The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Cézanne’s Only Known Love Letter

Cézanne’s Only Known Love Letter

“When one does not complain … one pays for outward calm with an almost unbearable inner struggle,” Charlotte Brontë wrote in her beautiful and heartbreaking love letters as she tussled with unrequited affection.

A generation later, in 1885, the great French painter Paul Cézanne (January 19, 1839–October 22, 1906) countered this lamentation by making his inner struggle outwardly visible in his only known love letter, found in The Letters of Paul Cézanne (public library) — a timeless testament to the relationship between frustration and satisfaction in love.

"Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat"
“Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat”

At the age of forty-six, Cézanne fell hopelessly in love with a woman whose identity, like the recipient of Beethoven’s only known love letter, remains a mystery. In the grip of intense infatuation, he drafted a piercing letter on the back of a landscape. Cézanne writes:

I saw you, and you let me kiss you, from that moment I have had no peace from profound turmoil. You will forgive the liberty that a soul tormented by anxiety takes in writing to you. I do not know how to describe to you that liberty that you may find so great, but how could I remain oppressed by this dejection? Is it not better to give expression to an emotion than to conceal it?

Why, I ask myself, be silent about my torment? Is it not a relief from suffering to be permitted to express it? And if physical pain seems to find some relief in the cries of the afflicted, is it not natural, Madame, that psychological suffering should seek some respite in the confession made to the object of adoration?

I quite realize that this letter, sent hastily and prematurely, may appear indiscreet, has nothing to recommend me to you but the goodness of…

Complement this particular fragment of The Letters of Paul Cézanne, an enormously satisfying tome edited by Cézanne biographer (and my compatriot) Alex Danchev, with the breathtaking love letters of Vladimir Nabokov, Frida Kahlo, Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Mead, Violet Trefusis, and Franz Kafka.

Published November 10, 2015




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