely cut dark dress hugging her form. What of the warmth surrounding her? Couldn’t she have reached out to draw it into her life? Given she longed for Paris and friends, perhaps the colors of Aix-en-Provence were of little consolation to her.

Portrait at the MET of Horense Cezanne painted by her husband Paul
Her expression in this portrait in the exhibition seems to utterly drip with sadness.

By the time his father died, Cézanne had become known as a lone wolf who made his way through his last years old and shabby—a description Rainer Maria Rilke penned in his Letters on Cézanne. He recounted how the village children followed the painter every day on his way to his studio on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, throwing stones at him as if aiming at a stray dog.

I wonder if Hortense saw past the heartbreak of this as Rilke did when he declared Cézanne a marvelously beautiful man who every once in a while would furiously shout something absolutely glorious at one of his rare visitors.

I will never know, of course, as the portraits have preserved only a flat, frozen version of her. But that does not stop me from imagining that the seeming casualness with which she holds the sprig of ivy in her fingers is actually an effort to mask a fidgeting brought about by the intensity of her husband’s full attention.

D.H. Lawrence on Paul Cézanne’s Portraits

That’s the thing about art: we always bring our own bias and past experiences to it, don’t we? And these complex emotional constructs—hidden beneath layers of behavior drummed into us—have nothing to do with the subjects of the works we are viewing. D.H. Lawrence may have hit upon the best explanation for her attitude when he described Cézanne’s M.O. as a desire to eradicate the humanness and personality of his models in order to avoid the trap of physical cliché.

Painting of Hortense Cezanne at the MET
“Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress” (1888-­90) by Paul Cézanne, oil on canvas; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1962.

In this quest, Lawrence sees the painter’s portraits of Hortense as his most successful: “When he makes Madame Cézanne most still, most appley, he starts making the universe slip uneasily about her. It was part of his desire: to make the human form, the life form, come to rest. Not static—on the contrary. Mobile but come to rest.

Lawrence believes this enhances the power the painter achieved when he simultaneously set the unmoving material world into motion around her: walls twitch and slide, chairs bend or rear up a little, cloths curl like burning paper. He maintains the portrait of her in the red dress (above) was more interesting than all of Cézanne’s other portraits: “Try as he might, women remained a known, ready-made cliché object to him, and he could not break through the concept obsession to get at the intuitive awareness of her. Except with his wife—and in his wife he did at least know the applyness.”

If Lawrence is right and Cézanne was most successful in capturing her through his lens of stillness, it makes sense that she remains unknowable as a personality, all traces of her humanness eradicated by the painter’s quest to outdistance banality.

I know I shouldn’t care but I want her humanity; I want to know how it would have felt to live with such a great bitter man who remained locked in a fight between his ego and his intuitive self his entire adult life. “Cézanne never freed himself from his ego,” Lawrence wrote. “He haunted the fringes of experience.”

There it is—the perfect word to describe Madame Cézanne’s countenance: haunted. In the exhibition catalog, the art critics restrict their point of view to Paul Cézanne’s “immense contribution to the unfolding narrative of modernism” and “the unsettled geometry” of “the stiffened pose of the sitter.” It is left to his great grandson to dissect the emotional realm—bouts of quick temper, a discomfort with women, and money problems, even after the elusive inheritance was his.

Mme Cezanne at the Met Fashion Plate?

“Painting was the driving force of his life, and he loved solitude,” asserts Philippe, who presented descriptions of Hortense as a manipulative fashion plate who continually wedeled more money from her husband than Paul felt she deserved. But the progeny has compassion for the woman he describes as putting herself “in the service of her husband’s art, motionless and silent, displaying extraordinary patience, accepting her husband’s difficult temperament, even though she did not understand his work as an artist” for more than three decades.

Mme Cezanne with Hotensias is a study by Paul Cezanne
“Madame Cézanne with Hortensias,” a watercolor and sketched study by Paul Cézanne.

Philippe points to only two portrayals of her that seem to show a measure of soul: “Although the portraits of Hortense generally show the same grave, resigned, and calm expression, love sometimes comes through in these representations…” One of the latter is Madame Cézanne with Hortensias, her expression in the watercolor/sketched-study (shown above) certainly more loving than the other portraits illustrating this post.

Buying a Paul Cézanne Masterpiece

I tried to imagine owning one as I made my way through the exhibition but a question kept surfacing that made it impossible: Were I to bring her into my home, wouldn’t this dour woman set within the colorful compositions she commands infuse my life with sadness? I imagined where I would hang her and I wondered if I placed her above the chair where I enjoy reading on dreary winter afternoons, wouldn’t she silently haunt me? Or would she serve as the perfect companion for a few hours passed mentally exploring some unknown world inhabited by other ghosts whose true stories we can only contrive?

My mental exercise is beside the point, of course, as these portraits are not for sale but I left the museum enthralled by the exploration. The exhibition featuring Mme Cezanne at the Met that inspired this meditation ends on March 15, 2015. I highly recommend seeing the powerfully curated show of paintings and sketches before it ends. And because I’d love to own any one of these beautiful works of art, I’m including this entry in my Living with Art series.

This entry, Mme Cézanne at the Met, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and SEO strategist. Books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.