Paul Cézanne
Femme au chapelet or An Old Woman with a Rosary, c. 1895-1896
Oil on canvas, 31 3/4” x 25 3/4” (80.6 x 65.5cm)

The subject
Painted between 1895 and 1896 at the Jas de Bouffan – Cézanne’s father’s house outside of Aix-en-Provence – this work is believed to represent a defrocked nun whom the artist charitably employed as a servant. [1] The weightiness of the woman’s posture has been compared to the painting’s thick encrusted surface, which the artist built up over the course of eighteen months. [2]

Rescued from obscurity
When the work was complete, Cézanne discarded it in a corner of his studio, where it remained until his friend, the French poet and art critic Joachim Gasquet, rescued it from obscurity. Gasquet later recalled: “He chucked it into a corner. It got covered with dust, rolled on the floor, despised, heedlessly trodden on. One day I found it. I came upon it under the coalscuttle by the stove, with the zinc pipe gently steaming and dripping on it at five-minute intervals. What miracle had preserved it in tact I don’t know. I cleaned it, and the poor old girl appeared before me.” [3]

Exhibited in Paris and London
Femme au chapelet was first publicly exhibited at Cézanne’s posthumous retrospective held in Paris at the 1907 Salon d’Automne. The work was then included in the 1910 Post-Impressionist exhibition organized by Roger Fry and Clive Bell at the Grafton galleries in London. British audiences were not yet familiar with the artist’s work and the painting was not well received by critics. [4]

To the Armory Show
The painting was lent to the Armory Show by French dealer Emile Druet, who listed the work for sale at $48,600 – by far, the highest asking price for any work in the exhibition. It was reproduced and sold as a postcard, and traveled to both the Chicago and Boston venues.

The response
Although critics often acknowledged Cézanne as the “great man of the great modern movement,” his individual works did not generate lengthy critical discussions in the press. [5] This painting was the exception, as the critics seemed united in their belief that it was the strongest representation of Cézanne’s artistic abilities and, as Charles Caffin argued, “the only characteristic example of his profounder moods.” [6]

An illustrious admirer
The work also made a lasting impression upon several noteworthy Amory Show visitors, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who attended the exhibition on the day of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. [7] When he published his impressions of the exhibition in an article entitled, “A Layman’s View of an Art Exhibition,” he listed Cézanne’s Femme au chapelet as one of the works that stood out best. [8]

[1] Martin Davies, and Cecil Hilton Monk Gould, French School: Early 19th Century, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, etc. (London: National Gallery, 1970), 20.

[2] John Rewald, Cézanne and America: Dealers, Collectors, Artists and Critics, 1891-1921 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 200.

[3] Joachim Gasquet, Cézanne (Paris: Éditions Bernheim-jeune, 1921), 66-67, 82; quoted in National Gallery London, Catalogue of Acquisitions 1953-1962 (London: Publications Dept., National Gallery, 1963), 16.

[4] Rewald, 137.

[5] Guy Pène du Bois, “The Spirit and the Chronology of the Modern Movement,” in Arts & Decoration (March 1913): 154.

[6] Charles H. Caffin, “International Exhibition and [sic] Modern Art Opens Tuesday,” New York American (February 17, 1913): 8.

[7] See Rewald, 200-201.

[8] Theodore Roosevelt, “A Layman’s Views of an Art Exhibition,” Outlook (March 29, 1913): 718.

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