Lady in Blue (1900) by Paul Cezanne
Lady in Blue (1900)
HOW TO UNDERSTAND
The Provencal painter Paul Cezanne developed a unique style all of his own. Achieving initial fame (or notoriety) as one of the Impressionist painters who showed their works at their own Impressionist Exhibitions (1874-86), he adopted a more monumental approach to painting which coincided with the Classical Revival which began during the era of Post-Impressionism. An enigma to the public but an inspiration to modern artists like Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963), Cezanne is now viewed as one of the leading pioneers of modern art which emerged during the early 20th century.
Several of Cezanne's Impressionist portraits which were painted during the 1890s and early 1900s are distinctive for the slightly strained pose of the sitter, and for the oval-like arrangement of the hands, which impart more stability and significance to the figure painting despite the everyday clothes and unassuming features of the sitter. Among such portraits by Cezanne are Lady in Blue (1899, Hermitage, St Petersburg) and Seated Woman in Blue (with a Book) (1902-6, Phillips Collection, Washington DC), in both of which the same dress is worn. Originally it was believed that Seated Woman in Blue was a portrait of the artist's wife Hortense Fiquet (1850-1922), from which we might have assumed that the Hermitage portrait also showed Hortense Cezanne, were it not for the lack of facial similarity. Even so, the two paintings were evidently painted at roughly the same time.
But where did Cezanne paint them? Seated Woman in Blue (with a Book) contains several items (drape with a leaf design) that is typical of Cezanne's Paris pictures. but the artist could not possibly have produced such complex paintings during the short visits he made to Paris during the 1900s, as he worked at an extremely slow pace. As a result, we must assume that Seated Woman in Blue, and therefore Lady in Blue, were painted no later than 1899, when Cezanne stopped spending long periods in the French capital. Writing about Cezanne's late works, the art scholar John Rewald (1912-94) - a leading authority on both Impressionism and Post-Impressionist painting - suggested that the sitter in both portraits was a professional model known as Marie-Louise. The learned art critic Georges Riviere (1855-1943) has claimed that Marie-Louise posed twice in Cezanne's Paris studio, at 15 rue Hegesippe-Moreau, for the oil painting Nude Woman Standing (1899, Private Collection, Washington DC) and for a large watercolour portrait. Furthermore, in his reminiscences of Cezanne, the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) states that the artist was painting a nude model at the same time as he painted Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1899, Musee du Petit-Palais de la Ville de Paris). Note that this would have been quite a rare event during the 1890s. Cezanne only painted female nudes in Paris - never in Aix-en-Provence - for fear of gossip. In any event, Vollard remembered that this same model (whose name he did not know) also posed fully dressed for two other portraits - a recollection corroborated by the facial resemblance between the model in the large watercolour in the Louvre, and in Lady in Blue.
Interestingly, the pattern of the table covering bears a striking resemblance to that in Cezanne's portrait of a Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900, J. Paul Getty Museum, LA).
Now that the mystery of the sitter's identity appears to have been solved - putting to rest the idea she might have been Cezanne's wife Hortense Fiquet or his former governess Madame Bremond - we can focus on the beauty of this work, surely one of Cezanne's greatest portrait paintings of his career.
Overall, it is more dynamic and animated than many of his female portraits and is marked by a lyricism which is not characteristic of Cezanne's late works. The woman appears to be rather sad yet dignified and, like the Man with Crossed Arms (1899, Guggenheim Museum, New York), dressed in smart clothes - perhaps ready for Church. The sense of weariness about her is beautifully conveyed by the sitter's motionless face and posture, the position of her hands and the way she gazes out of the picture into the middle distance. She is smartly dressed, as if for Mass, and wears an attractive matching hat. Although she appears somewhat lifeless, she is not an elderly woman, and looks no more than about fifty.
What makes Lady in Blue a masterpiece is its composition - the way that Cezanne arranges the constituent parts of the picture. Notice, for instance, how he imbues the painting with a certain dynamism through the use of contrasting angles and diagonals: the slight tilt in the wood panelling on the wall; the crooked angle of the table (right) and the intruding items (left); the turn of the sitter's head; and the angular arrangement of her arms. Despite this, the sitter holds the composition together, perfectly.
Notice also how Cezanne directs the viewer's attention to the sitter's face, then downwards to the point of the V-shaped pattern formed by the front of her dress. This point is also indicated by her left forearm and hand. If the viewer's attention wanders, it is redirected back to the sitter - by the vertical marks on the walls, and by the angle of the table. Curiously, her hands remain undeveloped, unlike (say) those in the portraits of Ambroise Vollard (1899), Seated Man (1898-9, National Art Gallery, Oslo), Man with Skull (1896-8), Girl with a Doll (1902, Private Collection), or Woman with a Coffee Pot (1890-5, Musee d'Orsay). This may be because he wished to reduce all distractions to a minimum.
The House of the Hanged Man (1873) Musee d'Orsay.
The Bridge at Maincy (1879) Musee d'Orsay.
Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings (1882-1906) Various art museums.
The Card Players (1892-6) Musee d'Orsay.
Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1906) London/Philadelphia.
Man Smoking a Pipe (1892) The Hermitage, St Petersburg.
Woman with a Coffee Pot (1890-5) Musee d'Orsay.
The Boy in the Red Vest (1889-90) E.G. Buhrle Foundation.
For an explanation of other Impressionist portraits, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART EDUCATION