Summer of Love
The Woman Cézanne Painted 29 Times
How Hortense Fiquet became “Madame Cézanne”
This month, we’ll be featuring Summer of Love, a four-part series on artists who painted the same individual—over and over and over again. The relationships between the two range from muse to lover to daughter, with no two cases the same.
The first portrait Paul Cézanne ever painted of Hortense Fiquet—his model, mistress, son’s mother, and eventually his wife—is now lost, chronicled only in the background of a black-and-white photograph from around 1872. Also lost are many of the details surrounding the almost four-decade-long relationship between this strong-willed Parisian woman and the socially awkward Post-Impressionist. What does remain are 29 painted portraits (and many more drawings) that Cézanne created of Fiquet, the person he depicted most frequently after himself. These paintings bore the name Madame Cézanne even before the two were married; in fact, it took 17 trying years for the painter to make his favorite subject his wife. Yes, their relationship was a difficult one, but the proof—of affection, patient understanding, and silent support—is in the portraits.
“He would have found a less independent woman unbearable”
The story of Cézanne and Fiquet’s first encounter is lost to history, but their relationship began in Paris sometime around 1869. He was a 30-year-old painter living on a small allowance from his wealthy banker father, and she was a 19-year-old bookbinder moonlighting as an artist’s model.
“We have little information about my great-grandmother Hortense,” noted Philippe Cézanne, great-grandson of the pair, in the catalog of a 2014 exhibition devoted to portraits of Madame Cézanne at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. What is known about her early days amounts to nothing more than scraps of information. She was born in the central French town of Saligny, for example, where her father was a bank clerk. And, according to one of the few written descriptions Cézanne left of his companion, she only liked Switzerland and lemonade.
Fiquet and Cézanne had a son together a few years after they met, named Paul after his father. But the artist feared the disapproval of his own dad and, out of concern that he’d be financially cut off, he concealed his relationships with Fiquet and Paul from his family for a lengthy 17 years. Fiquet and Cézanne lived in separate homes, often in entirely different towns.
Even so, they were a constant presence in each other’s lives. And when they were under the same roof, Fiquet was reportedly patient with a man who has often been described as hermetic and ornery. “One doesn’t speak much of the wife of the painter. She wasn’t without qualities, without humor, and a tested patience,” Marthe Conil, grandniece of the couple, later wrote. “When Cézanne could not sleep, she would read to him at night, and that lasted sometimes for hours.”
Eventually, likely out of concern for Paul’s ability to legally claim an inheritance, Fiquet married the artist and formally became Madame Cézanne. The couple wed in the artist’s southern France hometown of Aix-en-Provence, in a City Hall ceremony attended by both of Cézanne’s parents (and Paul, already a teenager). After the proceedings, Fiquet and Cézanne lunched separately.
“Life was not easy for Hortense,” Philippe Cézanne wrote. “As with all couples, there were many altercations. It is likely that he would have found a less independent woman unbearable.”
29 ways of seeing
Cézanne’s first painted portrait of Fiquet exists only in a photograph, and the second was a small oil sketch of her breastfeeding an infant Paul. It is hard to place the other 27 portraits in firm chronological order because the artist tended to rework his portraits over long periods of time (and Fiquet’s painted face never wrinkles). Some dates remain, however, and can be used to extrapolate general themes. In the earlier paintings, for example, she may look somewhat self-consciously away, but by the mid-1880s she is unabashedly staring at the artist.
Cézanne’s images of her aren’t the traditional, flattering portraits that painstakingly replicate an individual’s likeness. In fact, some of the women identified as Madame Cézanne look incredibly different from each other—in one she is a nubile young woman surrounded by garden foliage, and in another she looks like a prim matron.
Certain features are constant, though. Cézanne was visually fascinated by the oblong oval shape of her head, the severe central part of her hair, and, at times, the details of her dresses. (These frocks are sometimes painted with more precision than the features of Madame Cézanne’s face.)
As a result, Fiquet’s expression is left blank, inscrutable, and according to the interpretation of many an art historian: sour. Critic Roger Fry, a contemporary of Cézanne and among the first to study the Post-Impressionists, unflatteringly referred to her as “that sour-looking bitch of a Madame,” a tagline that sadly stuck for decades. Today, the perceived acidity of Fiquet’s facial expression is attributed more to the painter than the sitter. After all, she posed for long hours for an artist who sometimes paused 20 whole minutes between brushstrokes and, when he finally did lay paint on the canvas, was more interested in her hemline than her eyes.
“I think she was much more important for Cézanne than usually, you know, art history says,” Philippe Cézanne suggested. “Because she always took care of him, she accepted everything.”