The art essay of the month

Old Woman with a Rosary (1895–1896) by Paul Cézanne (1839–1906)

Old Woman with a Rosary was donated by the artist to the poet Joachim Gasquet, who described it as a painting of “a poor woman, all in a heap, stubborn, resigned, unbudging, her large peasant’s hands, crumbly like old bricks, joined together and clinging to the rosary…. However, a hopeful ray of light, a shadow of pity provided a note of solace on her vacant lowered forehead. Shriveled and spiteful as she was, a goodness enveloped her. Her wizened soul still trembled, having taken refuge in her hands.”

The “goodness that enveloped her” may find its source in the goodness of the artist himself. This old woman was, as the story goes, a defrocked nun who had lost her faith and fled the convent (using a ladder to jump off the wall!) at age seventy. As she was wandering without home or family, the artist took her in and let her work for him as a maid, out of charity. The painting starred at the very first Armory Show in New York in 1913, where it was contemplated at length by Theodore Roosevelt and was almost acquired by Henry Clay Frick.

Painted between 1895 and 1896, at the height of the artist’s creative life, Old Woman with a Rosary is not a “typical” Cézanne. It is somber, austere, reminiscent of Rembrandt, whereas Cézanne, born in 1839 in southern France, is mostly known for his translucent and radiant colors, ringing like music up and down the slopes of Mont Sainte-Victoire—a mountain he had a somewhat mystical relationship with. Cézanne, however, was not always the painter of light and color. The trajectory of his creative life can be roughly divided into three periods spanning from darkness to light, and Old Woman with a Rosary is a diary of the entire journey.

Cézanne’s early black paintings

In his early works, painted in his twenties, black is not only the dominant color; it is also the dominant theme. Most of these paintings depict funerals, skulls, abductions, or murders. This reflected the spirit of the times. There is, indeed, a reason why so many religious orders—particularly female ones—were founded in the 19th century in France. The French Revolution had left the country in disarray, politically and religiously, and misery was on everyone’s doorstep. Charitable congregations were born to address the needs, devoting themselves to the care of the poor, orphans, prisoners, and so on. As evidenced by the tragic story behind the painting, this was also a time of great religious confusion. By creating a false dichotomy between faith and reason, the Enlightenment had weakened the faith and paved the way to modern secularism.

Painting as charity

Like all true artists, Cézanne did more than mirror the spirit of his time; he sought to heal it. As noted by the critic John Berger, color appeared in Cézanne’s work in the 1870s as a “cover-up.” His colors are “like woven fabric, except that instead of being made of thread or cotton, they are made from the traces a paintbrush or palette knife leaves in oil paint.” In his own way, Cézanne performs an act of mercy. I was naked and you clothed me (Mt 25:36), said Jesus; but in Cézanne’s case, the verse should read, “I was sitting in darkness and you brought me color and light.” Cézanne’s charity was not just expressed in the fact that he offered a home to a homeless, defrocked nun. His charity is also active in the way he painted her as he pulled over her sin and loneliness a veil of sadness, penance, and prayer.

In the paintings Cézanne made during the 1870s, color is never at rest, always at war. It is constantly pushing against the black—the latter retreating, as it were, behind the curtains and under the tables, in the folds of tableclothes and the pleats of garments. Old Woman with a Rosary is also a painting that came out of a great struggle. The painting sat for an achingly long eighteen months on the artist’s easel in his studio. As a result, it bears the mark of its hard-fought conception. This intense and prolonged effort resulted in such an accumulation of pigment that it formed, particularly around the old woman’s face, a kind of surface crust. In addition, her left shoulder shows signs of several remodelings—the artist progressively leveling it up, adding weight on her back as one puts weights on a scale until he finds the right balance.

The victory of light

The third and last part of Cézanne’s life—his last two decades until his death in 1906—is marked by the victory of light. Cézanne’s color becomes freer, it vibrates and sings like a hymn of gratitude. It is during this period that Cézanne tells his friend Louis Aurenche in a letter that the one and only subject of his paintings is “the spectacle that Pater Omnipotens Aeterne Deus spreads before our eyes.” The glorious views of Mont Sainte-Victoire touched at its top by heavenly light epitomize this victory of light at the end of Cézanne’s life.

With the heavy shoulders, rounded, over­emphasized back, and slight bow of her head, the silhouette of the Old Woman with a Rosary is curiously reminiscent of the mountain’s unique shape. Meanwhile, the woman’s pleated white cap hugging her weather-beaten face reminds us of the light-bathed mountaintop. Further down the painting, the red beads of the rosary shine softly on the blue, triangular apron. Light pours from her hands joined in prayer like a waterfall surfacing from below the rocks on a mountain’s rocky slope. The beads fall off her wounded hands like blood drops, like blood and water pouring from the side of the Crucified. From an image of darkness and sin, Old Woman with a Rosary becomes an image of light and redemption.

Father Paul Anel

A priest in the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.


Old Woman with a Rosary (1895–1896), Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), National Gallery, London, England. © Heritage Images / Fine Art Images / akg-images.