Paul CÉZANNE | Portrait of Madame Cézanne [Portrait de Madame Cézanne]

Paul CÉZANNE
France 1839 – 1906

Portrait of Madame Cézanne
[Portrait de Madame Cézanne]
1885-90
oil on canvas
canvas 47.0 (h) x 39.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Accepted in lieu of tax 1991
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Cézanne painted Hortense Ficquet many times during their long relationship. They met in Paris in 1869, when she was a nineteen-year-old model and he a thirty-year-old aspiring artist. He hid her existence from his disapproving father, despite the birth of their son in 1872. When his father discovered the family in 1876, he cut Cézanne’s allowance. The pair married finally in 1886, with parental approval. This small portrait was made around this time, although it appears strangely impersonal, considering the couple’s tumultuous personal circumstances. But then, the personality of his subjects concerned Cézanne very little, as he investigated the outer forms rather than the psychological experience of his sitter.

The subject looks into the middle distance, without meeting our gaze. She is presented very close to the viewer, but is restrained both in pose and expression. We see simple forms, an oval face on a cylindrical neck and triangular torso, with a very restricted colour palette. Almost everything is pale or hardly coloured: light pink skin, dark brown hair, light blue dress and background divided strictly between light blue-grey on the right, and a yellow-brown at the left. The sitter’s face is slightly tilted. There is no signal of close personal ties, and little expression on her face; indeed hardly any indication of femininity at all. Her hair is parted severely in the centre, and appears almost to be painted on, like a wooden doll.

Cézanne builds up volume on the head and neck with subtle tones of darker hues. Black outlines the planes of the shirt, dividing flesh from fabric, and sitter from ground. The planes of the background are imaginary anyway, as no walls meet at the top, and then disappear further down. Instead we look at the artistic truth of the composition, the calmness and beauty of the reduced elements of the painting. Portrait of Madame Cézanne belonged to Henri Matisse, and was in his possession until his death in 1954. He admired the ‘atmosphere of the serenity of life [which] radiates from the portrait … saying he wanted to endow his own work with a magnificent stillness’.1 An anecdote related by Ambroise Vollard hints at another truth. While sitting for his portrait by Cézanne, Vollard moved, and Cézanne ‘flew into a rage’, saying: ‘I told you to keep as still as an apple. Does an apple fidget?’2 Madame Cézanne, it seems, in her perfection as a subject, did not.

Christine Dixon

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. ‘Portrait of Mrs Cézanne’, website entry, 2006, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, viewed 22 September 2009, www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/search/commentaire/commentaire_id/portrait-de-madame-cezanne-9881.html?no_cache=1.
  2. Museum of Modern Art: first loan exhibition, New York, November 1929: Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, van Gogh, New York: Museum of Modern Art 1929, p. 20.