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“Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair” (circa 1877).
“Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair” (circa 1877).MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON

NEW YORK — When the poet Rainer Maria Rilke attended the 1907 Salon d'Automne, a vast exhibition of recent art held annually in Paris, he lingered inside one of several solo shows mounted that year. It was a retrospective devoted to Paul Cezanne.

Cezanne had died, a little-known artist and a recluse — an "eccentric," as his own wife described him — less than a year earlier, at 67. That same wife was the subject of one of the paintings Rilke saw: "Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair." It's a moderately sized canvas, which has been in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, since 1944.

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It sent Rilke into raptures. He memorized it, "digit by digit," until he could feel the painting (so he wrote his own wife) "even in my sleep."

Other visitors to the show were less enamored of Madame Cezanne. In one of the funnier recorded instances of philistine incomprehension before great art (admittedly, a rich genre), Rilke claimed to notice how the well-dressed women of Paris deliberately stood in front of the portraits of Madame Cezanne — whom they deemed pig-ugly — in order to set themselves off to best effect.

That same ugly, dismaying painting now graces the cover of the splendid catalog accompanying "Madame Cezanne," an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized by the Met's Dita Amory, it is a mere slip of a show: 24 painted portraits, all addressing the same subject, by the same artist, and a handful of related sketches and drawings. But it may well go down as the exhibition of the year.

Almost absent-mindedly, while your eyes are absorbed in strokes of paint, pencil hatchings, lozenges of color — what Cezanne called his "little sensations" — this focused, almost pointed exhibition drills down through 100 years of calcified cant, taking us straight to the beating heart of modernist aesthetics.

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Understand it, and you will surely grasp what the artistic upheavals and enchantments of the past century and a half have been all about; you will have solved the riddle of the Sphinx; the veil will have dropped; the siege will be lifted . . .

But try. Just try to fathom Cezanne. You'll fail. He is an enigma from first to last. If it is impossible to resist seeing him through the lens of the modernist revolution he so profoundly inspired, it's as well to recognize that he was also an old-fashioned 19th-century easel painter, devoted to the world of appearances, and in love with color and light.

In any case, none of this taxonomic art-historical hair-splitting even approaches the profound oddity, the singularity, of Cezanne's achievement. He was unknowable. Inimitable.

Do we at least come to know more about Cezanne's subject, Hortense Fiquet (1850-1922), who only became Madame Cezanne when he married her in 1886, after 17 years of keeping her, and the son she bore him, a secret from his father?

The answer is properly no. Cezanne's goal in portraiture, plainly, was not psychological insight, conventionally defined. You could see a hundred paintings of Madame Cezanne and still not have any real grip on what it was like to be in her company.

But I think a better answer is: Yes, just a little. Enough to let the shadows around Madame Cezanne deepen, her presence to be rounded out, her own subjective being and her role in Cezanne's life to be intuited as never before.

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She has not been treated kindly by posterity. Nor was she much honored by Cezanne's peers, who often referred to her behind her back as "La Boule" — the ball, an unflattering comment on her figure. The great Cezanne scholar John Rewald portrayed her as a patient, passive sitter who had no feeling at all for what Cezanne was trying to do.

In a similar vein, Matisse joked about Madame Cezanne judging her husband's efforts "as one might judge a simple carpenter who has taken it into his head to construct tables with legs in the air." And the critic Roger Fry, who did so much to champion Cezanne in the English-speaking world, blamed "that sour bitch of a Madame" for the "tremendous repression that took place" in Cezanne's personality.

“Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress” (1888-90).
“Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress” (1888-90).metropolitan museum of art

This show tries — although thankfully not too hard — to provide a counterweight to all this calumny; to make the case that she was kinder, more intelligent, and more engaged than she is given credit for (there are all of two surviving letters by her to base this opinion on), and that there is more tenderness in these pictures than has previously been recognized.

Did Cezanne love her, one might want to ask? The evidence argues for a sensual attraction and a sustained level of uxorious intimacy early on; several smaller, early pictures convey her fresh-faced beauty. We know, too, that Cezanne's reliance on her deepened as their relationship progressed.

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But what's equally clear is that he spent much of his time deliberately living apart from her, subordinating her interests to those of his family — who never welcomed her, even after she and Cezanne married — and, above all, to those of his art.

The truth of the matter, finally, is not only elusive; it's immaterial. We are talking about painting, after all, not a popular period romance.

Love, according to the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gassett, is a phenomenon of attention. He meant, I infer, love not as a sentimental projection, a fantasy of the other person, but as an experience in the present tense, a state of soul tethered to reality.

It's an instructive distinction. You cannot look at Cezanne's paintings of Hortense Fiquet and not feel moved by the astonishing degree — and the extraordinary quality — of attention he is giving her.

Cezanne did not, as many would have it, look at his wife in the same way that one looks at an apple. How could he? She was the mother of his child. But he did paint in a state of utmost absorption in his task. And there was surely love — of the kind that might matter to us, more than a century later — in that ongoing, attentive act.

Cezanne was interested in vibrations — in all the ways in which visual phenomena (color, outline, texture, depth, mass) affect one another; how they converge and come apart; how they lock into place, suggesting wholeness and harmony, and at the same time break loose, suggesting dynamism and flux.

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In his endless struggle to capture both sides of this dichotomy, Cezanne sought out rhymes, simplifications, and harmonies, but also odd particulars, degrees of incompletion, and varying quotients of awkwardness.

The results, by conventional criteria, can look bizarre. Who can deny that the Metropolitan Museum's "Madame Cezanne in a Red Dress," one in a magnificent series of four that hang here all in a row, is oddly tilted and optically rather flat; that her hands and parts of her dress seem unfinished, and that the spatial relations of the background are deeply confusing?

And yet, what a palpable presence she is! What strange, hieratic power there is in that tilt, and in the animating tension between her longer left arm and the shorter right one. Note, too, the way both arms relate to, and are reinforced by, the background geometry of the curtain, mirror, and fireplace. And observe how much character and specificity is conveyed by the conspicuous asymmetry of her face, and particularly her eyes.

“Madame Cezanne Sewing” (circa 1880, graphite on paper).
“Madame Cezanne Sewing” (circa 1880, graphite on paper).COURTALD INSTITUTE OF ART, LONDON

Register, too, the rich panoply of hues contained within Cezanne's use of the three basic primaries (blue, red, and yellow) and the muffled brilliance they give off as a result. And feel, more generally, the touch, the freshness of apprehension, the focused attentiveness, of the artist who painted it.

According to the dealer Ambroise Vollard, Cezanne would often wait 20 minutes between brush strokes. He was a painter who knew his subject, as the many drawings here of Hortense sleeping, sewing, or reading suggest, with an inexhaustible, almost ferocious intimacy. (Was he a good husband? Frankly, who cares?)

In front of the MFA's "Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair," Rilke, it seems, registered all this — but also the weird, irretrievable separateness of Cezanne's pictures, their stubborn refusal to be domesticated by commentary. "My blood describes it within me," he wrote, "but the naming of it passes by somewhere outside and is not called in."

Incidentally, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso also saw the 1907 Cezanne show. Picasso was struggling to resolve his masterpiece, the "Demoiselles d'Avignon," at the time; seeing the Cezanne show helped him over the finish line. And the next year, in a brilliant knight's move of creative misreading, Braque — painting in one of Cezanne's favorite spots, the Mediterranean fishing village of L'Estaque — invented Cubism.

It's a short walk from "Madame Cezanne" to the Met's magnificent "Cubism" show. The exhibition marks an important gift to the museum by Leonard Lauder. Near the end, you might see a drawing of Madame Cezanne — a palpable expression of tribute — by Braque and Picasso's fellow cubist, Juan Gris.


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.