Paul Cézanne painted a portrait of his wife Hortense Fiquet known as Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair in oil on canvas around 1877. This portrait is kept in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
What is depicted in Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair?
The painting represents Marie-Hortense Fiquet in her late twenties. She is represented in the interior sitting in a red armchair.
Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair – Analysis
Cézanne was committed to the long process of working on the painting. That work was based on the principles of unifying what he sees and what he feels and thinks about the model he is painting and the environment that surrounds him. In portraits, he begins to apply the technique he developed in landscape painting. The technique of the so-called constructive brushstrokes. This technique involves arranging patches of paint of similar size in parallel or diagonal directions, treating the figure and face of the portrayed person and the objects in his environment in the same way. The modernity of Cézanne’s painting was reflected in his attitude towards sensations in nature, i.e. translating those sensations into elements for building an image. The structure of Cézanne’s painting is formed by complementary relationships of integrated color fields as well as on the principle of three dominant forms in nature. Cézanne believed that all scenes in nature can be represented using the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone.
In a letter to Emile Bernard, dated 15 April 1904, Cézanne writes To treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, everything put in perspective, so that each side of an object, of a plane, leads to a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, be it a section of nature or, if you prefer, the spectacle that Pater Omnipotens Oeterne Deus spreads before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. Now, we men experience nature more in terms of depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient quantity of blue tones, to give a sense of atmosphere.
During his long career, Cézanne almost always portrayed people from his immediate environment. These were usually family members or friends. After 1870, Cézanne returns to Provence, where a new phase in his painting begins. The influence of Camille Pissarro is increasingly noticeable, which is also reflected in Cézanne’s acceptance of the Plein-air painting. Cézanne’s techniques of image realization and coloristic shaping of sensations from nature can be seen in Self-Portrait from 1875. In 1877, Cézanne creates a very successful portrait of Victor Chocquet, which is characterized by a more radical approach when it comes to the organization of colored fields. During the seventies, Cézanne began portraying Hortense Fiquet, who would later become his wife. Cézanne will create almost thirty portraits of her in several series. The portrait of Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair created in ca. 1877 is particularly important.
It is important to point out that Cézanne most often did not do portraits for commercial reasons. That is why his portrait painting is interpreted as a great character study. Cézanne excluded the one-time impulse of immediate experience from the construction of scenes. He contrasted the overall impression of the character in a certain space with the ephemerality of posing. Thus, the painting Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair is part of a series of portraits by Marie-Hortense Fiquet that continue to intrigue researchers with the questions to what extent Cézanne influenced her attitude, facial expression, in what relationship is her identity with the representational appearance created by the painter.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about the painting Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair in a letter to Clara Rilke from October 1907– Seated in this red armchair, a personality in itself, is a woman resting her hands in the lap of a dress with wide vertical stripes, most delicately rendered with discreet small patches of greenish yellow and yellowish green up to the edge of the blue-green jacket, which is held together in front by a blue silk tie shot with green reflections. In the brightness of her face, the proximity of all these colors is exploited for simple modeling; even the brown of her hair piled in curves above her temples and the flat brown in her eyes have to speak up against their surroundings. It is as though each spot had knowledge of every other. So much do they collaborate; so much is there of adaptation and denial; so much does each concern itself in its own way with balance, and create it, as the whole picture ultimately holds reality in balance. For if one says it is a red armchair (and it is the first and most definitive red armchair in all of the painting), it is only because it has within it a sum of color experience that, however, it happens, bolsters its redness and confirms it. To come to its most blatant expression, it is painted very heavily around the light face, so that a kind of waxy layer results. And yet the color does not overwhelm the object, which appears so perfectly translated into its painterly equivalent that its bourgeois reality, no matter how perfectly captured and factual, surrenders all heaviness for an ultimate existence in a picture. Everything, as I already wrote you, has become a matter of colors among themselves. One is considerate of the other, maintains itself against it, reflects on itself… You see how difficult it becomes when one wants to get quite close to the facts…
In the same year that Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair was completed, Cézanne did another portrait of Hortense Fiquet called Portrait of the Artist’s Wife. That painting is in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Stockholm.