LONDON - ‘You wretch . . . You’ve spoiled the pose. Do I have to tell you again you must sit like an apple? Does an apple move?’ If this was the criticism levelled at Ambroise Vollard, who endured over 115 sittings for just one portrait by Paul Cézanne, spare a thought for his long suffering wife and model, Hortense Fiquet.

Coinciding with a major new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Madame Cézanne, until March 15th 2015), Sotheby’s is delighted to bring to market one of the very first portraits of Cézanne’s wife. Long considered his most enigmatic subject, the recent resurgence of interest in Hortense is testament to her constancy as a model of Cézanne’s. There are twenty-nine known paintings of his wife, of which this work along with another of 1872 (now lost), are the earliest. Twenty-one of these twenty-nine now reside in museum collections.

Paul Cézanne’s Femme Allaitant Son Enfant. Estimate £200,000–300,000.

Looking at his portraits of her as a whole, critics have repeatedly cited the mainly sad and vacant images of Hortense as reflective of the emotional distance that famously built up between the couple. Not so in the present work, where we are caught in the frame of a close and private family moment; the baby Paul breast-feeding, his mother, only twenty-two years old, gently sleeping on her own shoulder, and Cézanne himself close at hand, making up the family trio.

Paul Cézanne’s Madame Cézanne (Hortense Fiquet, 1850–1922) in a Red Dress, 1888–90. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The provenance of this work offers a fascinating insight into early 20th century sales and collectors. Initially in the collection of Henri Rouart, an industrialist, engineer and amateur pupil of Jean-François Millet, it was at the famous Rouart sale upon his death in 1912 that the present work first changed hands. John Rewald tells us this painting, “was estimated at 3,000 francs but reached 10,000,” when it sold to Auguste Pellerin. Over a quarter of a century, Pellerin amassed close to 150 works by the artist, by far the greatest collection of Cézanne pictures ever assembled. Indeed, there was great international interest in the Rouart auction, where Edgar Degas’ Danseuses à la barre sold to the American Louisine Havemeyer for the then unheard of price of 478,000 francs ($95,700). Pellerin and Havemeyer were in good company, for the buyer of three of the five Cézanne’s on offer was one Dr. Albert Barnes, among the very earliest purchases for what was to become the Barnes Foundation.