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Mount Cezanne
In Provence, the Artist's Looming Obsession

By Mary Lou Longworth
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 9, 1998; Page E01

In 1959 Pablo Picasso told his agent, "I just bought Montagne Ste.-Victoire."

His agent smugly asked, "Which one? Paul Cezanne painted it several times."

"The original," replied the Spaniard. Picasso did buy a piece of the mountain--the Chateau in Vauvenargues on the mountain's north side. But Mount Ste.-Victoire will always remain Cezanne's. Cezanne "attacked" the mountain again and again, on more than 60 canvases, each time organizing his shapes and colors with a different view.

Cezanne had a vast curiosity about ways of seeing nature, accompanied by a huge doubt whether he or anyone else could paint it. In 1906 he wrote to his son Paul, "I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses." He must have been referring not only to what he saw, but also to what he was hearing, smelling and possibly even tasting when out in Aix-en-Provence's countryside with his easel.

Those words--"I cannot attain the intensity that is unfolded before my senses"--will follow you as you walk in Cezanne country. The heavy scent of wild thyme and rosemary is everywhere, the wind roars through the pine trees, and the colors glow magnificently in any season. In the summer there are cigales, the favorite insect of Provence whose whining, high-pitched sirens can either enchant you or drive you to the nearest bar for a pastis.

Today Aix-en-Provence obsesses over Cezanne, just as Cezanne obsessed over Mount Ste.-Victoire. You cannot go to Aix and fail to be impressed by the majestic mountain to the east of the city or trip over the hundreds of bronze "C's" embedded in Aix's sidewalks, which lead you along the same paths Cezanne took to work, eat and sleep. Aix is trying hard to forgive itself for not supporting its most famous son during his lifetime.

Cezanne was born in Aix in 1839. His father was a hatter-turned-successful-banker, but young Paul preferred painting to law school. In 1862 Cezanne moved to Paris and exhibited with the early Impressionists, the disastrous reviews of their first exhibitions now famous. He returned to Aix in the early 1880s and worked in seclusion. The bourgeois Aixois didn't understand his paintings. Aix's most popular painter at the time, Louis Gautier, laughed at Cezanne's work. Gautier now is forgotten. Each day Cezanne tromped off into the countryside alone, walking along the D17 (now the Route de Paul Cezanne) out of Aix toward Mount Ste.-Victoire. If his goal as a painter was to find and translate an order to underlying nature, then his ultimate test was the mountain.

On the Route de Paul Cezanne, one sees why Cezanne was so enamoured by Mount Ste.-Victoire. At every bend in the road, more spectacular views appear of the east face of the mountain, where it rises to 3,000 feet. Its top peaks are craggy white limestone cliffs, a brilliant contrast to the red-orange clay at its feet. The Route de Paul Cezanne is narrow and twisting, built for donkey carts like the one Cezanne used, not for today's speeding Peugeots and Citroens. The road winds around olive orchards and well-preserved bastides, the elegant stone country houses typical of the Aix countryside. About four miles past Aix is the village of Le Tholonet, where you can pause for a drink on a bar terrace and watch locals playing boules under the ancient plane trees.

The mountain is never gray to those who see it daily, just as it was never gray for Cezanne. Depending on the time of day and the season, the mountain can be all oranges and lavenders, and it often turns a dusty rose at sunset. The National Gallery in Washington owns one of Cezanne's Mount Ste.-Victoire, where the mountain is bare except for a light lavender wash highlighting its ridges. In a Mount Ste.-Victoire painting in Moscow, the entire canvas is covered in bright green.

Not only does the mountain change during the seasons, it also can change in seconds. Sometimes huge black shadows float silently across its south face, revealing in their wake a new section of the craggy mountain, brilliantly lit. Even in light rain, the mountain is spectacular, with its top half hidden in a blanket of mist and its bottom bathed in bright light. These changes fascinated Cezanne. He once said he could sit in the same spot for months and paint the mountain, just leaning a little to the right or left to change the view. The number of villages and towns that rest under the mountain's spell are numerous, but none has such a spectacular site as tiny St. Antonin-sur-Bayon, east of Le Tholonet and nestled at the foot of the mountain. St. Antonin is timeless. It has a few old stone houses, a weathered chateau and a town hall that is open only every other morning. The village lost 13 young men in World War II; their shared tombstone reads that they were "cowardly assassinated by Hitlerian Hordes" on June 16, 1944, while hiding in St. Antonin's woods. The mountain did assist in the war; it successfully hid other Resistance members in its many nooks and crannies. Two months later, in August, the Resistance would aid in the liberation of Marseille from German occupation.

From St. Antonin, various footpaths lead you along the mountain's lower ridges, which spread out like dinosaur backs. To reach the top from here, you need rock-climbing gear. This is the ancient battle site where, in 102 B.C., Marius's legions fought off the Teutons, who were on their way to sack Rome. Whether the name Mount Ste.-Victoire came from this victory is still under dispute. There are well-marked parking lots a few kilometers west of St. Antonin, with easier hiking trails leading up to the mountain's peak. The views from the top are sublime--you can see the Luberon and Durance Valley if you look to the north, and the Massif de la Ste.-Baume and Chaine de l'Etoile to the south.

Cezanne was not the first to paint Mount Ste.-Victoire. Aix's Granet Museum has many 18th- and 19th-century paintings that include the mountain; most are town plans of Aix with the fuzzy mountain in the far distance. In a few, such as one painted by Granet, the mountain is given more of a role, watching over Aix and its inhabitants. But the mountain in these works is never as alive as when Cezanne painted it. His late landscapes and still lifes are full of saturated color, giving natural forms their greatest fullness, and hence life. When you scramble over its rocks, you can feel the energy of the mountain. Its wrinkles and knobby protrusions take on a personality, much like a grumpy old Provencal farmer.

Both the mountain and the grumpy farmer have seen war, devastating forest fires and modern growth change their countryside. You don't argue with them.

In 1897 Cezanne built himself a studio, Les Lauves, on a hill overlooking Aix and Mount Ste.-Victoire (the views now are of apartment buildings). It was in these final 10 years of his life that the mountain completely obsessed him. While his peers Monet and Manet painted many canvases of people--and their families in particular--Cezanne's last paintings are devoid of inhabitants. In these paintings he equally stressed his foreground and background contours, causing the mountain to appear both near and far away.

Some days, as you drive along the Route de Paul Cezanne, the mountain can play this trick. On clear days, Mount Ste.-Victoire is resplendent. Its contours are so crisp it becomes surreal, and the mountain appears to be floating, much like those fake backdrops in cartoons, where the image is so convincing that the unsuspecting villain drives right through it to his peril.

In 1906, at the age of 67 and in ill health, Cezanne continued to walk to Le Tholonet to paint his mountain. On Oct. 15 he was caught in a rainstorm and collapsed on his way home. He was discovered by a villager who took him back to Aix, where he died on Oct. 22. The atelier at Les Lauves has been left much as it was found, the night Cezanne failed to return. His raincoat still hangs in a corner, and the white-and-blue stoneware he used in his still lifes are set out on a wooden table. Those accustomed to state-of-the-art museums with back-lit information panels or headsets narrated by famous actors may be disappointed by this dusty little museum.

But at Les Lauves, you are very close to Cezanne. Here he painted his bowls of fruit, where his apples and oranges ceased to be edibles and became separate beings. At Les Lauves he completed his landscapes, in which he didn't simply paint rocks and grass but explored the relationships between them. And from Les Lauves, he set out to paint his mountain, which he doubted he could ever paint properly. Anyone who has seen Mount Ste.-Victoire knows he could.

Mary Lou Longworth is a freelance writer living in Aix-en-Provence.

DETAILS: Cezanne's Mountain Landscapes

GETTING THERE: Aix-en-Provence and Cezanne country are 30 minutes from the international airport at Marseille. There are many flights daily from Paris on Air Inter, the domestic arm of Air France; the round-trip fare is about $128, with restrictions. Car rentals are available; arrange your the rental while still in the States. From the airport follow the well-marked (toll-free) highway signs to Aix. An express bus goes directly to downtown Aix from the airport; the fare is about $7 per person.

High-speed TGV trains run daily from Paris to Marseille, where you'll change trains for the trip to Aix. Round-trip fares start at $160; reservations are a must. If you are staying in a downtown hotel in Aix (and if your luggage is light) you can walk from the train station.

WHERE TO STAY: In Aix-en-Provence, Villa Gallici (18 Ave. de la Violette; telephone 011-33-4-42-23-29-23, fax 011-33-4-42-96-30-45) is the most luxurious hotel in town. There are only 15 rooms and two suites; all have private garden terraces. This is a quiet residential area of Aix, and yet the town center is only a 10-minute walk away. Rates start at about $184 double.

The 29-room Hotel des Augustins (3 Rue de la Masse; telephone 011-33-4-42-27-28-59, fax 011-33-4-42-26-74-87) is in Aix's Medieval Vieil Ville, just a stone's throw from the Cours Mirabeau. The lobby has a vaulted stone ceiling, and the spacious rooms have luxurious baths with whirlpool tubs. Rates start at about $100 double.

The Hotel Cardinale (24 Rue Cardinale; telephone 011-33-4-42-38-32-30; fax 011-33-4-42-26-39-05) is a popular old hotel in Aix's fantastic Quartier Mazarin. The rooms are small but some have romantic views over the red-tiled roofs of Aix. Rates start at about $50 double.

Mas de la Bertrande (telephone 011-33-4-42-66-75-75, fax 011-33-4-42-66-82-01) is east of Aix in Beaurecueil, closer to Mount Ste.-Victoire. You'll forgive the smallish rooms when you see the views of Mount Ste.-Victoire. Rates start at about $63 double.

Also in Beaurecueil is the Hotel le Relais Ste.-Victoire (telephone 011-33-4-42-66-94-98; fax 011-33-4-42-66-85-96), which is more modern but nicely decorated. Rates start at about $67 double.

WHERE TO EAT: Whether Le Clos de la Violette (10 Ave. de la Violette) is Aix's finest restaurant or it just stands out in a town of coffee-drinking college students is under dispute. But the service is impeccable, the wine list very good (many local wines are featured), and the food is inventive with its roots in Provence. Beautiful garden patio for summer evening dining.

Other Aix restaurants include Chez Thome (Le Tholonet), which is a great value and features good, traditional Provencal cooking in a wonderful setting, and La Petite Auberge du Tholonet (Le Tholonet, Routes Angesse)--come here if only for the stunning views of Mount Ste-Victoire and the homemade ice cream laced with marc.

WHAT TO DO: The Musee Granet (Place St-Jean-de-Malte, Aix-en-Provence, telephone 011-33-4-42-38-14-70) has few Cezanne paintings (the majority are in Paris and scattered around the world), but good 19th-century works by other Aixois, many with their own views of Mount Ste.-Victoire. Admission is about $1.75.

L'Atelier Paul Cezanne (9 Ave. Paul-Cezanne, Aix-en-Provence, telephone 011-33-4-42-21-06-53) is the studio in which the artist worked. It's a 10-minute walk uphill from the center of Aix. Admission is about $1.75.

The Musee d'Histoire Naturelle (2A Rue 4-Septembre, Aix-en-Provence, telephone 011-33-4-42-26-23-67) is a wonderful, small natural history museum located in a former grand residence. It's great for children--especially the petrified dinosaur eggs found at the foot of Mount Ste.-Victoire, and the various jarred snakes and two-headed rabbits. Admission is about $1.75.

INFORMATION: At the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office (2 Place du General de Gaulle, telephone 011-33-4-42-16-11-61), you can pick up the leaflet "Circuit Cezanne"; it will lead you around various spots in Aix where Cezanne lived and worked. The second half describes Cezanne points of interest outside of Aix. Tours to other parts of Provence, given in English, leave from here on minibuses.

For general information, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 202-659-7779, http://www.

--Mary Lou Longworth

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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