KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 10: Fall 2018
Tanka Prose:
784 words

Paul Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne in a Red Chair

by Charles D. Tarlton

Madame Cézanne in a Red Chair: painting by Paul Cézanne

It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else.

—Henri Matisse[2]


So far, all that can be established with any certainty is that there was an artist living in Paris in 1905 who painted variously under the names Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. Right away, you recognize the shared and regular form of the names: consonant, vowel, followed by a consonant, and then a construction made up of one vowel, followed by two consonants, and a final vowel! Only the one—Cézanne—employed the accent aigu, a clever ruse. Such strategies are well known by those who study the adoption of aliases, devices for jarring memory. But, of course, the similarities do not end there. Available from galleries all over the city were portraits that displayed such commonalities that only the most stubborn critic would fail to see the resemblance. All three employed oriental patterns in wallpaper or fabrics, an unrealistic style in which the faces of the sitters were flattened and patently two-dimensional. While the clothing was more carefully rendered in shadowed three dimensions, the faces all were bland and expressionless, and finally, the edges of things were outlined in black.

my eye cannot leave
the red fabric of the chair
that organizes
the painting and then threatens
to devour Madame and her

cubist nose. The green
shadows, her forehead, and cheeks
invaded by green
from every corner, staining
the striped pattern of her dress

everything depends
on the red tassel hanging
from the overstuffed
armchair that pokes out
makes an abstract with her dress

Madame Cézanne in a Red Chair: detail of tassel from painting by Paul Cézanne


Here’s a crucial question: does the idea for a portrait arise first in the mind of the subject or out of the needs of the painter? In the first instance, there is a good chance the painter will abide by bourgeois considerations and make the portrait resemble the subject. In such cases, after all, money is changing hands. In the second instance, the model’s desires are irrelevant; the artist is likely testing a theory, experimenting with a technique or a color, or folding the figure into some larger set of artistic motives. Toward the end, using the nom de plume Picasso, our Parisian artist collapsed such categories and pushed unrecognizability to its ultimate extreme (all in the interest, of course, of seeing more completely), making all his portraits radically cubist (his daughter Maya, the one of Dora Maar, or The Woman in a Red Armchair) with noses bent and eyes on each side of their heads.

all art is one thing
speaking metaphysically
searching for essence
in gestures of medium
adapted to intention

visiting the dead
famous artist’s atelier
in the emptiness
more than merely history
rises from lifeless objects

listen! You can hear
Monsieur and Madame Cézanne
bickering because
he wants her to sit again
and she refuses to smile


Seated in this red armchair, which is a personality in its own right, is a woman, her hands in the lap of a dress with broad vertical stripes.... In the brightness of the face, the proximity of all these colors has been exploited for a simple modeling of form and features: even the brown of the hair roundly pinned up above the temples and the smooth brown of the eyes has to express itself against its surroundings.

—Rainer Maria Rilke[3]

We were moving to the Orne, in France, where we had bought a little house near a large dairy farm. We had shipped only a few pieces of furniture over, so all at once we were in the market for just about everything—bed, bookcases, dining room table, sofa. We found a great long table at a brocante, bookcases in unfinished pine at Conforama, the bed at a vide grenier; and we found (or rather I did; Ann was never enamored of it) a classic red French settee. Well, the fabric was mainly red, with the occasional stripe of yellow or pale green. We hauled it from France back to California and then, six years later, to Massachusetts where there was no room for it; so rather than sell it, I gave it to one of the lawn-mowing crew members who hauled it away in a pickup for his wife.

feel the period
in her wallpaper, her dress
and her ribboned coat
of blue, gray, and green shading
the reluctance in her hands

she wears a white mask
splotched with green like a birthmark
her lips and her eyes
expressionless, wait grimly
for someone to say something

Madame’s hair parted
pulled back perhaps in a bun
“try and get it right”
she seems to say, her tight lips
glaring eyes, impatient hands



Publisher’s Notes:

1. Paul Cezanne’s original oil-on-canvas painting, Madame Cézanne in a Red Chair (circa 1877), resides in the Sydney and Esther Rabb Gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The reproduction above was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons under United States public-domain license (PD-1923).

2. This version of the Matisse quotation is ubiquitous on the internet, with no evidence of the original source. Librarian Susan A. at The Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries describes in Some Good Old-Fashioned Research (6 April 2010) how she verified the source—Se Garder Libre: Journal (1947-1954) by Marie-Alain Couturier, published in Paris in 1962—and then discovered that the quotation actually translates from the French as: “It has always bothered me that I don’t paint like everyone else.”

3. From “Paris VI, 29, Rue Cassette, October 22, 1907” in Letters on Cézanne by Rainer Maria Rilke, edited by Clara Rilke and translated by Joe Agee (First North Point Press edition, 2002)

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