Paul Cézanne painted Portrait of Madame Cezanne with Unbound Hair in oil on canvas between 1885 and 1886. This painting is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
What is depicted in the Portrait of Madame Cézanne with Unbound Hair?
The picture shows Hortense Fiquet with loosened hair, in front of an almost monochrome background.
Portrait of Madame Cézanne with Unbound Hair – 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 as well as 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. During his long career, Cézanne almost always portrayed people from his immediate environment. These were usually family members or friends.
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. Cezanne 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.
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. The mimetic approach was never close to Cézanne’s understanding of painting. This is evident both in numerous self-portraits and in the portraits of Hortense Fiquet, which were created in series throughout his entire career. It is important to point out that it is difficult to single out two completely related portraits of Hortense Fiquet out of almost thirty of them if we take the physical characteristics as the main criterion. Cézanne based the structuring of the painting on the isolation of the authentic features of the motif and their coloristic coexistence.
Susan Sidlauskas writes about this portrait in the article Emotion, Color, Cézanne (The Portraits of Hortense) – Cézanne paints his wife’s face simultaneously as a mask and as a screen of revelations; the discontinuities are suggested by the unevenness of paint build-up across the face—the sense that we can peer beneath the surface, at the same time that the exterior boundary of the face is fortified by a broken line of violet blue. The initial mask-like effect of Fiquet Cézanne’s face is also enhanced by the soft-edged band of deep violet gray shadow that curves around the jaw, cutting deeply into the neck, and also by the near-flattening of her left ear. Cézanne painted the pale ochres, ivories and corals of his wife’s rounded forehead directly on top of her hairline, obscuring both the edge he drew earlier and left behind, and the one he painted later. The contour of Fiquet Cézanne’s face is visible just beneath the top layer of ocher “skin.” Her eyebrows seem pinned to her face at different heights. Their clarity gives them an uncommon force, as if they are brackets that hold everything else on the surface in place. If the eyebrows disappeared, or receded any further, the face would fall completely. Because Cézanne painted ocher and rose skin tones over the brows, the two asymmetrical arcs seem revealed to us through those depths, as if we had to glimpse past another layer, to bring them into focus.
The element that sets this portrait of Cézanne’s wife apart from others is that in this case, she posed with her hair down. Although from today’s perspective, this would not be given importance for the concept of representativeness in relation to private and public space characteristic of 19th-century culture – this detail is a kind of precedent. Styling the hair and putting it up in a bun was considered necessary for women in the transformation from what is an intimate sphere of life to what is public. Cézanne in the structure of the composition that this portrait does not reveal much about the environment in which his wife is. Based on Hortense’s hairstyle, it is clear that he is represented in all the personal space of the boudoir, although no other indications are given. The melancholic expression on her face and the tense component of the ambience that exists in the domain of assumption achieve their full capacity in this composition through the thoughtful organization of each stroke of color.
Susan Sidlauskas in the mentioned article writes about the subject’s level of exposure – In this portrait, oscillation extends to the subject’s level of exposure. Fiquet Cézanne appears alternately vulnerable and fortified. The stripes of her collared dress intensify a sense of restraint, for they seem to stiffen and shore up her body—despite the slight curve of the wide stripes that are aligned over her breasts. And the broadness of the shoulders, which fill almost the entire breadth of the painting, lend a certain stability and authority to the image. Her tilted head and shadowed neck appear cradled within the striped collar on the left, but are far too exposed on the right, where the slack collar seems to pull away from the skin. Somehow, here Fiquet Cézanne appears simultaneously monumental and diminished(…) A deep sensuality is inferred here from the color and shape of the mouth—despite its melancholy frown. A clear luminous rose tone defines the upper lip; a slightly paler, dappled pink the curving pout of the lower. And the eyelids are almost seductively rimmed by a line of deep violet blue. The mouth is composed of a variety of color patches—mostly rose and ocher, with faint traces of violet blue and gray green—that seem to have been pressed upon the canvas, rather than applied carefully with a small brush, thus making the lips appear faintly bruised, a conflation of seeing and imagined touching that is typical of Cézanne. The orchestration of violets, blues and greens surrounding and inflecting a cluster of warm ochers and roses will recur in many of the portraits of Fiquet Cézanne. Historically, this is precisely the same range of tones that Rubens juxtaposed in both his portraits and in his allegorical representations of women. (Men’s skin is often constructed in a range of russets, reds, and chestnut browns, rather than the roseate shades Rubens uses for women’s skin.) Here, Fiquet Cézanne’s chin, whose roundedness is punctuated and framed by a comma of green blue, seems to quiver as we observe it. So, too, does her left cheek appear to swell outward, with its projecting patch of crimson framed by the retreat of blue violet shadow just before her ear.
Guided by the so-called logic of organized sensations, Cézanne formed solid coloristic structures based on the analysis and modulation of each individual stroke of color. Excluding the narrative and the suggestive component to the viewer that they inevitably carry, Cézanne relies entirely on the capacity that color as a tool has to convey certain states, experiences, or emotions in the portraits of his wife. About Cézanne’s attitude towards the transformation of traditional principles of women’s portraiture, Susan Sidlauskas writes in the mentioned article – As Cézanne struggled to represent his own perceptions of the “complexus” that was his wife, he was participating, whether intentionally or not, in a reform of one of the traditional principles of women’s portraiture: the flattering use of color. Fiquet Cézanne was not painted as a beautiful woman, as we are often told; and this absence of beauty is matched by a pointed lack of painterly virtuosity—at least as it was more commonly represented in the sheen of a satin gown, the gleam of a russet curl, the dewy softness of an unwrinkled cheek. Cézanne thereby trumped the expectation that the woman’s endowment as a painted beauty was matched by the artist’s ability to paint beautifully. As he defied the usual, flattering capacities of color in portraiture, he elevated the ambitions for color’s potential to convey meaning.
Similar in structure to the portrait of Madame Cézanne with Unbound Hair is the Portrait of Madame Cézanne created in the same period between 1885 and 1886. This portrait is in the Granet Museum in Aix en Provence.