The present painting is part of an important series of portraits that Cézanne made during the last fifteen years of his life, which depict peasants and working-class people. This group of works includes the celebrated Cardplayers of 1890-1892, as well as the portraits of the gardener Vallier that Cézanne painted during the months before his death. The models for most of these late portraits were probably workers and domestic servants from the Jas de Bouffan, Cézanne's home in Aix-en-Provence. In a letter to Emile Zola dated March 1891, Paul Alexis, a novelist who grew up in Provence with Cézanne, recounted that the artist was "painting at the Jas de Bouffan, where a worker serves him as a model" (quoted in J.J. Rishel, Great French Paintings from the Barnes Collection, New York, 1995, p. 122). Commenting on this series of portraits, Theodore Reff has written:
In all of these there appears, both in the color harmony and the psychological content, a new note of somberness and mystery, a dark, flickering spirituality reminiscent of Baroque art and especially of Rembrandt. Most are images of serious, even sad meditation; the subjects' postures and features, so often said to be inexpressive and masklike, speak eloquently of this mood. If Cézanne can embody in these simple figures the dignity and restraint that are so characteristic of his own behavior, it is because they represent for him, despite their humble social status, an unassuming simplicity and natural nobility which he admires. They were congenial human types, not merely available models, and he lamented their disappearance from modern society. 'Look at the old cafi proprietor seated before his doorway,' he told a visitor in 1902. 'What style!' (Cézanne: The Late Work, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977, pp. 14 and 22).
The woman in the present painting was probably a cook, laundress, or maid at the Jas de Bouffan. Cézanne made at least two other portraits that may depict the same sitter. The first is Femme à la cafetière, painted around 1895 and now housed in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (fig. 1). Cézanne's son Paul told John Rewald that the model for this work was the mother of the adolescent boy who posed for Jeune homme à la tête de mort in 1896-1898 (Barnes Collection, Merion, Pennsylvania). She wears the same dress as the woman in the present painting, a blue-gray garment with slightly puffed sleeves, a tab collar, and a heavy, pleated bodice. She also has a very similar coiffure, parted in the middle and pulled back into a tight, fastidious chignon. Her features, however, appear more severe and her expression more dour than Portrait de femme. The second painting, now hanging in the Barnes Collection, is approximately contemporary with the present one and is almost identical in composition (fig. 2). The woman in the Barnes picture, however, wears a vibrant red dress rather than a muted gray one and clutches a book in her lap. In all three paintings, the sitter has a monumental, imposing form and conveys a dignified, resolute presence. Her hands appear strong and coarsened by hard work, and her face is rough but full of humanity. Describing the version in the Barnes Collection, Joseph Rishel has written:
Even among Cézanne's numerous figure studies from the 1890s, the force of presence here is almost unique. A woman, assumed to be a servant at the Jas de Bouffan, sits within a complexly defined interior with the solidity of granite. The weight of her heavy features, the tautness of her hair severely pulled back into a bun, and her stern gaze suggest a force of will quite apart from that of the passive and sometimes oxlike men who patiently posed for Cézanne at about this time. This woman has the quality of a massive form placed under tension, which no amount of ornamental design can dispel. The space itself seems to share her unease. The two levels of wall behind are painted in rugged, contrasting light and dark blues and grays, with occasional touches of brilliant green. The picture has the density and compression of those dour portraits Cézanne would do of his gardener, Vallier, in the early twentieth century, but here the measured application of paint does not progress into the almost painful quality of urgency that marks the very late portraits. It is a picture rendered in his 'dark manner,' which does not--quite to the contrary--project any negative sinister sense of the sitter. She simply serves as the point of origin for one of his most masterful pictures (op. cit., p. 138).
The present painting is closely related as well to Cézanne's celebrated portraits of his wife, Hortense Fiquet (fig. 3). Of the twenty-seven known oil paintings that the artist made of Hortense, fifteen depict her seated in an armchair, motionless and silent, her hands clasped in her lap like the woman in Portrait de femme. The severe coiffure, reserved expression, and massive form of the figure in the present painting also recall the various depictions of Hortense. The dealer Ambroise Vollard, whose portrait Cézanne painted in 1899, has left a detailed recollection of the patience that the artist required from all his models:
The sittings lasted from eight to eleven-thirty in the morning. Very few people saw Cézanne at work; he could not abide having people watching over his shoulder. For those who never saw him paint, it is difficult to imagine how slow and laborious his work could be on certain days. In my portrait, there are two little spots on the hand where the canvas is bare. I pointed this out to Cézanne. He responded, 'I may be able to find the right color with which to cover the white spots tomorrow morning. You understand, Monsieur Vollard, that if I were to cover them with just anything, I would be forced to start the painting all over again from here!' When you consider that I had a hundred and fifteen sittings, you can understand that the prospect of starting the picture again from the beginning made me shudder (quoted in G. Adriani, Cézanne Paintings, exh. cat., Kunsthalle, Tübingen, 1993, p. 232).
It has recently been suggested that Cézanne's late portraits of workers and servants from the Jas de Bouffan may reflect in part the severe agricultural crisis that France sustained during the late 19th century. Fields were laid to waste, and peasants abandoned the countryside for the city in droves. Describing paintings such as Portrait de femme, Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer has concluded:
It was the peasantry, now, that held center stage in Cézanne's work. It was a peasantry that carried bleak associations of what the region stood to lose (indeed was already losing)--a vital rural population, a once-thriving agricultural economy, an age-old crafts industry, and more poignantly, a way of life. Although the paintings look like (and are undoubtedly intended to be) portraits of anonymous laborers, their abrupt emergence in Cézanne's oeuvre in the critical context of the 1890s, combined with their pointedly iconic rendering, suggests a meaning beyond simple likeness. Weighty volumes, solid forms, and earthy pigments evoke stolid, unchanging rural values. Beyond the dazzling mirage of evanescent modernity entertained in the capital, Cézanne's brooding peasants stand for that marginal rural majority that constituted the core of the French nation and French nationhood, rooting for the inherited old ways that made for the eternal nature of Provence and of France itself (Cézanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture, Chicago, 2003, pp. 209 and 215).
The present painting was once owned by a Parisian named Louis Hodebert, whose collection included three other important portraits by Cézanne, all of which are now housed in major museums: Le garçon au gilet rouge, 1888-1890 (Rewald no. 656; Barnes Collection, Merion, Pennsylvania); L'homme à la pipe, circa 1896 (R. 712; Courtauld Institute Galleries, London); and L'enfant au chapeau de paille, 1896 (R. 813; Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
(fig. 1) Paul Cézanne, Femme à la cafetière, circa 1895. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, Portrait de femme, circa 1898. Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania.
(fig. 3) Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne au fauteuil jaune, 1888-1890. (sale, Christie's, New York, 12 May 1997, lot 115).