The post-impressionist French painter, Paul Cezanne, is the most celebrated artist that Aixen-Provence ever produced. Of his hometown, he said, “When you’re born there, it’s hopeless, nothing else is good enough.” It’s easy to see what Cezanne meant by this. Little has changed in this elegant city since Cezanne lived here more than 100 years ago. To walk in the footsteps of Cezanne would begin by taking in the quality of the light exclusive to this part of Southern France. I can only describe it as languid and muted, but the effect it has on everything around it is hard to ignore. Yellow becomes more yellow, blue becomes bluer. This particular light is said to have guided the artist on his creative path to the threshold of abstraction.
Shaded by centuries old plane trees, the main avenue of Cours Mirabeau is where the grand dame of brasseries, Les Deux Garcons, holds court. Informally known as 2G’s, it was a popular haunt for the beau monde crowd of Aix which included Cezanne and his lifelong friend, the novelist Emile Zola. Cezanne is said to have been partial to the peasant dish potatoes in aioli. Emile Zola and Cezanne had a disastrous falling out, but that’s a different story.
Market days in Aix are festive affairs, and there’s bound to be a popup market in its many squares any day of the week. No one does farmers markets quite like the French and in Aix it’s a riot of colors, aromas, and textures. The produce is fresh and plentiful as it spills from oversized baskets, beguiling the passerby to touch and smell. In one stall, the fragrant aroma of lavender; in the next, the pungent smell of aged cheese. The diversity in the markets of Aix must have inspired Cezanne himself. I can almost picture the artist meandering in the market square, holding the produce, feeling the textures, and taking in their smells.
Local fruits, after all, were a common subject in his iconic series, Still Life with Apples/Oranges/Peaches/ Fruit Dish. Cezanne was a prolific artist who produced more than 900 oil paintings and 400 watercolors in his lifetime and his most famous works were of everyday scenes in his hometown. In sunny Provence, Cezanne often worked outdoors, or en plein. But his portraits and still life paintings were created at the Lauves studio in downtown Aix. In this light-filled studio, Cezanne painted every day during the last four years of his life. It is now a museum located at 9 Avenue Paul Cezanne. No one would have known, least of all the artist himself, that a street would be named after him as he painted within the four walls of his studio contemplating his tragic life.
Like any visitor would, Cezanne was drawn to the beauty of the breathtaking Mediterranean landscape of Provence. One of his favorite spots was Montagne Sainte-Victoire just a few minutes’ drive through winding country roads of Aix. The artist was so fascinated by the rugged architectural forms and rocky limestone peak, he painted the mountain from all angles and in all seasons—87 times! The more he painted it, it became flatter, more fragmented, and less realistic. It was a new expression of his art that we know today as Cubism, with Picasso himself saying, “Cezanne was the father of us all.”
The mountain he so loved was also what may have caused his death. While painting outdoors in the fall of 1906, he was caught up in a storm, fell ill, and passed away shortly after. Should you want to pay your respects, Paul Cezanne is buried a short distance from where he was born in a simple family memorial at the Sainte Pierre Cemetery.
Photographs by David Celdran
This article first appeared in Vault Magazine, 2018