Near closing time, we rang the bell at the gate. An aging woman, the curator married to the memory of the great Post-Impressionist, peered from inside, whispered "bonjour" and opened the gate. Silently she lead us past overgrown wildflower gardens into the atelier. We were alone in the studio of Paul Ce'zanne.
To walk in the footsteps of Ce'zanne through his city, Aix-en-Provence, and the surrounding countryside: That was our plan. Ironically, you visit Aix, in the south of France, not to see Ce'zanne's masterpieces but rather nature's masterpieces. Aix (pronounced eks) hasn't a single major painting by the artist who was once eyed suspiciously by its residents. No, you come here to see how art imitates nature and nature imitates art -- to try to look through a master's eyes.
The master's studio is a light-filled, open room, two stories high. It is described in tour guides as sparse: only a few sketches, an unfinished painting -- hardly worth the 25-minute walk to the hillside outskirts of Aix-en-Provence. But the guides miss the "art" of this studio Ce'zanne built in 1901. You would no more go to this charming, aristocratic town in France's Provence region and skip the studio than stay in Paris and pass up Notre Dame. Both are experiences of the spirit.
Our eyes focused first on the tall stepladder standing in one corner. Behind it were shelves of Ce'zanne's "objects" -- pottery, human skulls, a wooden crucifix, the bottle and carafe from his 1894 "Still Life With Peppermint Bottle" that hangs in the National Gallery, the cupid statuette from another work, things he spent hours rearranging with fruit and flowers for his still lifes.
"Ne les touchez pas . . ." the curator whispered and returned her gaze to the broad south windows overlooking the city that was Ce'zanne's birthplace and his home off and on throughout his life. The scene is the same he repeated in aquarelle from his studio terrace -- the still-prominent cathedral, the blue mountainous backdrop with a few more buildings and, now, utility lines.
In another corner hung Ce'zanne's overcoat and hat as if he had left them behind on a warm day to stroll with easel and paints, as he did regularly, into the countryside. When the 67-year-old artist died in 1906, his studio was closed. It remained abandoned for 15 years before it was finally restored. Today, many of the personal artifacts are as he left them.
The temptation to run a finger across the choppy waves of dried oils on the master's mixing table was too great for me. The curator didn't see -- but she knew. With a faint smile she motioned us outside to Ce'zanne's garden.
In the Aix of today, the quaint rooftops and rural surroundings are still the ochers, burnt and raw siennas, the reds, greens and ultramarines that made up the artist's palette. During the last 10 years of his life, when he painted perhaps his greatest landscapes, Ce'zanne hiked the glades of wild poppies and lavender, the pine forests and limestone foothills and quarries that were his playgrounds as a child. In what has been described as a fastidiously slow pace, the aging artist would recreate the scenes with characteristic bricklike brushstrokes into masterpieces that would pioneer modern art.
Ce'zanne's birthplace at 28 Rue de l'Opera is marked only with a small plaque. The building, worse for its centuries of wear, is likely to disappoint anyone who strolls there via the stately and captivating Cours Mirabeau -- considered one of the most beautiful avenues in Europe and the historic lifeline of Aix.
The main thoroughfare for 2,000 years -- since the Romans made Aix their first settlement in ancient Gaul -- the avenue, like the city, is a textbook of history. Named for the French revolutionary and statesman Mirabeau, it stretches five long blocks from the elaborate Place de la Libe'ration fountain, built in 1860 and the hub of activity, to the east and the residences of the aristocracy of three centuries past.
Lined with bizarre plane trees whose arthritic, twisted branches are better suited to the work of van Gogh than Ce'zanne, the broad street was the walk of the town for the 12th-century aristocracy who made Aix the capital of Provence, a state independent of France. Today, it caters to scholars and students, shoppers, French vacationers and, in the dust and heat of July and August, to crowds of outsiders who come for the internationally acclaimed Festival of Lyric Art and Music that fills its narrow streets and hidden courts with sounds from Mozart to Xenakis.
By the 15th century, Aix was the showplace for dandies from the court of King Rene', an enlightened patron of the arts and intellect whose lasting mark made Aix the judicial and university center of Provence. Although officially annexed by France after the death of Rene''s heir, Provence remained mostly autonomous and Aix still burned its bright lights until after the French Revolution.
The dignified facade that typifies this intimate city of 120,000 comes from the former "palace residences" of wealthy 17th- and 18th-century magistrates built on both sides of Cours Mirabeau; today they house old hotels, shops, patisseries and Aix's many sidewalk cafe's. The city has grown little physically in the past 100 years in the shadow of bigger, industrially important Marseille, 20 miles to the south on the Mediterranean. For the most part, this is still the Aix that Ce'zanne knew.
A 10-minute walk from the studio back into Aix is the Cathe'drale Saint Sauveur, pictured in Ce'zanne's rare, distant landscapes of town. A mosaic of different eras, it reflects the city's Roman and medieval past that tends to be obscured by the imprint of its dominant years. Once-famous "thermes" (Roman warm springs baths throughout the city) today are often the home for algae in remarkable fountains tucked away in hidden courtyards. But the cathedral is impossible to misplace. At its heart is a 5th-century Christian cloister whose musty odor and tranquil drop in temperature ambush you with a perspective of antiquity.
The cathedral itself dates mostly from the 15th and 16th centuries. The wooden doors on the west side were intricately carved in 1508 in Gothic and classical style portraying both biblical and pagan themes. Inside, the "Burning Bush" triptych -- painted for King Rene' by his court artist Nicolas Froment portraying the king in the company of the Virgin Mary, the Christ child, John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, among others -- is an important work of art that precedes Ce'zanne by more than 400 years.
In one of the quietest quarters of town, just south of the bustle on the Cours Mirabeau, is the Muse'e Granet at Place St. Jean de Malte. As a young man, Ce'zanne and his boyhood friend, future novelist Emile Zola, took drawing classes in the ground-floor studio of the museum that has displayed Aix's beaux arts collection with virtually no change since 1838.
Named for the 19th-century Aixois painter Francois-Marius Granet, whose donation of his personal collection boosted the museum's holdings, the landmark is not to be missed more for its oddity than its art. This year under restoration, though still without electrical lighting on the ground floor, it displays its longtime collection in 19th-century fashion, by the wallful, hung one above the other -- exactly as they were hung, it is pointed out, when Ce'zanne would spend hours studying the paintings.
Of greater interest, however, is a room on the first floor where several of Ce'zanne's minor works are displayed, including a couple of sketches from his art school days, three watercolor landscapes and some small oils. Equally intriguing is an exhibit pairing prints of some of Ce'zanne's better-known works -- among them "The Card Players" (1892-96) and "Boy in a Red Vest" (1894-95) -- with little-known Granets and 17th-century works of the French and Dutch schools that Ce'zanne emulated.
While the studio for Ce'zanne meant still life, his greatest inspiration came in the rollicking countryside of Provence, where the distinction of eras vanishes, where a prehistoric cave and Greek ramparts are hidden with Roman aqueducts, medieval fortresses and traces of the French Revolution in the scent of wild thyme and lavender, in the olive fields and vineyards.
The focus of Ce'zanne's attention in his later years was the white limestone Mont Ste. Victoire, a majestic peak that juts from the foothills of the Alps about six miles east of Aix. Ce'zanne painted the mountain obsessively, from near and far, from Valcros -- a few miles to the west and near his manor Jas-de-Bouffan -- and from Les Lauves, just north of his studio. Early on, the peak was no more than a bit part, a few brushstrokes in the upper left-hand corner of a landscape now and then -- even second in importance to the red-tile roofs of little Gardanne, a lovely village seven miles south of Aix, and the seascapes of L'Estaque, a small coastal town even further south.
In his later years, however, the mountain became the painting. His watercolors of 1905 and 1906 show broad, arching strokes, almost abstract sweeps defining its ridge from one side of the paper to the other. Ce'zanne so often headed out the 3 1/2-mile path to the tiny hamlet of Le Tholonet at the foot of Mont Ste. Victoire that it was renamed Route de Ce'zanne.
After the first 30 minutes of retracing Ce'zanne's tracks -- on foot -- from Aix to Le Tholonet, we wiped our foreheads at the side of a narrow country road, wild French drivers speeding by fields of wild French flowers. We wondered if a toast of expensive red wine at a shaded cafe' on Cours Mirabeau wouldn't have been a more proper personal tribute to the art and artist.
The first mile outside Aix is unequivocally not art, nor the makings of art: It is suburban Aix developed since the time of Ce'zanne and differs only in accent from low-rise suburbia around Washington, with French versions of similar idyllic names. The temperature was up to 86 degrees and it was only 11 a.m. The rising and falling hills and slopes slowed the pace to a forced leisure hike. We realized the hike might well take two hours -- not a happy prospect. Turning around and renting a car was suggested. The prospect of cold beer became important.
Suddenly, art overwhelmed the heat, muffled the bellyaching, quelled the doubts: Landscapes of Ce'zanne's canvases appeared on either side of the road beyond the first mile and a half. Red rooftops appeared from pine thickets, just as Ce'zanne promised they would. Impressionist renditions of endless fields of May flowers and poppies in tall wind-blown grass required no imagination. Boulders with a dozen colors of earthiness rose from the horizon. We saw that Ce'zanne didn't model form with color, not value, as critics said, but rather painted with a keen eye for nature.
Over another hill, we stood stunned at the first sight of Mont Ste. Victoire -- unexpectedly whiter than you would guess from the paintings. Its contour is repeatedly echoed in everything around it, the pine branches and rolling road. Ce'zanne's signature is everywhere.