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Mysterious Exchange: On Susan Sidlauskas’s Cézanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense

Paul Cézanne famously observed to Joachim Gasquet that “The landscape thinks itself in me and I am its consciousness.” “Nature is on the inside,” Cézanne further reflected. He clearly felt landscape painters before him were insufficiently responsive to—too detached from—the natural world and he hoped to break down the barriers that separated observer from the observed. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s writings on and around Cézanne are perhaps the most well-known account of the artist’s projection of “lived perspective” into his work. As Merleau-Ponty put it, “my body is a thing among other things; it is one of them. It is caught in the fabric of the world, and its cohesion is that of a thing….Things are an annex or prolongation of itself.”1 The painter’s wife, Hortense Fiquet, suggestively spoke of the artist “germinating” with the landscape, thereby announcing a connection between painter and world closer than any previously conceived. The relatively mild language of germination emerges in Susan Sidlauskas’s account as an intimacy more intense than any vegetal metaphor. The register Sidlauskas prefers derives from family relations, or rather blood ties. “I can’t tear my eyes away, they’re so tightly glued to the point I am looking at that it seems to me they are going to bleed,” she quotes Cézanne saying in the introduction (16). It stands as a crucial statement of his expressive concerns. Cézanne feels his world so passionately that blood is exchanged in the transaction.

In Cézanne’s Other: The Portraits of Hortense, Sidlauskas takes the “fusion-model” of Cézanne, as I will call it, to its limit. Marshalling an astonishing array of nineteenth century “materialist” thinkers—including Hippolyte Taine, Alexander Bain, Herbert Spencer, Wilhelm Wundt, Théodule Ribot, Paul Souriau, James Sully, Charles Darwin, Otto Weininger, and William James—in tandem with contemporary neuroscientists and affect theorists—including Robert Gordon, Nicholas Baume, Eve Sedgewick, Rei Terada, Joseph Le Doux, Dylan Evans, Antonio Damasio and Drew Leder—Sidlauskas builds a picture of the artist as reciprocally bound to and defined by the object of his regard, and that object, the one most affectively charged, was Hortense. While earlier studies have “emphasized the painter’s isolation and his fear of, and estrangement from, his subjects”—which Sidlauskas collects under the banner of formalist abstraction—her alternative model “depends on recognizing the role of reciprocity…a sensuous and perceptual engagement in the presence of the other” (9). Nonetheless, as I will show, reciprocity—a concept that acknowledges and preserves the difference between self and other—sits uncomfortably alongside a language of merger, commingling, hallucination, melding, ingestion, blurring, dissolution, and fusion.2 The title of the final chapter—“Toward an Ideal: Dissolving Difference”—aptly characterizes the author’s claims.

Sidlauskas’s account is historically grounded in the new psychological theories of the self that were being elaborated and developed throughout Cézanne’s lifetime. According to Ribot, the human being is “un tout de coalition,” the self a “complexus” so intricate that to analyze it was to “‘disjoin groups of phenomena which are not juxtaposed but co-ordinated, their being that mutual dependence, not of simple simultaneousness’” (78). Sidlauskas observes the wide consensus at the time that “people are their sensations” (61), which rendered any notion of deep interiority obsolete. Cézanne was a sensusalist, he made no hard distinction between body and soul. “I like muscles, beautiful colors, blood. I am like Taine…I am a sensualist,” he told Gasquet (82). It was this material self that further rendered obsolete positivist efforts to classify and disarticulate the variable life of emotions; rather than stable and fixed, emotions are equivocal, mobile, and continuous. Contemporary scientific and literary theorists join their nineteenth-century counterparts in affirming the “fluidity of subjecthood” (87). In Sidlauskas’s account this fluidity is primarily constituted on the level of color (chapter 2) and touch (chapter 3), both of which function in Cézanne’s work to disrupt mimetically enforced categories of inside and outside, surface and depth, self and other, male and female (chapter 4).

Sidlauskas’s appeal to historical and contemporary sciences to understand Cézanne’s project is further combined with an analysis of the artist’s relation to the Flemish and Venetian pictorial traditions he admired. Cézanne’s “method,” Sidlauskas writes, “depended in part on the conviction that an imagined, bodily fusion with those [color] effects [generated by the Venetian masters] would produce a more authentic, potent representation.” Sidlauskas describes how Cézanne “felt the boundaries between self and other dissolve” before the Venetian masters; his “sense of fusion between himself and his motif” was so direct that it literally disturbed him, his sitters, and his critics (64).

Nonetheless, Cézanne’s connection with the past might complicate the scientific analysis of the emotions. That is to say, the representation of the emotions might be conceived as a historically changing and normatively grounded phenomenon and therefore beyond the limits of trans-historical claims regarding the nature of the emotions. Sidlauskas observes this difference when she notes that “possessing a body is not enough: representation is the necessary precursor to emotions” (64). Indeed, Sidlauskas goes on to cite “Derrida” to the effect that “We are not ourselves without representations that mediate us, and it is through those representations that emotions get felt” (64). The reference is actually to Terada’s rather peculiar gloss of Derrida. The phrasing of the quote suggests that Derrida intended to conflate representations with sensations. It would be more accurate to say that sensations only mean from within a representational context. Merleau-Ponty, for instance (one of Sidlauskas’ key sources), made explicit this distinction between sensations and representations stressing and preserving the difference between affects and their (bodily) reflection: “the originator [emotions] is not primary in the empiricist sense and the originated [representation] is not simply derived from it, since it is through the originated that the originator is made manifest.”3 For Sidlauskas, on the other hand, everything is empirically constituted. Emotions are constituted in color and touch. Thus the title of chapter two, “The Color of Emotion,” is to be taken literally. Emotions are colors and vice versa (this identity is what Cézanne discovers in the Flemish and Venetian masters). While Cézanne took little interest in the “complex narratives and allegories of his predecessors” and abandoned the pursuit of mimesis itself, “he did seek a way to capture the emotional grandeur and intensity of their color effects” (64). Cézanne’s assault on mimetic forms of representation did not lead him to take up an alternative (such as abstraction), but rather to subsume representation altogether under an interest in eliciting affect. Representation is an affective property in Sidlauskas’ account, what she describes as the “ascendency of color [and touch] as an agent of meaning” (100). Which is to say representation itself is conceived as a material agent, one that produces meaning, rather than an expression of it. On this account Cézanne does not express his feelings about Hortense in paint, but rather Cézanne and Hortense are themselves constituted by color and touch. And when Sidlauskas writes of the “end of interiority in portraiture,” that inner life resurfaces as the agency of the painter’s materials (100).

If the agency of color replaces the agency of the artist or the sitter, then what the portraits of Hortense show is a liveliness more animate than any mimetic representation could produce. Indeed, Sidlauskas’s account focuses in detail on Cézanne’s “metaphors of ingestion,” of his “physically absorbing” colors (64, 82), and of the total identification between the painter and his subjects. Above all, Gasquet provides a vitalist language that best captures Cézanne’s affective forms:

Gasquet recorded Cézanne’s conception of the visceral and mental exchange that occurred between Henri and himself as he proceeded with the portrait. The bodies of the painter and his subject—along with their vital fluids, fleeting thoughts, experiences, states of mind, and abiding temperaments—seemed somehow absorbed and merged through a reciprocity in which the portrait subject commingled with the artist’s persona, while being reprojected through paint. This heightened, almost hallucinatory, engagement is completely consistent with Cézanne’s defiance of the subject-object divide in anything he painted—whether a sugar bowl, a mountain, or a peasant. However, the painter’s sympathy with a known, living subject seemed to enhance considerably the sensation of mutual exchange. (83)

The merger ideal is further literalized as a mode of blood exchange:

“I feel,” Cézanne reportedly said to Henri’s son, Joachim, as he was working on the father’s portrait, that “with each brush stroke I gave it, there’s a little of my blood mixed with a little of your father’s blood, in the sun, in the light, in the color, and that there is a mysterious exchange, which he isn’t aware of, which goes from his soul into my eye which recreates it and where he will recognize himself.” (83)

Sidlauskas’s own rich, even lavish descriptions–some of the best available–often turn on the identification of representation with transfusion. She observes “areas of blood-red pigment pool in the lower lip and the nostril’s interior; in the fluted collar of the blouse; and along the edge of the neck (the same deep red that is dispersed around the Musée Granet portrait, to disturbing effect)” (90). While Sidlauskas clearly signals the impossibility of, or imaginative nature of Cézanne’s putative effort to dissolve difference–“the boundaries of gender…could not, finally, be eclipsed” (183)–it is a basic assumption of the text that dissolution was the painter’s central ambition. While Cézanne’s early palette-knife works might suggest such an intensive effort to dissolve difference, the very violence of that early imagery suggests its impossibility or even undesireability.

It is precisely the sense of the painter’s desire to sustain or acknowledge difference that marks one of the central claims of the modernist tradition from Roger Fry, to Henri Matisse, to Fritz Novotny, to Kurt Badt, to Clement Greenberg. Consider, for instance, Samuel Beckett’s remarks on Cézanne, which perhaps stand at the farthest remove from the “fusion-model” offered by Sidlauskas. “What I feel in Cézanne,” he wrote, “is precisely the absence of a rapport that was all right for…Ruysdael for whom the animizing mode was valid, but would have been fake for him, because he had the sense of his incommensurability not only with life of such a different order as landscape, but even with life of his own order, even with the life…operative in himself.”4 While we might share Sidlauskas’s dissatisfactions with the strongest claims of the “inhumanist” tradition, nonetheless these writers grasp something essential about the work: That to deny difference is to “fake” connection. One way to stay true to the modernist sense of the “abstract” qualities of the work is to say that any connection between painter and world is only really a connection if it acknowleges and ratifies difference (of the medium, of the other, of the world, even, as Beckett suggests, of oneself to oneself). If the artist did not preserve difference, preserve a sense of the limitations of being human, no meaningful connection with the world could ever occur.


1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson, trans. Michael B. Smith (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993), 125. Cited in Sidlauskas, Cézanne’s Other, 243.
2. It should be clear that Michael Fried’s historical analysis of absorption and theatricality in the period between Chardin and Courbet has little place in Sidlauskas’s account. That is, despite the recurrent references to Merleau-Ponty and to notions of absorption and merger, no reference is made to Fried’s writings on this topic. This omission might nonetheless be justified as Sidlauskas and Fried are pursuing different understandings of the absorptive ideal. Fried’s account of absorption is a historically and normatively framed problem; it is never available to literal or essential modes of analysis (no work is essentially absorptive or theatrical). Further still, as absorption has no essence, scientific or affective accounts cannot get any special purchase on it.
3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), 394. I owe this citation to Michael Schreyach. For an excellent discussion (or excavation) of the undervalued cognitive and representational aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy see J. C. Berendzen, “Coping Without Foundations: On Dreyfus’s Use of Merleau-Ponty,” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 18:5 (2010): 629-49.  See also, Todd Cronan, “Merleau-Ponty, Santayana, and the Paradoxes of Animal Faith,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 18, No. 3 (2010): 487–506.
4. Samuel Beckett, quoted in James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Grove, 1996), 188.