Madame Cezanne.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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Your son takes care of you. You survive. And you sit resolutely, looking out of all those canvases, waiting for someone to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16 thoughts on “Madame Cezanne.

    1. Thanks Nurul. Hortense really touched me (somehow to call her Madame Cezanne is demeaning). The Musee d’Orsay is wonderful – just for itself, never mind all the fab. exhibits in there. I love just pottering about the place.

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  1. Wow. I was speechless for a while after reading your post. A few things went on in my mind – 1) how I love paintings, having a humble collection in my house (Asian artists) but I’m ashamed to say I don’t know the story behind them, 2) that I should find out the story behind my paintings (none are portraits but I’m sure they have some story too), and 3) that you post reminded me of that one holiday in London when I was obsessed with this painting of Lady Jane Grey and I few others that I visited the National Gallery 3 days in a row. 🙂 Thanks for this great post. I read every word.
    – Amor

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    1. Wow! I am bowled over, knocked for 6 by your comment. Thank you so much. I know what you mean, paintings are so powerful. I know the Lady Jane Grey one you mention – it’s terrific and her story is so touching. There is a very interesting programme on the BBC if you ever get a chance to see it called Fake or Fortune, when they try to decipher if the painting is genuine. They track it’s provenance and tell a lot about the artist, and the whole background of the painting. I will be in Amsterdam soon, and see that in the Rijksmuseum they have a whole campaign about drawing – with the intention of making you look at a painting, stop a while, ‘see’, instead of taking a quick photo or walking on by. I think I will try that! Hope you find out something about your own paintings.

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  2. Can you imagine a world where men were judged equally harshly for something as mundane and meaningless as their appearance? Gorgeous post, and a day well spent in Paris..

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