Cézanne’s Unconventional Muse

Cézanne’s Unconventional Muse

According to a Rutgers art historian, Hortense Fiquet, Cézanne’s “secret” wife, changed the course of modern portraiture

Madame Cezanne
"Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850–1922) in a Red Dress," an 1888–90 oil on canvas, is the only portrait Cézanne painted of his wife in an elaborately furnished interior. It is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Don’t hate Hortense Fiquet because she doesn’t seem friendly. Paul Cézanne’s wife may appear standoffish in the 29 portraits the post-Impressionist rendered of her over two decades, but her influence on Cézanne’s painting and importance to modern portraiture are more than meets the eye.

Fiquet is the subject of “Madame Cézanne,” an exhibition opening at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on November 19, which brings together for the first time 24 of Cézanne’s oil paintings and a selection of drawings and watercolors depicting his enigmatic wife.

Fiquet has long been a divisive figure to art historians, who have often unjustly vilified her for her non-muselike qualities, says Susan Sidlauskas, Rutgers University professor of art history and the author of Cézanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense. In truth, however, not much is known of Fiquet other than that she began her relationship with the artist in her 20s and bore him a son.

On the eve of the Met’s exhibition, Sidlauskas sheds some light on the mystery of “Madame Cézanne” and why her role in art history is more important than she receives credit for.

Rutgers Today: Who was Hortense Fiquet?

Sidlauskas: She was possibly a bookbinder by trade and thus occupied a considerably lower social rank than Cézanne, whose father owned a successful bank. She was his significant other – albeit a hidden one – for more than two decades. Believing the relationship would jeopardize the financial support he depended on from his father, Cézanne kept her secret and lived in a separate residence. The couple married 17 years after they met, likely to legitimize Cézanne’s son for inheritance purposes. The irony is that Cézanne’s father knew about their relationship the whole time. Traditionally, art historians have emphasized Hortense’s irrelevance to the artist, and her own self-absorption. To this day they like to tell the story – never proven – that she missed seeing Cézanne on his deathbed because she had to keep an appointment with her dressmaker.

Rutgers Today: What is the mission of the Met’s exhibition?

Sidlauskas: The portraits have never been displayed together, although they have been discussed. The exhibition allows a wider audience to see Hortense afresh – and not simply as the cranky, neglected wife.

Rutgers Today: Why have art historians vilified her?

Madame Cezanne
The unfinished canvas “Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory,” 1891, is set in the conservatory of the Jas de Bouffan, the Cézanne family estate near Aix. It is in the Met's collection.
Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Sidlauskas: This is party due to the mythology of Cézanne as a solitary genius, one of the fathers of modernism, who waged an isolated, heroic battle against state-controlled art academies. He didn’t need anyone and certainly didn’t live a domestic life. This is still a very potent myth.

Also, Cézanne’s portraits of Fiquet were not conventionally attractive. They did not conform to the prevailing concept of a “muse” to the male artist of genius. If they were not conventionally pretty, they should at least be erotically appealing. To our eye, Fiquet was neither. She has been much maligned for her regrettable lack of conventional beauty, her sour disposition and her failure to smile – a refusal to ingratiate that many writers have considered her most damning offense. That doesn’t mean that she was melancholy or discontent, despite critics’ assertions.

Rutgers Today: How did Fiquet affect Cézanne’s work?

Sidlauskas: Fiquet was a crucial presence to Cézanne. He needed a subject to whom he was attached but who was not of his flesh – not his father whom he feared or his son whom he spoiled. She historically was assumed to possess a personality so nondescript that Cézanne could project whatever he wished onto her. I am convinced that the reverse is true: that in this prolonged series of portraits, it was precisely her physical presence, her quietude and containment, that allowed the painter to fully experience a visceral and perceptual engagement in the presence of the other.

Rutgers Today: Why are these portraits significant to art history?

Sidlauskas: The nearly 30 portraits stand out for their sheer number and their striking variability since Fiquet rarely looks the same twice.

Everyone thinks that it was Picasso who revolutionized portraiture, but these nontraditional depictions of a woman show that it was Cézanne, nearly 20 years earlier. Scrutinizing and painting his wife so intently and so often allowed Cézanne to explore with an attention both fierce and protracted the relationship between other and self, while sidestepping portraiture’s conventional strategies. He did not try to conjure his subject’s inner life, and he did not – unlike most portrayers of women – use the customary range of feminine expressions, postures and ornamental accessories.

We can only guess at Fiquet’s interior life, which her husband may have sensed but misinterpreted. We cannot know with any certainty what she was “feeling,” let alone what her husband was feeling when he painted her. For us, that will always remain a mystery for debate. 

Media interested in interviewing Susan Sidlauskas can contact Patti Verbanas at 973-972-7273 or patti.verbanas@rutgers.edu