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Cezanne: reconstructing direct vision

Paul Cezanne' wife was neither an intellectual nor an enthusiast of painting. ''My wife likes only Switzerland and lemonade,'' Cezanne once complained. He seems, in fact, to have valued Hortense primarily as a portrait subject, a role in which he could require her to sit motionless for long periods without speaking. Despite their incompatibility, she posed for 27 pictures.

The portrait sitter was always more a pretext than a preoccupation with Cezanne. His wife, like all his other sitters, represented the opportunity to build a picture around a figure or a face. Beyond a vague inkling of her appearance, we learn nothing about Mme. Cezanne from this famous portrait of her. But we are given a detailed account of the many colors in the shadow she cast on the red armchair and in the play of light on her skin and on the satiny fabric of her skirt. Cezanne believed that only the subtle tensions among myriad episodes of color could reconstruct the sensations of direct vision. His work is Modernist in the sense that it criticizes the presumed equivalence between a representational picture and whatever it represents. Likeness should not be the ideal of painting, for to achieve the illusion of, say, a person's likeness, a painting must avoid showing itself for what it is: a pattern of pigments on a surface.

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Cezanne wanted to report the qualities of visual sensation without misrepresenting the means of reporting in the process. He reworked his pictures tirelessly, for each one demanded countless adjustments of color intensity, composition, and physical touch to achieve the unity he saw as the only true pictorial equivalent of a moment of experience. He wanted painting to make explicit the inexhaustible actuality implicit in everything tangible we see. Modulating a picture's own reality inch by inch as he made it was the only means he could contrive to do this. That is why, even though there is apparently no psychological content in this portrait of his wife, no amount of looking seems to exhaust its painterly artistry.

Cezanne had another aim in nearly every picture he made, and that was to produce something ''monumental.'' His success in achieving that quality of largeness independent of size is easy to see here in the mountainous presence of the armchair and the flattened slope of his wife's skirt. The fact that her seated figure is slightly too large for the canvas adds to the expansiveness of the picture without making her appear a person of unusual size. In the monumental quality of this image we get a hint of the Impressionists' impulse to find grandeur in the everyday.

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