Paul Cézanne Eyes His Wife

THE DAILY PIC: The Frenchman gives as much love to his bride as to his apples.

Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850–1922) in a Red Dress

THE DAILY PIC: This masterpiece–I almost never use the word–is a painting that Paul Cézanne did of his wife in the late 1880s, and that’s now in the stunning exhibition called “Madame Cézanne” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. (Click on my image to see it highly enlarged.) I’m not sure why the show hasn’t become the city’s must-see event, since for sheer art-historical impact it beats anything else now in New York–even, or especially, the Matisse blockbuster at the Modern. I spent hours in the Met show, and never felt that my deepest looking and thinking was doing justice to the range of effects and ideas on display.

It did strike me, however, that before Cézanne, there was an assumption in Western art that close, hard looking at a subject gave a painter special purchase on what it truly was. But with Cézanne–and despite what he said and others have said about him–it seems to me that his obsessive looking didn’t give him a new intimacy with the thing portrayed, but only with its surfaces and the painter’s act of looking. The Met pictures of his wife make that especially apparent, since the distance that he keeps from all subjects becomes glaring and peculiar when that subject is the woman he lives with. The temptation is to psychologize these pictures, as though they give you special insight into the marriage. But I think that’ a mistake – unless you’re willing to give the same kind of affective analysis to Cézanne’s equally distant relationship to the apples in his still lifes. The relationship on view at the Met is not between Paul and Hortense, at all, but between eyes, paintbrushes, palette and a pile of flesh and cloth. And you could say that the peculiarity of that modern non-intimacy–the fact that looking stopped being knowing­–is the real subject of Cézanne’s art. Weirdly, that too turns out to be full of emotion. (Metropolitan Museum collection, The Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ittleson Jr. Purchase Fund, 1962)

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