The first time I laid eyes on Madame Cézanne --specifically, Madame Cézannein a Green Hat--I hardly knew what to make of her. Seated in an elegant chair, with a stylish green hat atop her head, she sat with lightly folded hands and tightly pursed lips. The more I studied her, the more I felt I was keeping her from far more urgent matters. Hurriedly, I moved on. When I heard the Metropolitan Museum of Art was mounting an exhibit devoted solely to her, it seemed a bit odd.
After all, most exhibits featuring Cézanne's work concentrate on landscapes and still lifes, not on portraits. So, the prospect of seeing a show devoted entirely to portraits of Hortense Fiquet—a woman who progressed from being Cézanne's model, to mistress and, years later, to wife—piqued my curiosity.
When the Day Arrived
When the day arrived, the Grand Hall was mobbed, with hundreds of museum-goers pouring through the doors, the ticket lines snaking every which way. What gives? Are they all here to see Madame Cézanne? Fortunately, as a museum member, I could avoid the lines by picking up a sticker at the hospitality desk. And so can you, if you become a supporter.
Elbowing my way through the crowd, I wondered what chance I’d have of seeing the paintings up close. The exhibition was hung in the magnificent Lehman Pavilion, one of my favorite parts of the museum, as it's flooded with natural lighting overhead and soft carpeting underfoot. The blue you see in the photo below is a patch of blue of sky. How refreshing is that?
What happened then?
When I reached the first-floor gallery, I couldn’t believe my good fortune, as there were few visitors about. The crowd in the Great Hall must be here to see the latest gift to the MET: Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection. If not that, perhapsthey're off to visit Assyria to Iberia, at the dawn of the classical age. I heaved a sigh of relief thinking I would have Madame Cézanne to myself.
Entering the gallery, I encountered Madame Cézanne in the Red Chair, a symphony of colors, the blue in her dress repeating in the wallpaper. So, too, the yellow in the skirt. Although the overall impression is one of abundance and the room is thought to be Cézanne’s apartment in Paris, Madame does not look happy—composed yes, but not pleased.
Further along, I came to a portrait of a younger Madame in a striped dress, the long hair loosened, and the countenance much like that of the Sorrowful Madonna. In still another, the artist lightened her skin, giving Hortense a soft, almost childlike, countenance, but, again, there's no hint of a smile.
By the way, this early painting of Hortense by Cézanne was shown in an 1895 exhibition at the gallery of the art dealer, Ambroise Vollard and was later shipped across the Atlantic for the 1913 Armory Show—the art show that galvanized the New World.
Of all these gems, my favorite remains the one that belongs to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that of Madame Cézanne in a garden, her head perfectly positioned between the lush branches of a tree and a spindly potted plant, with a flowering shrub off to one side. But even in the garden, Madame looks put upon. Or is that peacefulness and repose, we are looking at?
What did I learn?
That while Madame Cézanne would sit for 27 portraits over a period of twenty years, her expression would never change. Critics would invariably say that she looked glum, morose or downright unhappy. Naturally, the set mouth and purposeful expression raised plenty of questions about her relationship with the artist. Was it really all that bad? What we do know is that Hortense was never accepted by Cezanne's well-bred family.
Which may be the reason that she and Cézanne lived apart in separate houses, even after the birth of their only child. Eventually, they would marry for the most practical of reasons—to secure their son’s inheritance. Which may be reason enough why we never see her with a happy expression. What’s more, Cézanne was known to work slowly and methodically. Sometimes a half-hour might pass between brush strokes! In Madame's defense, one has to ask: How long can a sitter hold a smile?
Leaving the exhibition, in need of some lightness of being, I stopped at Lady M, a delightful bakery/small café on East 78th Street. Many days, the lines are down the block, as the shop is a great favorite with tourists and young people. I’m in luck as there is only a ten-minute wait for counter service.
It’s a narrow shop, with a chic interior-- all white walls and a glass counter, thetiny tables perfect for two, if not for a group. At three in the afternoon, I have no need for a table—French Rule Number One: No snacking between meals—so I order a slice of the Gateau aux Marrons, an exquisite layer cake filled with fresh cream flavored with chestnuts: To go, s’il vous plait. Très élégant. non?
But should you visit, their signature cake is the mille-crepes, made with 20 paper-thin crepes layered with cream, not overly sweet. Another favorite is the mille-crepes made with green tea. The ‘macha’ flavor is popular with its young Asian clientele, many of whom snack regularly at Lady M in Singapore. Exiting, I take one last look back.