‘I proceed very slowly, for nature reveals herself to me in very complex form and constant progress must be made. One must see one’s model correctly and experience it in the right way and furthermore express oneself with distinction and strength.’
(Cézanne, quoted in J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, trans. M.H. Liebman, London, n. d., p. 121)
Depicted within a simple interior rendered in softly harmonious tones of blue, a female figure sits motionlessly, her hands gently clasped as she stares with a calm, unwavering gaze out of the picture plane in Paul Cézanne’s Femme assise. Both the identity of the female figure and the date of this painting have been the subject of discussion. The identity of this model is thought to be the artist’s wife, Hortense Cézanne, the enigmatic woman whom he depicted most frequently in his art after himself. While John Rewald titled the painting Femme assise and dated it to 1879 or later in his catalogue raisonné of 1996, Lionello Venturi stated unequivocally that it is a portrait of Madame Cézanne, and dated between 1890-94. In addition, according to annotations in the artist’s dealer, Ambroise Vollard’s archives, Cézanne’s son Paul dated it to 1880-85. If Femme assise does indeed date from the mid-1890s, it would make this one of the last paintings that Cézanne made of his wife. These great discrepancies in date are not unusual for Cézanne’s portraits of Hortense; few of them are securely dated and much discussion presides over the chronology of these captivating paintings. Over a twenty-year period she appears numerous times in his paintings and drawings, yet no two works show an exact likeness of this woman. Indeed, irrespective of chronology, Hortense appears differently – sometimes dramatically so, sometimes only very subtly – in nearly every single depiction that Cézanne made of her, a timeless, monumental and enigmatic presence in his work. Rarely seen at auction and residing mostly in museum collections, these portraits are some of the most celebrated of Cézanne’s career and, indeed, some of the most important portraits of the Nineteenth Century; works whose influence continued well into the following century, inspiring Matisse, Picasso and Gris, among many others.
One of the simplest justifications for the identification of the sitter as Hortense is the fact that Cézanne painted remarkably few women throughout his career, although there are a variety of male portraits. And, as he was so little recognised during his own lifetime and also tended to live in relative seclusion, the majority of his portraits were of people in his acquaintance, and in particular, within his family. For this reason, Hortense featured in numerous works, serving as a vehicle for endless pictorial experimentation. Moreover, the blue blouse that she wears in Femme assise – most likely a type of house coat – can be seen in other portraits of her: Portrait de Madame Cézanne (1886-1887, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) and Portrait de Madame Cézanne (1886-18 87, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Likewise, the simple black ribbon that adorns her neck can be seen in several early portraits, namely Madame Cézanne à la jupe rayée (circa 1877, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Cézanne first met the nineteen-year-old artist’s model and bookbinder, Marie Hortense Fiquet, as she was known, in Paris in 1869. Despite being desperately shy of women and fearful of physical contact, Cézanne was drawn to the young, dark-haired Hortense and her reputedly calm and docile temperament, and soon after they had met, she became his lover. Though little is known of the woman herself – there are only two extant letters, and no diaries or writings of any kind – the story of their relationship is well known: Cézanne kept Hortense and their son Paul who was born in 1872, secret from his conservative father for many years, until 1878, when he read a letter to Cézanne that mentioned ‘Madame Cézanne and little Paul’. Furious, his father reduced his son’s allowance, forcing him to ask for money from his friend, the writer Emile Zola. In 1886, just a few months before the artist’s father died, the couple finally married, less out of love than for practical reasons, namely, to legitimise their son. Preferring the urbanity of Paris to the quiet, rural life of the Midi, Hortense, or as she was known rather disparagingly by the Cézanne family, ‘La Reine Hortense’, spent much of her time apart from the artist, a fact that generated numerous accusations that she was shallow and uninterested in her husband’s work, and predisposed to grander ways of life.
These interpretations of Hortense’s character and her relationship with Cézanne have inevitably coloured his depictions of her. Known by the artist’s friends and critics as ‘La Boule’, an unflattering reference to her figure, in many portraits Hortense appears unsmiling, with a firmly pursed mouth, seemingly bored and removed, an object that Cézanne treated in the same objective way that he treated apples in his still-lifes. Yet, this analysis belies the more nuanced impressions of tenderness, of complicit intimacy, or even, in some cases, the hint of vulnerability that can be seen in some of his portraits of her. While in early portraits of his mistress and model, she rarely returns the artist’s scrutinising gaze, by the mid-1880s, the depictions of her begin to show a greater complexity of feeling. In many of these works, as well as Femme assise, Hortense watches the artist, her husband, with a resolute stare, returning his scrutiny with a look of equal power. She is not sitting straight on to the picture plane in this three-quarter length portrait, but is turning her head and eyes ever so slightly to meet the artist’s look. Monumental and resolute, she has a powerful presence, dominating the space around her and defying the tight architectural construction of the interior. There is a sense that she has become an ally in the artist’s endeavours, remaining perfectly motionless and silent as he scrutinised every inch of her and conveyed it into strokes of colour upon the flat surface of the canvas.
With Femme assise and the other portraits of Hortense, Cézanne was not attempting to depict a likeness of his wife, nor convey a psychological insight or sense of emotion as were the traditional roles of portraiture up until this point. Instead, he was trying, in the same manner as his landscapes and still-lifes, to convey the ‘sensation’ of the object in front of him, depicting the relationship between the forms and the space surrounding them. Having stared at her for countless hours, Cézanne knew Hortense’s physiognomy inside out, allowing him to turn her appearance into an array of geometric facets and flattened strokes of colour: her face is a flat, mask-like oval depicted with small brushstrokes of nuanced ochre, pink tones and subtle flecks of green and blue. The perfect orb of her face is framed at the top by a helmet of dark brown hair, styled with the characteristic centre parting seen in so many portraits of her. Yet, her hair appears solid and separate from her head, revealed for what it is: pigment on canvas. It is this artistic process that allowed Cézanne to create what has been argued as being the first truly modern form of portraiture. Rendering the human form as pictorial abstractions of reality, Cézanne paved the way for portraiture in the Twentieth Century, in particular the radical depersonalisation and abstract distortions that the Cubists would impart on their sitters.
Femme assise has a long and distinguished provenance. First owned by the legendary art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, it was sold to the wealthy German industrialist, Bernhard Koehler in 1908. Koehler was one of the first collectors of French art in Germany and was advised on the purchase of this painting by Franz Marc, who would later become one of the Blaue Reiter artists. Following its ownership by Koehler and his son, another collector, Femme assise passed through the hands of some of the greatest dealers and collectors of the past century including Paul Cassirer, Knoedler, Walter Feilchenfeldt and Heinz Berggruen.