Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) had the patience of a saint and the humility of a scientist but, when these failed, the fury of a thousand demons. He could work for months on a single canvas, painstakingly observing every detail of the motif and weighing every stroke before he touched brush to canvas, and then, inexplicably, fly into a rage, stab it full of holes, and finally, pitch it out the window. Although not one person in his family—mother, sister, wife—ever understood why he had chosen to be a painter as against something more useful such as the banker his father had wanted him to be, nevertheless, they learned silently to retrieve each canvas from the yard or tree or wherever else it had happened to land and to keep it against future want. Cézanne required numerous sittings from his models, sometimes more than a hundred. His friend and dealer Ambroise Vollard, for example, sat 115 times for a single portrait, a portrait that was, in the end, never finished. Small wonder, then, that his principal subjects were, besides his own visage, apples, mountains, and his long-suffering wife, the mysterious Mme Cézanne, née Hortense Fichet, whose patience must have exceeded even that of her husband. Of some 950 paintings John Rewald records in his catalogue raissonné, Mme Cézanne appears 25 times over a 20-year period, 1872-1892. Always seated, usually frontal, in half- or three-quarter turn, she seems the constant in an experiment Cézanne is making into the structure of reality. Only the titles of the paintings provide variation: Mme Cézanne in the conservatory, in the garden, in a yellow armchair, in a red dress, a blue dress, a striped dress, a green hat, with her hair loose, her hair up, resting on her elbow, holding a fan, in a heavy mood. The variations are endless, but Mme Cézanne remains, as immovable and eternal as Cézanne's Mont Sainte Victoire. Madame Cézanne in Blue ( cover) was painted between 1886 and 1888. By then Cézanne had long since left the company of the Impressionists and was looking not at light as it revealed the surface of objects, but at geometry as it hinted at what might lay beyond that surface. By observing variations of color, he discerned geometric planes that, he hoped, would allow him to peer into the structure of the object, to give it a mass and a solidity that would increase its reality. The subject itself was actually quite unimportant to his work except that it be required not to itself change too quickly; in other words, it must sit still, which was incompatible with light glancing off water or wind rustling through the leaves of tree limbs. Thus, Madame Cézanne in Blue is not so much a work of light and shadow as is, say, a portrait by Rembrandt, but is rather a study of structure, of planes and how they interconnect and support one another. And the web reveals even as it conceals. Beyond the grimness, we glimpse something of the toughness and even a hint of the moral fiber of this woman from the Jura. When Cézanne began this particular portrait of Hortense in 1886, they were newly married and the parents of a 14-year-old boy. Cézanne's provincially proper father had known of the liaison, having some years earlier discovered word of it in a letter he intercepted, but he had disapproved, telling Cézanne that he would from then on have only half his allowance, since he had no wife to support. By the time the portrait was completed, Cézanne's father had died (at age 88) and left Cézanne a considerable fortune, including the family home in Aix-en-Provence. It was there, with his mother and sister, that Cézanne spent most of the remainder of his life, interrupted only by visits to Paris, where Hortense preferred to live with their son, Paul. It was during these remaining 18 or so years of his life that Cézanne would do his best work. While the Impressionists chose light as their subject, Cézanne chose the entire material world—anything that was visible, that had dimension, that could be, in a word, measured. Matter was his mistress; with her he fathered modern art. In a sense, all of the 20th Century has been an exploration of Cézanne. Yet, when he died in 1906, he had been so long a recluse that few realized he had been still alive and painting almost to the end. Paul Cézanne(1839-1906),Madame Cézanne in Blue, 1885-1887, French. Oil on canvas. 74.1×61 cm. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Tex (http://www.mfah.org); the Robert Lee Blaffer Memorial Collection, gift of Sarah Campbell Blaffer.
– American Medical Association
Published: Jan 13, 1999