Paul Cézanne painted 29 portraits, and made innumerable drawings, of Hortense Fiquet, whom he met in 1869. Paul, their son, was born in 1872. To legitimize him his parents eventually married in 1886. Dita Amory, the Met’s curator of the Lehman Collection, and her staff succeeded in the formidable task of assembling 24 of these portraits. The paintings had never previously been united. This unique, intriguing exhibition will be on view in the museum’s Lehman Wing until March, 2015.
Hortense Fiquet is easily recognizable in Cézanne’s portraits, though each one is very different. Details vary little. She often sits on an arm- or straight chair, her hands clasped on her lap. In four paintings, she even wears the same red dress. She never smiles or aged during the twenty years it took Cézanne to complete the works, yet each of the portraits is unique. In the earliest one, dating from 1873-74, she is demure and shy. Portrait number two, in which her shoulders are bare except for a necklace and her hair is free flowing, is the only one hinting at the couple’s intimate relationship. Most often Hortense’s expression is distant, stoic, sad, inscrutable, or introspective. One can feel the silence that reigned between painter and model.
My favorite portraits are the Met’s Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory and Boston MFA’s Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, perhaps because they are very familiar. They are also less stark. In both Hortense appears less dour and content. The plants that surround her in the conservatory makes it a beautiful interior. The pattern of the wallpaper and variegated stripes of the sitter’s dress are reminiscent of Van Gogh and presage Matisse.
Cézanne was a meticulous painter and to complete a portrait he required more than one hundred sittings. Yet Hortense, his most frequently used model, is almost totally forgotten by history. Her life with Cézanne, who for decades hid her existence, as that of his son, from his family, must not have been easy.
Yet her contribution to Cézanne’s art was never acknowledged. On the contrary, for most of her life with his family ignored her and his friends vilified her, referring to her as La Boule (the bowling ball) or The Dumpling, perhaps because later in life she may have been plump. (The couple’s son Paul was referred to as Le Boulet—the little ball.) Cézanne and Hortense only lived together sporadically. Money was scarce until 1894, when the legendary Ambroise Vollard started to represent him. It is of interest that until then Père Tanguy, a paint dealer, exhibited Cézanne’s as well as Van Gogh’s canvasses in his Paris paint shop. Until his father’s death in 1886, Cézanne subsisted on the monthly 200 francs allowance his father provided reluctantly.
Hortense and Paul’s descendants became a close family. While in his twenties Paul Jr. became his father’s agent and advocate. He also took care of his often invalid mother, serving as a messenger between his parents. Paul Jr. married late in life and “begat” Jean-Pierre Cézanne, who “begat” Philippe. A retired art expert, he now lives in Aix-en-Provence, the Cézannes hometown, where he busily preserves and protects his great-grandfather’s memory. Five years ago he successfully prevented the French railroad from despoiling the landscape of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain memorialized by Cézanne more than 80 times. Philippe attended the opening events associated with the Madame Cézanne’s exhibition at the Met and contributed a chapter recounting the history of his family in the stunning catalogue accompanying the show.