Sunday, February 22, 2015


Photo by WT Manfull

French Lessons. There they are again on my list of goals for 2015. I shudder to think how many years “French Lessons” have hovered near the top of my annual list of aspirations deemed important in moving toward personal-fulfillment or, from a practical standpoint in the case of French, to making travel in Provence a lot easier. Right up there with writing, reading novels, travel, wine, squash, and running, all areas of my life in which I hope to make progress. (I finally dropped piano playing.)

At sixty, I no longer harbor illusions of speaking fluent French. My ambitions are greatly reduced. At this point in my life, if I could expand my comfort zone to include more tenses than le présent de l’indicatif  and passé composé, I would feel I had accomplished something significant. The roller coaster ride on the way to fluent French has not been in vain, though. I’ve learned other lessons, many of which transcend learning any foreign language and have undoubtedly propelled me closer to who I’d like to be than conjugating 14 tenses of French would ever have done for me.

I’ve mastered the fine art of laughing at myself, cultivated greater patience and even more empathy (already in abundance people would say), and, most importantly, accepted that success is measured in many ways.

When learning a language, one has to have a sense of humor and a strong sense of self that is well insulated and wrapped in thick skin. Because, as only those of you who strive to acquire another language can fully appreciate, the experience is famously riddled with opportunities for everything to go awry, leaving the speaker standing painfully naked before the listener. There are French words that will never pass my lips again for fear of such exposure.

At the top of that list of French words to avoid at all costs is cou (speaking of feeling naked). I was forewarned by my French teacher to tread carefully—and with pursed lips—when introducing cou, the French word for neck, into friendly conversation. Feeling uncharacteristically confident one morning in the pharmacy in Lourmarin, I neglected to heed this sage piece of advice. After a futile attempt to recall gorge to describe my daughter’s sore throat to the pharmacist, I thought of cou for a reasonable substitute. Cou, predictably, failed to emerge properly from my mis-shaped American lips and much to my daughter’s chagrin, out came cul, a somewhat vulgar term for the other end of the torso.

Even the slightest mispronunciation can wreak havoc when speaking French. Asking someone to répétez takes on a completely different meaning when the first ‘e’ is not accented. Instead of requesting that something you’ve not heard be repeated, you could easily find yourself asking the person with whom you are having a nice conversation to pass gas again if you inadvertently substitute "repétez."

Slightly less embarrassing, I once told a store owner that I was looking for a crevette for a gift for my nephew rather than a cravate. That is to say, a shrimp rather than a necktie. My husband hastens to remind me that I have, on more than one occasion, introduced him, not as a “mon mari,” my husband, but as “ma mairie,” my town hall, or “ma mère,” my mother. Now, I just don’t introduce him.

Even our beagle has had to suffer through my attempts at speaking French. One November day, a handsome French man who was purchasing vegetables next to me in the Cucuron market, struck up a conversation with me. To be accurate, it was with our beagle, but, in any case, as he stroked her nose, he told her that it was the height of sanglier hunting season and that a dog with a nose as sensitive as hers could be very happy if she were out hunting wild boar in the Luberon. I replied, on her behalf, that indeed she does dream of being “a shoe.” When the man looked perplexed, I knew I had said “une chaussure” instead of “une chasseuse,” a hunter. It’s so hard to speak French.

A strong sense of self also enables one to more readily shed roles of authority when they require a command of the French language. The task of reporting our stolen car to the local gendarmes fell on the shoulders of our 11-year-old daughter, whose malleable brain had managed to absorb more French in a couple of months than I had in the previous six years. She took her temporary role in stride, probably even deriving some secret prepubescent pleasure from thinking she rather than her mother was in charge.

Learning to be patient while keeping a smile on one’s face also comes with the territory of learning a foreign language. Sometimes the avalanche of French conversation seems interminable but eventually it will come to a halt if for no other reason than a breath is necessary. At that point, someone--usually my husband—can surface with an English translation. Then, I know whether I should retain the smile pasted on my face or switch to another expression better suited to the contents of the discourse, about which, at least in the early days of French Lessons, I was known to have completely misunderstood. (Even today, years into these lessons, I am often bowled over by how one tiny error in translation on top of another can take one in a direction completely unrelated to the subject at hand.)

Friends and family, upon hearing these stories, marvel at the thickness of my skin and the perseverance with which I have pursued my goal of learning French. So most were not surprised when I announced my intention to enroll in a French language immersion course in the South of France.

Photo by Pamela O'Neill

After some research, I selected CREA-Langues, a school near the 5th-century village of Moustiers-Sainte-Mairie in the Haute-Alpes department of Provence, about 100 kilometers (about 60 miles)  from Lourmarin, where our family likes to hang our hats. This segment of my French Lessons was ten years ago now, but it remains as vivid today as when I lived through it.

The 19th-century Monastère de Segries, home to the language school where I would be for seven days, was just six kilometers past Moustiers. As I approached the village, I suddenly remembered that, when I visited this area two years earlier, my cell phone could not pick up a signal. Panic set in when a furtive glance at my cell phone confirmed my fear. How would I make it through the week without a covert conversation in English?

Driving on, I saw a pair of towering gates. Forbidding as they appeared, I soldiered on and found lovely grounds, filled with oak, plane, and cypress trees, comfortably manicured gardens, and splashes of spring colors everywhere. The spacious grounds were divided into several courtyards, providing a cozy feel. A few students had already arrived whom teachers and other staff appeared to be greeting and accompanying to their respective rooms.

I was shown to my room by Florence, the pastry chef, who smiled warmly but gave no hint that she would be able to conjure up a single English sentence should the need arise. I would have a roommate and, never having had one before, I wondered what protocol was in determining which bed to take. The first one had slightly more privacy, but was a single. The second one was a double bed, but was devoid of any privacy and down a very long flight of stairs. It was closest to the bathroom, though I wasn’t sure whether this was a pro or a con. I would wait to discuss this with my roommate (in French, bien sȗr).

Photo by Pamela O'Neill

In the meantime, I freshened up, reviewed my “meeting others” notes, took a deep breath, and made my way out to meet my classmates. Lubricated with apéritifs of pastis and kir, the crowd bandied French around the courtyard with varying degrees of finesse and with unmistakably different accents representing nine different countries.

There was Jan, a Dutch man with a confident French who was attending for the fourth time. He likes to vacation in France and to read French literature. His French intimidated me, so I was relieved to meet Ludwig, one of three men from Germany, who I later found out, was relieved to meet me for the same reason. Ludwig wanted to learn French because he had just purchased a house in Provence. Hans, a retired BMW test driver, was there to refine this French because he wanted to purchase a house in Provence. Wolfgang, whose thick German accent initially hid his many years of studying French, was enrolled in the course for reasons I was never able to decipher. Aline, from the Netherlands, and her son Mario from Belgium, both chatted freely in French with well-practiced gesticulations and seemed to have signed up for this immersion course like others sign up for cruises. Isobel, from Scotland, quiet but moving in and out of tenses and other languages with acrobatic ease, was there to accelerate her learning for the sake of learning (if I understood her correctly). Brian, a retired architect of British decent who lived in New York and wanted to travel more in Provence, carried on a lively conversation with another English man, Michael, a pulmonary physician who owned a house in France. It was a colorful group, spanning at least 40 years, all united in a common passion for the French language.

Eventually, we moved to the long table that, for the next six evenings, would be filled with 17 students, four instructors, and several administrative sorts. The wine was flowing as freely as the convivial conversations around me. As it was all in French, I tried to keep the subject on food—the area in which I had the largest French vocabulary—while conversing with those around me.

“J’adore les aubergines.” “Est-ce que vous voulez encore du vin?” “C’était très bon.”

Fortunately, food was the talk of the table on its own merits, without any help from me, so I was able to postpone the inevitable conclusions of my dinner companions that my knowledge of French didn’t extend much beyond the mousse au chocolat.

I met more classmates as the evening progressed, including my camarade-de-chambre, Marita, a young biologist from Finland who lived in Belgium and already seemed to have a great command of French. I was hopelessly inadequate in conveying my lack of preference for a particular bed, especially without a bed to which I could point, and equally as poor in comprehending her feelings on the subject. Somehow, later, we ended up in separate beds.

By the time coffee and tea were served that first evening, I felt myself sinking under the weight of my apprehension about what was to unfold during the remaining days. I could hardly wait for sleep to lift me out of my worries of impending mortification, at least for a few hours. Nearly everyone spoke much better French than I did.

My alarm sounded the next morning, long before I was fully restored. After the universal French petit déjeuner of sliced breads with butter, jams, and honey—uninspired but, mercifully, everything on the table was in my vocabulary—I walked over to the Grand Salon. There, at 9:00, we were to rendez-vous to be tested in order to establish four groups, each comprising folks with a similar level of French language ability. Would there be a group for me or would I be such an outlier that private tutoring would be necessary? Or worse, would I be tucked in a corner, tethered to a computer watching an online course?

I found a spot on a couch between Ludwig and Mario and began my journey deeper into the French language, but also into myself. Would my self-deprecating sense of humor and thick skin be enough to protect my self-esteem? How would I let my classmates know that I am more than my French allows me to communicate? Without my native language to convey who I am, I was left with just me.

Our first assignment required pairing up with a classmate whom we would interview and introduce to the entire group. As fate would have it, I was paired with Jan, the most advanced speaker in the group, now on his fourth round at this particular language school. (I would learn shortly that there were other language schools.) My face flushed and my heart raced. Learning French is a roller coaster ride, I reminded myself, the angst is followed by exhilaration. (I tried to repress the knowledge I had only ever ridden the old wooden roller coasters.)

The interview with Jan was a total of 15 painful minutes, during which time I tried without success to move beyond basic introductory phrases, but I had nowhere to go after establishing his marital status, the number of offspring he produced, where he lived, and, as I wrote above, his history of French language courses. Jan was no help. My reservoir of French words and phrases, by the middle of our interview, was completely enveloped in anxiety. I found myself madly scribbling down what little information I elicited from him in a highly idiosyncratic hybrid of phonetic French and English that probably led Jan to think that not only was I unable to speak French, I was also illiterate.

Time finally rescued me from this tortuous task, but the reprieve was brief as I slunk into my place on the couch between Ludwig and Mario only to be called on first. “Always try to go first while your audience is fresh,” advice from my mother flitted through my mind but the last thing I wanted that morning was a fresh audience. All eyes turned to me, so with belt buckled and bar lowered, I began. French words actually came out of my mouth and I was off. The vocabulary wasn’t impressive and Jan’s life was pretty much stuck in the present, but the nods from fellow students were supportive and the teachers’ smiles were reinforcing. I surprised myself that I passed on a fair amount of information about Jan and that my accent had not completely betrayed me.

I endured the written test next. It was four pages long, chock-full of “conjugaisons, grammaire, et mots.” Moans, groans, and occasional chuckles were audible throughout the room. Was it masculine or feminine? Passé composé or imparfait de l’indicatif? Être or avoir? I finally finished, extracting full confidence from only question, relating to food. What beverage would someone likely order from a café at breakfast, thankfully, “un grand crème,” long my standard order at our local café, was the only feasible answer.

A brief interview completely the class assignment process. What were my goals? Having witnessed my spoken French and reviewed my test, it would be apparent that any number of goals would match my vast needs.

I assured the teacher that I suffered from no delusions of great linguistic proficiency nor from false hopes of achieving such proficiency in the next six days. I refrained from offering to switch to cooking classes and, in reasonably good French, I proceeded to explain that my goals were modest: I wanted to break out of present tense and move beyond the first-person, singular conjugation. I would probably never fully appreciate the nuances separating the use of passé composé from imparfait de l’indicatif. Any movement forward would bring satisfaction, I told him, and he seemed relieved. Strangely so did I. Sometimes moving in the right direction, however slowly, is as good as it gets.

My class at CREA-Langues
I am often reminded of those French Lessons in Moustiers. I significantly advanced in my French, but I learned much more than just French in that week, as I have ever since embarking on my study of French many years ago.

Jan, the best French speaker in our group of students that spring in Moustiers, spent the rest of the class finding humor in my French until one of the teachers, fearful that Jan’s jabs might penetrate my thick skin, took me aside and told me that Jan may have a much better vocabulary—and he probably can conjugate 14 tenses—but he’ll never have the accent your French teacher ingrained in you nor will he have, the teacher hesitantly added, a crowd of classmates vying to sit next to him at the dinner table.

That conversation made me feel good but what really warmed my heart was knowing that my feelings of success were not measured in a contest with Jan. As I review my cryptically recorded 2015 aspirations—that aren’t much different from last year’s or any of the previous years—I need no reminding that success is measured in many ways and what nourishes one to move successfully toward personal fulfillment, feeling relevant, or just plain “okay” comes from the darnedest places sometimes.

I’m buckled in, ready for this year’s French Lessons. On y va!

The grounds at CREA-Langues.  Photo by Susan Manfull

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Sunday, February 8, 2015


Église Saint Martin  Photo by WT Manfull

In most tourist books about Provence, rarely is more than a small paragraph devoted to the charming village of Ansouis. In some popular books—notably Rick Steves’ Provence and The French Riviera—the village is not even mentioned although, remarkably, the old standard Michelin Guide: Provence includes a full page about Ansouis.

It’s no wonder this beautiful village is also referred to as “sleepy and “quiet.” (Read: surprisingly few tourists.) Selfishly, I would like to keep it that way, but having spent a week there this past summer, I could see that it was not the somnolent Ansouis I first met in the mid-1990s.

La Closerie  Photos by Mary Norcross

Ansouis has been discovered. It probably began in 1999 when the village was named one of the most beautiful villages in France.  Then, when the haute-cuisine restaurant, La Closerie—having already established an enthusiastic local following for ten years—was awarded a Michelin star a couple of years ago, people with their fingers on the pulse of tourism in the Luberon knew that the allure of Ansouis would attract a broader audience and gradually draw more tourists. At the same time, tourist magnets like nearby Lourmarin were, in the minds of some people, becoming too crowded, compelling tourists to consider other neighboring villages.

Ansouis, population hovering just over 1,000, is located in the southern part of the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon, just 12 kilometers (about 6 miles) from our long-time favorite Provençal village, the aforementioned Lourmarin. Built atop a rocky knoll upon which an imposing château has rested since the Middle Ages, Ansouis offers a commanding view of the Luberon countryside. It’s a breath-taking view, a veritable patchwork of vineyards and, depending on the time of year, fields of wheat, lavender, sunflowers, or poppies, dotted with trees like cypresses, olive trees and evergreens, and framed by the Luberon Mountains.
Southward view from the Château d’Ansouis  Photo by WT Manfull

In our early travels to the Luberon, we would often drop by Ansouis just to enjoy that view. We would stop for a café crème at the village’s (only) café, under the plane trees at the base of the village, or walk up and over to the other side of the village where we could enjoy a cup of tea at the (only) salon de thé and take in the gorgeous view at the same time. (The café/bar is still there, not surprisingly, as is the Salon de Thé, now called Les Moissines and serving an excellent lunch, I am told).

Typical scene in Ansouis   Photo by Mary Norcross

The village was always very quiet. I often got the feeling we had inadvertently walked on to an abandoned movie set for Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. The streets were well kempt and the impeccably restored stone homes, dating back to the 15th century, were perfectly adorned with urns and window boxes filled with blossoming flowers. The beautifully polished doors with lavish knockers begged to be photographed and it was easy to oblige because no one was there to get in your way.

Our maison village vacation rental.  Photo by Mary Norcross

This summer, I had the good fortune to stay in a maison village—in the very heart of Ansouis—and I got to see firsthand how Ansouis has fared, having been discovered. Let me allay any fears now—it is still a very tranquil village. There are indeed more tourists and parking is not as easy as it once was, but “sleepy” still aptly characterizes this delightful village.

Pâtisserie d'Antan, where the patries are fabulous and this young woman saved my trip by
putting asiee my old French cell phone that I left behind (probably rushing off to eat my croissants) until I returned.
Photo by Susan Manfull

There is a new pâtisserie and salon de thé where you can find terrific croissants served with a big smile and, I am told, an excellent lunch with very fresh salads. Conveniently located at the base of the village, near the café, one can pick out their pastries and take them to the café tables under the plane trees to enjoy them with their morning coffee (also served with a smile). I was there quite a few mornings (and the other mornings, one of us picked up the pastries to enjoy on our balcony) and later in the evening, we were often back for pastis. We had a ball watching the World Cup matches with the locals in this bar.

France scored:  Watching the World Cup at the local bar.  Photo by Susan Manfull

Beyond the views, other attractions in the village our family enjoyed some twenty years are, of course, still there. (It is Provence, after all, where some structures have been around for as long as 2,000 years.) This list includes the Château d’Ansouis, the adjacent Église Saint Martin, the very quirky Musée Extraordinaire, and the atelier of the nationally recognized santonnier, Daniel Galli.

Entrance to Château d’Ansouis  Photo by WT Manfull

I might be the only one of my entire circle of friends who travel to Provence who has never toured the château, I am embarrassed to report. It was built in the 12th century, atop a dilapidated fortress, and restored in the 17th century and again in 1930. The same family—the Sabran family—owned and lived in this château until 2008. Begining with Elzéar and Delphine de Sabran who in the early 14th century chose to live a life of austerity and were later made Saints by the Avignon popes, the property stayed in this family until 2008,  when a family quarrel over inheritance could not be resolved and the château had to be sold at auction. Pierre Cardin, who owns a lot of property in the Luberon (especially in Lacoste and Bonnieux) nearly became the new owner but, to the relief of many locals, the deal fell through and a couple from Aix-en-Provence, Gérards and Frédérique Rousset-Rouvière, took ownership. Today, Madame Rousset-Rouvière gives many of the tours. (Having missed the tour again on my last trip, it is among the top to-do’s on my list for my next trip!)

Église Saint Martin  Photo by David Scott Allen

The adjacent church, Église Saint Martin, is well worth a peak to see its opulent décor. In the Middle Ages, this building was a Court of Justice where the judicial roles were carried out by the lords of the château.  The remains of the two local saints, Elzéar and Delphine de Sabran, are kept here.

Consider dropping by the Musée Extraordinaire if you enjoying a leisurely afternoon. A visit will undoubtedly provide fodder for your conversation over an afternoon pastis at the local bar.
Mary Norcross talks with santonnier Daniel Galli

Finally, the Santon studio of Daniel Galli is definitely worth a stop (if you can find it open). Considered one of the best santonniers in France—he was awarded a Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2004 affirming his exceptional artistic talents—his small studio is chock-full of beautifully crafted Santons, a couple of which now grace our crèche at home. I was unable to find the studio open when I was there in June although I saw him around the village on a couple of occasions.

Typical street in Ansouis.  Photo by ES

Ansouis is a walking village. Narrow cobbled lanes—called calades in Provence—offer passage to the heart of the village. The two main entrances to the village, by car, are reserved for residents and guests (with keys) who have nerves like steel. (They are very narrow roads—and, as a driver, you have the impression the whole village is watching as you navigate the sharp turns decorated with flowerpots visible only to drivers intimately familiar with the details of their village.) Wear your walking shoes and enjoy the views.

Plates served in La Closerie.  Photo by Mary Norcross

Better yet, make a reservation at La Closserie and stay all night in one of the local bed and breakfasts. Our vacation home was right next to Un Patio en Luberon so we became acquainted with the inn keepers and enjoyed the aromas that wafted up from their kitchen. A tour of the property confirmed that it would be a lovely spot to stay. The vacation home in which I stayed this summer, Maison-des-Voutes, was lovely—if you can stay a week, I highly recommend this home.

Ansouis is one of a half dozen of "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France" within a 75-kilometer (45 mile) radius. The others are Gordes, Lourmarin, Ménerbes, Roussillon, and Venasque. All are beautiful. Ansouis is the sleepiest.

Typical scene in Ansouis.  Photo by WT Manfull


How do you pronounce "Ansouis"?  Here are some general guidelines:
"On-swees" if you live in Provence and adhere to the traditional Occitan pronunciation.
"On-swee" if you are Parisian.

Merci mille fois to friends David Scott Allen, Mary Norcross, and ES for their photography contributions!

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Sunday, January 11, 2015


Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850-1922) in a Red Dress. Paul Cézanne 1888-1890.

Post-impressionist artist Paul Cézanne, born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839, spent most of his sixty-six years in his beloved Aix and he died there in 1906. He grew up there, studied law at the university, took art classes at the city’s Musée Granet—even won a second-place prize for his painting at that museum—and famously painted nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire some five dozen times.

Cézanne is generally regarded as the most famous painter to emerge from Aix-en-Provence and is certainly regarded as one of the most significant artists of his time, credited with laying the foundation for 20th-century Cubism and described as “the father of us all” by Picasso and Matisse.

However, if you want to learn more about Cézanne, don’t go to Aix. Instead, find you way to New York City—before March 15, 2015—to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exceptional Madame Cézanne exhibition. There, you can see 24 of the 29 portraits of Hortense Fiquet, Cézanne’s model for two decades, the mother of his only son Paul, and, 17 years after they met, his wife. These paintings, along with 14 drawings, three watercolors, and three sketch books with informal and sometimes affectionate drawings of his wife and son comprise the Met’s mesmerizing and immensely informative exhibition.

Mont Sainte-Victoire. Photo by Pamela O'Neill.

Except for Mont Sainte-Victoire, very little of Cézanne can be found in and around Aix. Yes, there is the guide entitled “In the Steps of Cézanne” which is an interesting walking tour past family homes, friends’ homes, churches, and old haunts like Café des Deux Garçons. Cézanne’s studio (Atelier Cézanne) can be visited but there’s not much point as there is none of his work and it’s a hike from the center of town (I wouldn’t recommend it) and the Musée Granet offers embarrassingly little of the native son’s work.

When we first visited Aix, some 20 years ago, we went to the Musée Granet expecting to see some of Cézanne’s work, but there was not a single piece of his work on display. Cézanne is said to have offered the museum many paintings, but the museum rejected them. The curator at the time, August-Henri Pontier, a sculptor whose work never amounted to much, infamously proclaimed that Cézanne’s work would never be a part of the museum while he was in charge.

Since that time, and especially in the last decade, the museum has apparently recognized the ignorance of its past ways. It hosted two fabulous shows, one marking the 100th anniversary of the artist’s death (2006) and another focusing on Picasso and Cézanne (2009), both of which I saw. It also acquired several Cézanne pieces, including one of the Madame Cézanne portraits, now on loan to the Met for its current exhibition, and another one-of-a-kind portrait of Emile Zola, Cézanne’s childhood friend from whom he was later estranged. There are also three watercolors of Mont Saint-Victoire; however, for conservation reasons, they are seldom on display.

So, by now you understand why I suggest that a lover of Cézanne opt for a visit to the Metropolitan’s Madame Cézanne exhibition over a trip to Aix. There are, of course, many other reasons to visit Aix-en-Provence, one of my favorite cities in France; Cézanne is just not one of them.

Portrait of Madame Cézanne. Paul Cézanne ca. 1885-1888

The current exhibition, the first to focus on the artist’s portraits of his wife, is small but powerful. Upon arrival in the Lehman Wing, one is confronted with nearly all of the portraits displayed in one long row along the walls. My friend and I were immediately struck by how matronly, even homely Madame Cézanne appeared. Moreover, with few exceptions, any expression was utterly absent, at best, and quite dour, at worst. Did Cézanne like his wife? Was he projecting his own personality? Or, as with his still life work, was the painter’s goal to perfect his craft, to capture accurate form rather than reality and certainly rather than personality? After all, he is famously quoted as demanding that his models “sit still like an apple.” Hortense Fiquet obliged and the resulting work is both intriguing and enigmatic and, in the end, lovely. One writer likened the portraits to a Rorschach test.

Young Woman with her Hair Down.  Paul Cézanne ca. 1873-1874. According to the accompanying curatorial notes, this painting "is the earliest traceable painted portrait of [Hortense]."

Very little detail is known about the relationship between the two Cézannes. They met in 1869 in Paris where Cézanne, a 30-year-old son of a wealthy banker, was studying art and Marie-Hortense, a 19-year-old book binder with a working class background, was occasionally modeling for artists. Working as a model was what brought the couple together and what would keep them tethered to one another for over the next two decades.

Their son Paul Jr. was born in 1872 but they would not marry for another 15 years or so and then only for legal reasons to benefit their son. In the meantime, Cézanne kept their relationship a secret from his family for fear that his harsh father would terminate his allowance. During this time, the couple spent much time apart from one another in order to maintain this ruse. When their relationship was made public, Cézanne’s family made it clear that they did not like Hortense. After Cézanne’s father died in 1886, shortly after they were married, Cézanne moved in with his mother and sisters and  when he died in 1906, it was revealed that Hortense had been taken out of his will (but son Paul supported his mother until she died in 1922).

Émile Bernard: Paul Cézanne in his studio at Les Lauves, 1904

Although Cézanne was known to be demanding, cranky, cold, and reclusive, little was known about Hortense’s personality and she left scant information to cast light on her nature—no diaries and few letters—compelling some art critics and biographers to rely on the face that stares vacantly from the portraits. As such an easy target, particularly derogatory characterizations were made about Hortense.

One art critic, according to the exhibition catalog, went so far as to blame Hortense for Cézanne’s mundane landscapes; in a letter to a friend, Roger Fry wrote in 1925, “Perhaps that sour-looking bitch of a Madame counts for something in the tremendous repression that took place.” Cézanne’s friends called her “La Boule,” referring to the "ball" shape of her head, as painted by the artist who was increasing focused on shapes or to a “ball and chain.”

Portrait of Madame Cézanne. Paul Cézanne ca. 1885-1887

So, why so many portraits? Cézanne is said to have been most comfortable painting subjects with which he was familiar. Like Mont Sainte-Victoire, a familiar presence since his childhood, Hortense certainly became familiar to the socially awkward painter and, if the sketches are reflective at all of their relationship, perhaps some intimacy had developed over the years. Maybe he was just trying to “get it right,” something he had said by way of explanation for his numerous paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. In both subjects, he was experimenting with form and its presentation.

Although romantic love did not sustain the Cézannes’ marriage, their strange, symbiotic partnership produced artistic masterpieces that some have argued changed the course of art history, influencing the work of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and André Derain, to name just three painters. With these 24 portraits, finally, Hortense commands the attention she deserves in an exceptional exhibition that is as haunting as it is beautiful.

Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory. Paul Cézanne ca. 1888-1890.


“Madame Cézanne” is on exhibit at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 15, 2015.
Plans are underway for a larger exhibition of Cézanne’s portraiture at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris in 2017 and, later, at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

For more information about “In the Steps of Cézanne” in Aix-en-Provence, visit the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office. 

All above photos of framed work were taken by Susan Manfull at the exhibition.  All others related to Cézanne were obtained from online sources in the public domain.

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