The story of Cézanne’s artistic journey embraces a dramatic visual transformation. His early work is wild and agitated, dominated by violent, erotic subjects that are crudely rendered in thick paint and bold areas of light and dark. By contrast, his later work, as exemplified by this magnificent view of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, is bright, serene and extraordinarily subtle in colour. The delicacy and balance of works like this was hard won. As his career developed, Cézanne struggled to channel his emotions into a more disciplined approach, seeking to combine the visual excitement of Impressionism with a sense of order and visual harmony.
Cézanne’s early artistic ambitions were encouraged by his friend Émile Zola but fiercely opposed by his father, a wealthy banker in Aix-en-Provence. In 1861 he abandoned his studies in law and followed Zola to Paris where he came into contact with various avant-garde artists including Camille Pissarro who introduced him to landscape painting. His art developed in close contact with Pissarro and the Impressionists and he took over many of their techniques, painting out of doors and using brighter colours and broken brushwork to convey effects of light and atmosphere. Few artists of his generation were more rigorous in observing nature, yet Cézanne was less interested in recording fleeting effects than in conveying the underlying rhythms and structures of the landscape. He usually worked slowly and methodically, often stalking his subjects over many years and from different vantage points so that his art seems to be the result not just of intense looking but also of prolonged contemplation.
This painting depicts one of the artist’s favourite subjects in his later years. The distinctive profile of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire appears in over sixty watercolours and oil paintings by Cézanne and he painted it across the seasons in varying effects of weather. For Cézanne this mountain was much more than an attractive landscape feature; it was a subject steeped in personal and historical associations, embodying something of the essence of Provence and its fiercely proud and independent character. Like many of his later works, this picture is difficult to date with certainty but seems most likely to have been made in the first half of the 1890s. It shows the mountain from the south-west of Aix looking across the open fields of the Arc valley. As the trees are leafless, we assume that it is a winter scene.
The colour is brushed onto the pale canvas ground in thin diluted washes of oil paint applied with methodical strokes, producing a shimmering effect rather like a watercolour. Some areas of the work are left unpainted and while this might appear unfinished, Cézanne often deliberately left the pale ground of his canvases exposed to give greater luminosity to a work. Subtle shifts of colour suggest light and atmosphere yet also create a sense of pattern and unity across the surface of the picture. Cézanne manages to combine cool observation with great depth of feeling, succeeding in his aim to translate the flickering light and brilliant colour of Impressionism into something profound, calm and timeless.
This text was originally published in 100 Masterpieces: National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2015.