Saturday night used to be a quiet time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Back in the early 1990s, when the idea of perusing cultural relics at night was still a novelty, it was possible to feel that one had entire rooms of the museum to one’s self. Things have clearly changed, as I learned on a recent trip to view Madame Cézanne, an exhibition that gathers twenty-four of the twenty-nine extant portraits the artist made of his wife, Hortense Fiquet. There is something disconcerting about the contrast between the pre-Christmas flood of visitors and the implacable presence of Madame, but that is often the nature of blockbusters, or—as is the case with the current mini-blockbuster ensconced in the Lehman wing—any exhibition that unfolds the privacy of the studio for the delectation of crowds. That’s not intended to sound too churlish about the museum experience. Still, one is permitted to gripe after not finding an empty cab on a cold, windy night, thus having to hoof it all the way back to Grand Central.
There are, Madame Cézanne reminded me, dividends to braving crowds. The impact and intent of an exhibition are lost in online and published formats, where curatorial decisions regarding the disposition and relationship of works are fractured. And then there’s color, which can’t be done justice in books, and is woven like a thematic thread through a life’s work. Even before Cézanne had found his compositional legs and was still pushing paint around in an effort to reconcile Impressionist tones with plastic form, blue was his keynote. It pervades a series of portraits in the guise of a robin’s eggshell wall behind the sitter, or infuses the sometimes black, sometimes red dresses that Hortense wears with a cobalt base.
In some works the beauty of blue is obvious, as in the pair of early portraits of Madame Cézanne in a red chair, where it attains floral ripeness in the marvelous bow on her jacket front. With its flattened structural forms, densely encrusted pigment and Impressionist color, Madame Cézanne Sewing (ca. 1877) is a type of painting that continues to resonate with every artist who puzzles out form by adding more paint rather than modeling with chiaroscuro. The justly more famous related work is Boston’s Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair (Madame Cézanne in a Striped Dress) (about 1877), a remarkable canvas in which Cézanne left behind the baroque convolutions of his youth in favor of a controlled, dense patchwork of paint. The red armchair alone is a magisterial piece of painting—upon seeing it in 1907, Rilke called it “a personality in itself.” The various blues of Hortense’s jacket run a finely orchestrated gamut from violet overtones to green, the sort of color transitions that Picasso would take up in his early works—intimations of Picasso run throughout the exhibition. With its compression of the picture plane and Hortense’s domination of the space, Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair is among the most airtight compositions the artist ever painted.
The presence of blue also endows Cézanne’s hard-edged drawing with an implicit atmosphere. This is the case even in the show’s most monumental canvas, the Metropolitan’s Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress (1888–90). In reproduction the painting seems to suffer a near crisis of disunity, with each element maintaining a stubborn independence, and the rightward pull of the composition an apparently puzzling miscalculation. But in the flesh one is made aware of an abiding blue harmony that holds everything together. The tilt is less disturbing than fascinating, and the dynamic between resolved and incomplete passages gives the picture a quivering energy. Adjacent to it hangs a similar, evanescent version on loan from Sao Paulo, a more conventionally poetic if far less memorable piece.
A century of art criticism has faulted Hortense as a supposedly unsympathetic presence in her husband’s life; sometimes, tangentially, Cézanne catches flak for the opacity with which he painted her. The bottom line is a presumptive lack of personal connection. For the most part Cézanne’s classical imperative supersedes the emotional vibrancy we’d like to see, especially when it comes to a man painting his wife. I think there are two reasons for the criticisms. The first is rather shallow: Hortense wasn’t beautiful, and Cézanne didn’t alter the facts or apprehend her in a particularly sensual way. The second reason addresses this in roundabout fashion: the robustness of his best paintings from the 1870s through the early 1890s, the period when he was painting his wife, is largely missing from these canvases. This may be due, as has often been speculated, to a strain between them, but I also think it reflects a sensitivity on the artist’s part, a tightening up painters experience when they’re trying hard to get something right. Cézanne wasn’t cutting loose in these paintings so much as struggling with an uncharacteristically intimate set of observations.
Much as I want to like them, the portraits of Hortense are not generally my favorite portraits by Cézanne. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that both he and Hortense were relieved on days he went outside to paint that other pyramid, Mont Sainte-Victoire. All the same, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue by curator Dita Amory (interview here) go a long way toward rewriting a well-worn narrative of conjugal dysfunction, for there are a number of drawings and paintings in which Cézanne appraises his wife with tenderness, and she returns the favor.