In the Footsteps of Paul Cézanne

In the Footsteps of Paul Cézanne

As Impressionism drew to a close, Cézanne revolutionised art and, in the process, introduced Provence to the world, writes Dominic Bliss.

A few kilometres east of Aix-en-Provence, there’s a 1,000m-high mountain ridge called Montagne Sainte-Victoire. With its sharp peaks, steep cliff walls and craggy rocks that change colour throughout the day as the sunlight moves across them, it has beguiled locals for centuries. One beguiled more than most was the 19th-century Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. In his later years, Mont Sainte-Victoire, as he called it, became his muse. Visible from his Les Lauves studio, this limestone massif starred in dozens of his oil paintings and watercolours – the light, colour, texture and atmosphere subtly different in each incarnation.

Émile Bernard’s 1904 photograph of Cézanne in his studio at Les Lauves © Wikimedia

Provence On Show

Some of these works play a central role in a new Cézanne exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, running from October 2022 to March 2023. “Cézanne was very proud to be from Provence,” explains exhibition curator Natalia Sidlina. “Even when he first moved to Paris in 1861, he never settled in the city, constantly migrating back and forth between the capital and the south. His paintings of the landscapes surrounding his hometown, Aix-en-Provence, and of the small fishing village, l’Estaque, near Marseille, are some of the most beautiful and popular examples of his work. While these areas have inevitably changed since Cézanne’s day, when visiting sites such as the Bibémus quarries or the valley overlooking the Mont Sainte-Victoire, you can sense the atmosphere that Cézanne captured – the same colours, sky, shape of the mountain, and pine trees he painted over 100 years ago.”

The natural beauty of his native Provence was a consistent theme throughout Cézanne’s 45-year career. He was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839, into a bourgeois family, the son of Louis-Auguste and Anne-Élisabeth-Honorine. The former was co-founder of a bank, ensuring Paul and his younger sisters enjoyed a certain financial security throughout their lives. The family initially lived on Rue de l’Opéra, in the centre of the city. In 1852, Cézanne started studying at the Collège Bourbon (now Collège Mignet) where he became close friends with the future novelist Émile Zola and the future professor of optics and acoustics Baptistin Baille. Together, they became known as “les trois inséparables”. The three of them would often swim and fish in the River Arc, which flows through Aix. Cézanne later produced several paintings of bathers based on his childhood memories of swimming in the river.

In the late 1850s and early 1860s, Cézanne studied drawing at the municipal school of drawing, attached to the Musée d’Aix (now the Musée Granet), where his skills were nurtured by a Spanish monk called Joseph Gilbert. Pushed by his father to become a banker, he studied law at the University of Aix-en-Provence for two years, but it was obvious his true calling was art. In 1861, against his father’s wishes, he left Aix for Paris, joining Zola who had already relocated there. Turned down by the École des Beaux-Arts, Cézanne instead attended the Académie Suisse, where he met Camille Pissarro who would later influence his work enormously. He spent many long hours at the Louvre, studying and copying old masters such as Michelangelo, Rubens and Titian. “The Louvre is the book from which we learn to read,” he later said. Nowadays, you’ll find more than 100 of Cézanne’s own works at the Louvre, including drawings, still lifes, portraits, caricatures, and a painting of L’Estaque, the village near Marseille where he lived for a short while.

The Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, where Cézanne lived for 40 years © Wikimedia

Salon of the Rejected

The artist’s initial stay in Paris was short, however. Deeply depressed and disappointed that he wasn’t as technically proficient as other students at the Académie Suisse, he returned to Aix to work in his father’s bank.

This was short-lived, too. After a year he returned to Paris with renewed optimism for his painting. It was a turbulent period for fine art in the capital. In one corner was the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which represented the Neo-classical and Romantic styles of painting, while in the opposite corner were the Realists, who sought to revolutionise art, and depict the unembellished reality of life. “Il faut encanailler l’art” (“We must make art vulgar”), said Gustave Courbet, a leading light of the Realist movement.

Rejected by the Académie des Beaux-Arts for inclusion in the famous Salon de Paris art exhibition, these Realists – Cézanne among them – were eventually offered their own Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) by Napoleon III. Many of these rejected artists, including Pissarro, Monet, Renoir and Degas became known as the Impressionists. Cézanne was inspired by their revolutionary spirit and from then on he split his time between Paris and Provence. “When one is born here, damn it, nothing else means anything to you,” he said of his beloved Aix. By this time he was living with his mistress Marie-Hortense Fiquet, whom he would eventually marry in 1886, spending their time in L’Estaque and Gardanne, both near Marseille. Their son, Paul, was born in 1872. Disparaged by the critics and rejected by his father, Cézanne grew increasingly isolated from his peers. His style began to mature, however, allowing him to produce some of his greatest landscapes and still lifes. “Everything in nature is modelled on the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder,” he said. “One must learn to paint from these simple figures.”

It was during his later years that he painted many of the masterpieces he is best known for: Mont Sainte-Victoire, the three versions of Boy in a Red Waistcoat, the Bathers series, and multiple still lifes. After his mother died in 1897, he withdrew yet further from his friends and family. His hermit lifestyle reinforced his professional and personal reputation, so that galleries and collectors were regularly competing for his work. Having been plagued by diabetes for many years, his health worsened. In 1906 he contracted pneumonia after being caught in a storm while painting in the fields. On the way home he collapsed and lost consciousness. A passing cart-driver took him home but he died a few days later, in his apartment on Aix’s Boulegon Street. He was buried in the city’s Saint-Pierre Cemetery.

Any art lover wishing to follow in the footsteps of Cézanne should head for Aix-en-Provence. The city has marked out a pedestrian route using studs stamped with the letter C. Included are the houses where he lived, his schools, the homes of his friends, the cafés he frequented, the church in which he was christened, and the cathedral where his funeral took place. Next to the tourist office, you’ll see a bronze statue of Cézanne, and in the north of the city, you can visit the artist’s studio, L’Atelier de Cézanne, on Avenue Paul Cézanne. It was here, in the early years of the 20th century, that he plied his trade. Today you can see his still-life models, furniture and painting equipment, as it would have been over a century ago. Exhibitions are staged here, too. Close by is the Musée Granet, which houses a permanent, if rather small, collection of ten of Cézanne’s paintings, including the only known portrait he ever painted of Émile Zola. Fifteen minutes’ walk north of the studio, there’s an outdoor area dedicated to the painter, called Le Terrain des Peintres, with nine of his works, reproduced on glazed lava stone, and displayed permanently outside. This was Cézanne’s favourite viewpoint of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, from where he painted the mountain 17 times in watercolour and 11 times in oil.

In the west of the city, on the Route de Galice, is the Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, the family mansion where Cézanne lived for 40 years, during the latter half of the 19th century. “On the ground floor, the young Cézanne painted a dozen murals,” the tourist office explains. “He also set up his easel in the park, in front of the house, the farm, the woods and the avenue of chestnut trees, the pond and its statues. In total, 36 oils and 17 watercolours were made here between 1859 and 1899.”

Cézanne’s iconic painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire © RMN-Grand Palais

The Birth of Cubism

Also well worth visiting are the Carrières de Bibémus (the Bibémus Quarries), 5km east of Aix. It was here, on a rocky plateau, once a working quarry, that some art experts claim the movement known as Cubism was born, thanks to the three-dimensional forms in Cézanne’s later works. Cézanne rented a small hut and painted here (occasionally spending the night), inspired by the geometrical shapes of the ochre rocks that surrounded him.

Back at the Tate Modern, curator Natalia Sidlina explains why Cézanne enjoys such an enduring appeal. “Cézanne developed a radical approach to colour, form and space. By approaching painting as an existential experience, as a process, as an investigation, he pushed traditional artistic habits to their breaking points and arguably beyond. He experimented with using touches of colour to describe or realise his ‘sensations’ – as he called them – of the external world, creating compositions that are deeply personal. […] it’s an approach that resonates with contemporary thought as much as it paved the way for early 20th-century painters.”

Sidlina insists Cézanne’s influence on the painters that came after him should not be underestimated. “Subsequent generations of artists, including Matisse and Picasso, revered Cézanne’s work,” she says. “Several works in our exhibition were owned by artists themselves, including Monet, Matisse, Picasso, as well as Henry Moore and Jasper Johns. Cézanne continues to inspire artists today.”

The last word on Cézanne should probably go to Matisse and Picasso themselves. Describing Cézanne’s influence, the former said: “In moments of doubt, when I was still searching for myself, frightened sometimes by my discoveries, I thought: ‘If Cezanne is right, I am right’. Because I knew that Cézanne made no mistake.’ Picasso was equally effusive, declaring simply: “Cézanne is the father of us all.”

The EY Exhibition: Cézanne is on at the Tate Modern in London until March 12, 2023

From France Today magazine

Lead photo credit : Paul Cézanne’s self portrait, painted in 1875 © RMN-Grand Palais

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