Only one day in Paris! What to do? We went to our favourite museum – Musée d’Orsay – and I became spellbound by the face of a woman who lived 95 years ago.
What do I see when I look in your pale, oval face? Hair neatly parted, scraped back in a bun. Deftness. Quietude. A certain passivity. You don’t look like you’d be the life and soul at a party. I can’t imagine you at a party at all. Straight-backed in your yellow easy-chair, a little prim maybe, neither happy or unhappy, resigned rather – as if you’re thinking ‘This is it, I can hope for nothing more. My life is what it is’. You sit with your furniture tilting skew-wiff around you and you are the strength, the calm centre, the focal point. Wife, mother, model, muse.
Once a girl. Hortense Fiquet. Only nineteen when you met him. Working as a bookbinder and part time as an artist’s model. So, you had nerve; you dared and once you were attractive to him. You bore him a son and he painted you over and over, more than any other, more often than himself. He needed you it seems, but fear of his father (a prosperous Provence banker), of society’s disapproval, and of being cut off, led him to conceal you; so there were long periods of living apart, and you needed to make frequent, sometimes desperate, appeals for funds.
He married you, despised you, ridiculed you, loved you. You became Madame Cezanne. Yet his friends maligned you. Couldn’t see why he bothered with your odd shaped face. And because he wasn’t interested in painting you they didn’t see you. He reduced you to a series of shapes, an experiment on canvas; and you were seen as self-absorbed, aloof, and as having as much personality as one of his famous apples. Zola, who had known your husband since schooldays, wrote a thinly disguised novel about him called ‘The Masterpiece’ in which he described you (Christine) as mere ‘dust’. Roger Fry, a well known art critic, was even less charitable, calling you a ‘sour looking bitch’.
You were destined to remain unseen, unknown, ignored. But as I look into your eyes, I fancy you know your own worth. You are not remote, dismissive, or surly. You know who you are and choose simply to rise above. Seated amongst your lavish, lop-sided furniture, you are married, although Cezanne has publically declared he no longer loves you. Your marriage was purely to ensure an inheritance for young Paul. The same year, your husband leaves you, to live with his mother and sisters, and declares you ‘only care for Switzerland and lemonade’. A mean remark; a reference to your birthplace near the French-Swiss border.
Cezanne stops painting you, turning his attention to his native landscape. Money becomes easier. Finally, you can breathe. You go on holidays to picturesque little Alpine towns, shop, visit cafes, and gamble in local casinos. On his death, Cezanne makes one final dismissive gesture – he settles his entire estate on Paul, leaving you nothing.
Your son takes care of you. You survive. And you sit resolutely, looking out of all those canvases, waiting for someone to see.