The Unexamined Wife

Why yet another book on the painter Paul Cezanne-one of the “heroes” of modernism?  Because there are 24 oil portraits he painted of his wife, Hortense, that have barely been examined. Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau St., Princeton, is hosting the author of Cezanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense, Susan Sidlauskas, for a discussion Dec. 9, 5:30 p.m. (Read more about Cezanne here.)

In the early years of the 20th century, Hortense-her portraits and her person-was reviled by critics.  She lacked beauty, they pointed out; she was an inveterate gambler, obsessed with fashion, they claimed. Even her own husband was quoted as saying she liked “only Switzerland and lemonade.” Perhaps most damning was the recurring observation that Hortense never smiled.

She failed to charm the viewer (as she presumably failed to charm her husband), as most artist’s muses were expected to do.  Instead, Hortense Fiquet Cezanne was viewed by many as a “counter-muse,” a positive hindrance to the creativity of her husband.

In Cezanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense, Ms. Sidlauskas begins with these criticisms, understanding them as a resistance to the portrayal of the woman who is less-than-beautiful.  She argues that instead of being a cipher in Cezanne’s working life, (as important as a “pat of butter,” as one critic contended) Hortense was instead her husband’s primary “other,” the human subject to whom he turned more often than anyone other than himself.

The painter used the figure of his wife to experiment with all the ways in which one person is at once isolated from yet inextricably tied to another. Cezanne did this through an extraordinary series of portraits-oil paintings and drawings-which barely resemble one another, defying years of assumptions about the importance of resemblance in portraiture (long before Picasso was credited with the same achievement).

The book examines the larger implications of the paintings’ reception within the larger field of women’s portraiture, as well as their androgyny, and the revelatory way they distill some of the artist’s most abiding concerns: the expression of emotion and the fear as well as the possibilities of touch.

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