A highlight of our short break in Provence was a visit to Cezanne’s studio at Les Lauves, a fifteen minute walk uphill from the centre of Aix-en-Provence. Cézanne bought the small country property on the hillside in November 1901. At that time it was surrounded by agricultural land, olive and fig trees with clear views across to Montagne Sainte-Victoire. On the land at Les Lauves Cezanne had his studio built, its most striking feature being the large north-facing window that provided the best light for painting.
Today the two-storey studio is surrounded by dense shrubbery and tall trees, and other properties have encroached as suburban Aix has crept up the hill.
We were fortunate in visiting the studio out of season. For nearly half an hour there were only four other visitors in addition to ourselves – and since the others spoke English, that was the language the guide gave her talk in (the only English guided tour is at 17:00 each day). We had her full attention until a large and enthusiastic party of schoolchildren from Marseille arrived.
The studio is on the first floor. Living accommodation was created on the ground floor, but Cézanne ended up using this mainly to store his canvasses – up to 2,000 of them – and continued to live in an apartment in the city. Each morning, our guide explained, Cezanne would rise early and walk the mile up the hill to the studio.
He would work at the studio from about 6am to 10.30am, return to Aix for lunch, then go back to paint until 5.30pm, either in the studio or walk further up the hill to the summit for the clear views it offered of his motif, Mont Sainte Victoire. Cézanne was photographed at this spot by Kerr-Xavier Roussel in January 1906 (below).
It was up the hill, in autumn 1906, that Cézanne got caught in a thunderstorm and was taken home unconscious in a laundry cart. He rose again early the following day to work on a portrait of Vallier, his gardener. But his condition worsened and he died of pleurisy six days later during the night of 22-23 October. ‘I have sworn to die painting’, Cézanne had written only a few days earlier.
The studio remained empty for 15 years. It was bought in 1921 by a Marcel Provence, who lived there until his own death in 1951. Anxious to rescue it from property developers, the art historian and Cézanne scholar John Rewald organised a committee of over 100 American benefactors who purchased the house, then gifted it to Aix University Since 1969 it has been owned by the City of Aix.
Although the city suburbs have expanded to swallow up the area, the house still stands in acres of wild and overgrown gardens, which visitors are free to stroll around.
A ten minute walk to the summit of Les Lauves leads to the Terrain des Peintres, a small park that has preserved Cezanne’s favourite site for painting Montagne Sainte-Victoire. Here is the view of the mountain that Cezanne painted so many times, framed by pines, and with ten ceramic panels displaying some of the paintings he worked on here.
Cezanne produced 44 oil paintings and 43 watercolours of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, presenting the forms and rhythms of the landscape with short diagonal brushstrokes and patches of colour. The mountain was the motif whose secret he strove to unlock. He wrote to his first biographer, Joachim Gasquet:
The blue smell of the pines … must be married to the green smell of the plains which are refreshed every morning, with the smell of stones, the perfume of distant marble from Sainte-Victoire. I have not expressed it. It must be done. And by colours, not literature.
There is speculation that, like many other artists of his time, Cezanne was influenced by Japanese prints, particularly the work of Hokusai, who was also obsessed by a mountain – Mount Fuji. Why would these artists paint the same motif so many times over so many years?
On the Toshidama Gallery blog there is the suggestion that, as well as there being a spiritual dimension to their quest, there was also a ‘relentless need to get below the surface of the motif, to strive to represent something greater than a pedestrian depiction’. At the age of 74, Hokusai wrote:
If I go on trying, I will surely understand them [images of nature], still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.
Cezanne similarly commented:
I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing. … My age and health will never allow me to realize the dream of art I’ve been pursuing all my life.
My personal favourite of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire images is the Courtauld painting (above). This is typical of many of the earlier depictions of the mountain in that its subject is framed by pine trees. And it is one pine that dominates my favourite of all Cezanne’s paintings – The Great Pine (1892-6), not painted at Les Lauves but probably, given the red soil in the foreground, at another of Cezanne’s favourite spots, the Bibemus Quarries near the foot of Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
In his survey of Cezanne’s work, Meyer Schapiro wrote:
A poetic conception of the tree as a giant individual, rising to the heavens above the heads of its smaller fellows, twisted in axis and shaken by great forces, but supreme in its height and vast spread. Its rise from the ground is dramatic in its stages: through a sturdy bent trunk, far stronger than any other we see; through a region of bare and dying branches, leafless against the sky; then the great arched crown of foliage spanning almost the entire sky. The landscapists of the Romantic school, Huet and Dupre, had painted similar heroic trees, but the stormy sky and tormented ground in their pictures are a more obvious external motivation of the agony of the tree. In Cézanne’s picture, the drama is in the tree itself, with its strained, conflicting forms, reacting to the wind. With a remarkable simplicity that often passes for naivete but is the wisdom of great art, he presents his vision of the tree in the clearest way, placing the tree in the center of the field directly before us. But he knows how to use the surrounding elements to support the drama. The ground slopes and the other trees are inclined away from the big trunk as if they have been parted by the giant’s upward movement. We see no branches beside those of the central tree; its torment and spread are a unique fact.
The picture is a beautiful harmony of blues and greens, in which the occasional warm touches in the branches and foliage pick up the strong ochre band of the road.
Simple and perfectly legible, it has also a great vitality and movement through the brush strokes. With few lines, they create by their changing directions a perpetual stirring of the space, great eddying currents, winds, and turbidities. Yet they resolve into a few large masses of color.
Cézanne’s feeling for the great tree goes back to his youth. In a letter to Zola in 1858, he wrote: ‘Do you remember the pine on the bank of the [river] Arc, with its hairy head projecting above the abyss at its foot? This pine which protected our bodies with its foliage from the heat of the sun, oh ! may the gods preserve it from the woodman’s baleful axe !’