We think of the modern art of the 19th century coming into being in and around Paris, where Manet painted nudes that scandalized the public andthe Impressionists painted cafés, railway stations and suburban leisure. The artist whose painting would lay the foundations for Cubism and 20th century abstraction, however, would paint his most characteristic, memorable and influential works not in Paris but in his native Provence, in the south of France.
The work of Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) may have been nurtured by the artistic innovations and debates of Impressionist Paris, but it would also strongly bear the identificatory stamp of the landscape of the southern part of France.
Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence, 19 miles from Marseille. He traveled to Paris for the first time in 1861, when he was 22 years old, and he joined his childhood friend from Aix, Émile Zola, who was already establishing himself as a journalist in Paris. Cézanne met Manet and the Impressionists, studied works of art in the Louvre and sent paintings to the huge Salon exhibitions juried by members of the French academy.
Cézanne’s works were rejected from the Salon exhibitions, but he began to exhibit with the Impressionists. Cézanne wanted an approach to painting that was more systematic than Impressionism; he developed the abstraction that was latent in the work of Manet and the Impressionists.
Although Cézanne would never have adopted the style for which we know him without the intellectual and artistic atmosphere of Paris, he began to spend more time in Aix-en-Provence. He returned to his family home, the Jas de Bouffan, a spacious estate west of the town. Cézanne frequently represented the countryside around Aix. In the village of Le Tholonet, he painted its characteristic red-orange soil that perfectly complemented the intense blue skies of the South. He rented a studio outside Aix from which he could easily hike to the Bibémus Quarry, where he painted boulders and cliff formations surrounded by the hardy vegetation of Provence.
Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire, a mountain with an elevation of some 3,300 feet near Aix-en-Provence. He painted it from a distance in relation to fields, rivers and vineyards at its feet, and he painted it so that it occupied most of the canvas.
Cézanne thought of his painting as his “research,” and he frequently painted the same subjects — whether his wife, Hortense; a basket of apples; or Mont Sainte-Victoire, again and again. The works become more than variations on a theme. Each painting of the mountain tackles a new set of pictorial problems and finds novel approaches to them.
When Picasso, Matisse and other 20th century artists looked to Cézanne as the founder of modern art, they looked at works that largely represented the landscape and culture of Cézanne’s native Provence.