IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF CÉZANNE
Retracing the birthplace, life and musings of master French artist Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence.
As I sip my aperitif on the terrace of Les Deux Garcons on Cours Mirabeau, a café frequented by Paul Cézanne and his best friend Émile Zola around 100 years ago, I experience first hand how the famous light of Provence and especially of Aix changes the atmosphere dramatically and inspires artists.
The honey-hued buildings across the wide, mostly pedestrianised boulevard opposite me turn golden, the plane trees shimmer, the people seem to slow in the afternoon glow and shadows move languorously across the pavement. As Cézanne once said: “Shadow is a colour as light is; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.” If anything good were to come from me picking up a paintbrush, I probably would have done it there and then to capture the light and shadows.
This is the town which is not only loved by tourists, French and foreign, the heart of Provence, with the light and the air verifying the mix of hilly countryside and proximity of the Mediterranean. The colours are undoubtedly Mediterranean, as are the offerings in the restaurants and shops. This is where Cézanne was born on 19 January 1839 to a wealthy banking father and artistically-minded mother; where he lived and worked prolifically with only a couple of interludes in Paris. Here he crossed the lines between Impressionism and Cubism, but, although revered by fellow artists, did not achieve recognition until a few years before his death.
Cézanne painted and sketched all his life, and despite having to bow to his father, who funded him and forced him to study law, he simultaneously studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Aix, and kept the company of painters of his times, such as Camille Pissarro. His first solo exhibition finally came to fruition in 1895 in Paris. However often he travelled to Paris, his heart and life was here, in Aix, and I was going to see just what made this town and its surroundings so special to him.
Consulting a map from the Tourist Office, I start following the golden buttons embossed with a ‘C’ on the ground, from Cézanne’s statue right there on the side of the vast roundabout that is Place Charles de Gaulle.
As I dive into the much quieter side streets, past the cinema called – guess what? – Le Cézanne (but alas not on the list of Cézanne highlights), down to the school where Cézanne and Zola famously met, I am temporarily distracted by the gorgeous Arts Centre in the Hôtel de Caumont, once a private mansion, where I stumble across a film about Cézanne.
Brimming with information, I am further side-tracked by a superb café and bookshop called Book in Bar with plenty of English books and rather good cakes just opposite. Explorers need sustenance, right? And I did keep in mind, that these were the lanes frequented by Cézanne and his friend, Cézanne always carrying colours and a sketchbook, whereas Zola was never without a book of poetry.
Onward and upward through the gentile streets of this quartier, I head past Cézanne’s sister’s house and the address where his wife and son lived while he stayed with his mother, up to Musée Granet. Here I finally see his famous Les
Baigneuses (the female bathers) but soon realise that Cézanne never painted anything just once. There are many versions of The Bathers, including his most famous, The Large Bathers
(Les Grandes Baigneuses), which is on display in Philadelphia, while the mountain outside of Aix which so inspired him, Montagne Saint-Victoire, features in countless paintings.
I hop and skip to 28 rue de l’Opéra, where Paul Cézanne was born 180 years ago and fall under the spell of old Aix.
It seems that Aix is pretty much split in half by the grand Cours Mirabeau. The lower side full of grand houses and museums, is quiet, clean, filled with grand facades in pale sandstone, whereas the northern side is centre ville, the heart of old Aix, and made up of myriad of tiny alleyways, confusing loops and passages, cobblestones and full of life. I dive right into the tiny Passage Agard next to Les Deux Garcons (inside the Passage is the Fromagerie du Passage, with its fabulous cheese shop and roof top restaurant) and meander along the little streets around the impressive Appeals Court of Provence. No sign of Cézanne here, he was obviously well behaved.
Pastel and burnt orange-hued buildings with shabby chic shutters and often beautifully parked bicycles or just-so window boxes make this old town a photographer’s – and Instagrammer’s – delight, everything is picture-perfect. I find a little market on Place Richelme, and a perfect café terrace on Place des Trois Ormeaux, where according to legend, the local hangings used to take place. There is a small market held here daily, not a patch on the gigantic market that stretches along Cours Mirabeau every Saturday, but more manageable and very inviting.
“I hop and skip to 28 rue de l’Opéra, where Paul Cézanne was born 180 years ago and fall under the spell of old Aix”
But Cézanne is catching up with me again with a sign by the Town Hall, telling me he married his long-term lover Marie-Hortense Fiquet there on 28 April 1886. Alas, the next landmark I find is Cathedrale Saint-Saveur, where his mother was christened in 1854, and Paul Cézanne’s funeral was held on 24 October 1906. But I was getting ahead of time and decided to hop on the local bus no.5 (direction Brunet) to the stop appropriately called Cézanne, to see his studio before I let him die.
The Atelier de Cézanne (Cézanne’s Studio) is a magical place. Time travel seems possible, and I am transported right back to those few years in which he searched out this hideaway and painted in the light-infused studio. The small house, designed by Cézanne himself and the plot chosen for its seclusion and views, is set in a lovely garden with seductively placed benches perfect for day dreaming, or becoming inspired, if you wish. The views through the trees show Aix and surroundings, and that light is once more present. The interior of the studio where he painted between 1902 until his death in 1906, has been left just as it was and is a perfect time capsule.
Even to an untrained eye many of the artefacts can be recognised from his paintings. The man liked to choose a subject and run with it. The skulls, an – admittedly refreshed – bowl of apples, and the olive pot have been painted many times over. The pot reportedly features in 22 of his paintings. There is the large partition of wall, where he slid the enormous
Large Bathers canvas out of the way. There are his frames and brushes, hat and coats. Once again, inspiration nearly made me want to paint, but without the appropriate skill set, I resisted once more.
Instead, I clambered up the hill, some 15 minutes from the studio, and found the so-called Terrain des peintres, a view point across the landscape dominated by the Sainte-Victoire Mountain that was one of his favourite subjects to paint. There are replicas of some of his paintings featuring said mountain, so you can see exactly how he chose a subject and then painted it in different conditions, be it light, time of day or year, or angle.
For another site of Cézanne’s inspiration, I decided to hop on two further buses (no.12 into town, then the no.6 to Parking des Trois Bon Dieux) and arrived in the outskirts of Aix, in the Carrières de Bibémus, a former stone quarry, and some stunning countryside with, obviously, views across to THAT mountain. Even if you were not interested in Cézanne, or the 30-odd paintings he did in this wild terrain, the walk itself is stunning and well worth it.
While traipsing through the undergrowth off the usual path, I met Jackie from the UK who also explored the trail alone. She was a self-proclaimed painter-groupie and spent most of her annual holidays searching out sites connected with famous artists. She summed Aix up perfectly: “Here is it just as much about Cézanne as it is about Aix. They work together very harmoniously, and the combination made it into my favourite trip yet.”
Photography by Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey.