Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Secret Victorianist at the Met: Madame Cézanne and Death Becomes Her

Yesterday, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York to see two very different exhibitions of a nineteenth-century flavour.

Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory (1891)
Madame Cézanne, which runs until 15th March 2015, brings together 24 of the 29 known paintings by Paul Cézanne of his wife Hortense Fiquet, along with additional sketches and watercolours. The paintings cover more than 20 years (from the 1870s-1890s) and simultaneously give a wonderful glimpse into the artist’s techniques and his private life.

Cézanne’s ready access to his subject meant he had an opportunity for many variations on a theme – most obviously the four ‘red dress’ portraits, including one from the Met’s permanent collection, (which date from 1888-1890) which see Hortense in the same garment, but posed slightly differently against varying backgrounds, as the painter experiments with different combinations of colour and compositions. The sitter can at times appear as formal an element as a tree branch or pot plant, her expressions enigmatic, at times even indistinct.

Yet the sketches suggest a very different story – one of an intimate and happy family life. Here is Hortense bent over her needlework, her sleeping head upon a pillow, their baby Paul fils feeding from her breast.

Madame Cézanne Sewing (c.1880)
This is hard to reconcile with what we know of Cézanne’s marriage – the hostility of his friends towards Hortense, the secrecy of the relationship for 17 years, as the artist feared his family’s disapproval, their late marriage (in 1886). You need only read the Wikipedia entry dedicated to her to see how Hortense’s failures as a wife and negative impact on her husband’s art have passed into the commonly accepted history of the artist’s life.

Portrait of Madame Cézanne (c.1877)


What this exhibition offers, if not exactly a rehabilitation of Hortense’s public image, is an opportunity to re-examine this relationship (one marked by the social and financial inequality common to many marriages in the period), along with some of Cézanne’s most wonderful paintings. Visit if you can!

Death Becomes Her, on the other hand, which runs until 1st February 2015 in the Anna Wintour Costume Institute at the museum, is an exhibition of nineteenth-century American and European mourning (largely women’s) fashion. Having visited, and blogged about, The Art of Mourning exhibition at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum a few months ago, which included examples of Victorian post-mortem photography and portraiture and hair-work, it was wonderful to see such fine examples of the clothes which would have been worn by the mourners in the period, who were participating in these other acts of memorialisation.

The Secret Victorianist at the Met
Spanning the entire century, and the very early 1900s, the dresses on display here ranged from the simple, to the extravagant – from afternoon and walking dresses, to those suitable for a ball or even a wedding. The exhibition does a good job of explaining the etiquette around mourning in the period, the influence of fashion plates (some of which are on display here and the criticism women could be subjected to for failing to display an ‘appropriate’ level of grief.

It also touches – briefly – on the highly interesting subject of the position of the widow in nineteenth-century culture. Available for marriage, but, unlike most girls, financially independent and sexually experienced, the widow, despite being subjected to the most demanding strictures around the displays of mourning, cuts a socially disruptive figure. A side room at the exhibition houses a series of satirical drawings, entitled ‘A Widow and Her Friends’, by Charles Dana Gibson which ran in LIFE magazine in 1900, which takes a humorous look at this very issue.

As ever, with displays of nineteenth-century fashion, the diminutive proportions of the clothes and, especially, the miniscule waistlines are particularly striking, with a dress worn by Queen Victoria herself being a notable exception! Steer clear if the sound of a darkened room with requiems blasting from the speakers isn’t your idea of fun, but otherwise this is a beautiful, fascinating, and well-curated exhibition.


The Met has a recommended (i.e. optional!) admission of fee of $25 – entrance to special exhibitions is at no additional cost. Find out more about visiting here.


Do you know of any other New York exhibitions with a nineteenth-century focus the Secret Victorianist should visit? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

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