Madame Cézanne and Lady M
The first time I recall seeing Madame Cézanne—specifically, Madame Cézanne in a Green Hat—I hardly knew what to make of her. In an elegant chair, with a stylish green hat atop her head, she sat with lightly folded hands and lips pursed. 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, I remembered that sturdy demeanor and sad eyes and found it hard to envision an exhibition focused solely on that long-faced woman.
After all, most retrospectives of Cézanne's work concentrate on his landscapes and still lifes, not on his portraits. The prospect of seeing a show devoted entirely to portraits of Hortense Fiquet—the woman who progressed from being Cézanne's model to being his mistress and years later his wife—piqued my curiosity.
When the day arrived, the Grand Hall at the Met was mobbed, with hundreds of museum-goers pouring through the doors and 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. As 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 staged in the magnificent Lehman Pavilion, flooded with natural lighting and carpeting underfoot. The blue you see in the photo to the side is a patch of blue of sky. Something of a rarity in New York.
What happened next?
When I reached the first-floor gallery, I couldn’t believe my good fortune, as there were so few visitors. Most likely, the crowd in the Great Hall was headed for the recent and most magnanimous gift to the MET: Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection. I heaved a sigh of relief thinking I'd 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 and draperies, the face stern, unsmiling. 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 the least pleased. Perhaps she was tired of being his model.
Further along, there's a younger Madame in a striped dress, the long hair loosened and her countenance much like that of the Sorrowful Madonna. In still another to the far right above, the artist has lightened her skin, giving Hortense a soft, almost childlike, countenance, but, again, without a 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 landmark 1913 Armory Show—the art show that galvanized the New World.
Of all these gems, and there were many, my favorite is that which is in the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of Madame Cézanne in a garden, her head perfectly positioned between the lush branches of a tree and a spindly potted plant and a flowering shrub off to one side. But even in the garden, Madame looks put upon. Note the eyes. Or am I mistaken? Is that peacefulness and repose, we're 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 that bad? What we do know is that Hortense was never accepted by Cezanne's well-bred family.
Which most likely was the reason 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? Perhaps, too, in those years a smile was not as mandatory as it is nowadays on Facebook.
Leaving the exhibition, I stopped at Lady M, a delightful bakery/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 10-minute wait for counter service.
It’s a narrow shop, with a chic interior—all white walls and a glass counter, the tiny 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 plaît. Très élégant, non?
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 on it regularly at 'Lady M' in Singapore. Exiting, I take one long look back.
Hope to see you next week when I'll have the coffee ready. Or would you prefer 'macha' tea for a change? Until then, mes amis, may life be good to you.