Laberge on Amory, ed. (2014)

Amory, Dita, editor. Madame Cézanne. Complementing the Exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) and Yale UP, 2014, pp. xv + 224, with 192 illustrations, ISBN 978-1-58839-546-7 (MET); ISBN 978-0300-20810-8 (Yale UP)

This lavish catalog dedicated to model Hortense Fiquet (1850–1922), the wife of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), accompanied an exhibition organized by curator Dita Amory at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2014–2015. For the first time, readers can observe twenty-five rarely seen portraits of Madame Cézanne borrowed from far-flung museums and private collections and presented for the most part in half-page reproductions. Seven essays focus on these lesser-known masterpieces and the context surrounding their creation. A quote from 1881 by the young Paul Gauguin in which he ironically expressed his wish to discover, capture, and copy Cézanne’s secret art—his unknowable “recipe for compressing the exaggerated expression of all his sensations into a single and unique procedure” (161)—perhaps best sums up Cézanne’s unique style and the goal of contributors: to find Cézanne’s “secret.”

In her chapter about Cézanne’s sketchbooks (“Cézanne as Draftsman”), Marjorie Shelley reminds us that his art “was rooted in his personal response to nature” (107), adding that “At the most intimate level, his means of expressing these sensations were his sketchbook drawings, works that were never exhibited and probably never shared with others” (107). In fact, hard work was the key to achieving his countless chefs d’œuvre: “Painting was for Cézanne a slow and painstaking process,” writes Charlotte Hale in her contribution, related to Cézanne’s early influences, painting technique, and stylistic evolution in the years before 1870 (54). The first chapters, notably Charlotte Hale’s, are rather factual and centered on analysis of artworks and the experiments made by Cézanne when portraying his wife: “certain figures—her jawline and the part in her hair—were zones of particular fascination for him, reworked repeatedly in many of his paintings” (46).

Indeed, one might argue that Hortense Cézanne was not a sensual beauty in the sense of, say, the beautiful model and muse Elizabeth Siddal, the wife of Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (not represented in this volume). But Madame Cézanne appears in dozens of works, more than any other character in Cézanne’s paintings made between 1872 and the early twentieth century (22–25, 28). The way she is represented, often expressionless and without any sensual sentiment, reveals a great deal about how Cézanne portrayed women and conceived love, matrimony, and art in general.

This privileged model is often represented as a still, reflective, sitting housewife. Their marriage was not perfect: as mentioned by Amory, Cézanne’s will from 1882 did not even mention Hortense Fiquet, whose existence he hid from his parents for some fourteen years (14).

A unique contribution among these seven chapters is Philippe Cézanne’s text of reminiscences about his great-grandmother. As he notes: “With Cézanne, nothing is black-and-white, nothing is simple. He has a quick temper, was ill at ease with women, and had money problems. Painting was the driving force of his life, and he loved solitude” (42). Perhaps the most interesting contribution is Hilary Spurling’s, which compares Cézanne’s and Henri Matisse’s approaches to painting their wives. Matisse tried to go beyond Cézanne’s realism and added unexpected colors (see Matisse’s beautiful Portrait of Madame Matisse from 1913; 158). Furthermore, Matisse even included one of Cézanne’s still life paintings in the background of his own 1890 Woman in Front of a Still Life by Cézanne, probably as a tribute (163). The catalog’s final chapter (“Re-Imaging Cézanne”) shows how contemporary artists such as Juan Gris, Roy Lichtenstein, and Elisabeth Murray have tried through daunting and daring experiences to reinvent Cézanne’s works using new technologies; the results are sometimes questionable, but will be of interest for academics interested by new images, hybrid approaches, and technological art (168). In sum, these essays have in common a quest to “newly see the familiar” in Cézanne’s universe.

A key resource of Madame Cézanne is the detailed list of references to all exhibitions where these paintings have been exhibited, compiled by Kathryn Kremnitzer and Amelia Kutschbach (191–218). While fascinating for the casual reader, scholars and graduate students in aesthetics and Art History will find rigorous and innovative essays, especially in the last two chapters with their excellent use of comparative methodologies.