The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art this week aims to unveil their latest blockbuster exhibition. The paintings, sketches and watercolours by 19th century French artist Paul Cézanne of Madame Hortense Fiquet Cézanne, his wife and muse is scheduled to be showcased in the Robert Lehman wing of the prestigious museum. From November 17 a collection from Cézanne’s 29 portraits of Hortense aims to be displayed to honour and celebrate the woman who became so influential to Cézanne’s work.
Meeting in the late 1860’s, Hortense and Cézanne began living together very early on in Paris where Cézanne studied art and Hortense was a bookbinder who modelled for extra money. From the very first intimate sketches of Hortense caught unaware, to the formal history defining portraits completed near the end of Cézanne’s career, it was clear this artist viewed his female muse marginally different than previous painters.
In a world where women were painted as sensual and inviting, Cézanne’s imagery of Hortense was stark in its unfocussed, aloof nature with more focus paid to the angles and shapes she created than the subject of emotional depth which was considered the norm.
Cézanne was considered the bridge between late 19th century impressionism and early 20th century Cubism with his work on Hortense’s movements and angles rather than capturing the expression of reality. What Picasso would later go on to redefine, was born from Cézanne’s view of his wife as a series of shapes and parts, rather than the living, breathing woman he spent over 17 years with.
Cézanne’s dependency on Hortense was evident, for her patience, inspiration and becoming the canvas for his artistic investigation. Their’s was a marriage of artistic intensity and emotional distance. He had painted her face so many times that Cézanne became able to redefine the sharp plains of her face into the cubist impressionism he become known for. Hortense was nearly always painted looking aloof, expressionless and distant, with numerous images seeing her fade into the similarly coloured background to provide more focus and attention to the well-defined lines of the furniture around her.
When his work finally became recognised, Cézanne was in his late 50’s. In 1895 Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard’s exhibition of Cézanne’s work showcased a broad sweep of his artistry. Three of the pieces were of Hortense, dubbed ‘Masterpieces or monstrosities’ Hortense seemed content with the comfortable life her husband’s success provided and cared little for the exhibitionist’s review of her portraits or the artwork she was a part of.
Cézanne went to great lengths to hide Hortense and their son from family and friends, many believe to appease the authoritarian nature of his father, however, evidence of her importance in Cézanne’s life is clear in the nearly 30 portraits created of her. Hortense was able to sit for the days it required without twitching a muscle or any questioning when the same portrait was painted several times.
Four famous portraits of Hortense in the same shawl-collared red dress back dropped by the Parisian apartment they shared became a turning point in art’s history. Years of portrait practice on his wife all accumulated into this suit of four portraits of Madame Cézanne, they became examples of paintings moving away from simple picture making and beginning to capture the commentary on the portrait process.
Through whatever separation or secrecy their relationship may have underwent, the portraits paint a clear image of a marriage that lasted over 20 years and held a magnanimous influence over the direction and evolution of Cézanne’s work. While Hortense may have been considered a unique and alternative muse, who provoked a division in opinion from friends and critics alike, her presence is unwavering and allowed Cézanne to create era defining art that still resonates today.
How influential might people of importance be, to an artist and their work?