The commanding presence of Mont Sainte-Victoire, jutting high above the plain to the east of Aix, Cézanne’s ancestral home, is the most prominent regional feature of the Provençal landscape. The rugged ridge line of this mountain’s looming slopes became an idée fixe in Cézanne’s creative imagination, a compelling motif to which he returned time and again throughout his career. The present watercolour is part of the last – and arguably the most important – series of landscapes that Cézanne painted of this seminal motif.
'For many,' Joseph Rishel has proclaimed, 'this group of views is the culmination of Cézanne’s efforts, his last titanic struggle to weld nature into art through profoundly complex, but finally extremely lucid, workings of colour' (Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia, 1996, p. 468).
'Cézanne was particularly absorbed by the Montagne Sainte-Victoire and the countryside over which it presides in the last few years of his life, and he depicted it with intensity and immediacy,' Philip Conisbee has concurred. 'It concerned Cézanne’s identity, of course: he felt himself to be this pays d’Aix, that mountain. But it was also a matter of life and death: that is to say, the triumph of life over death, through an art powerful in its engagement with nature – a particular nature surveyed to its fullest advantage from the hill at Les Lauves – and an art dense in matter, rich in chiaroscuro, vibrant in colour, passionate in feeling, and which endures in Cézanne’s signature motif' (Cézanne in Provence, exh. cat., Washington D.C., 2006, pp. 289-290).
Les Lauves, the hill from which Cézanne painted these late views of Mont Sainte-Victoire, is located directly north of Aix, overlooking the town. The artist purchased a one-acre plot of land on the south slope of the hill in November of 1901, two years after the Jas de Bouffan, his family home near Aix, had been sold. In the intervening period, he had been living and working in an apartment in Aix itself, but had grown frustrated by the lack of privacy and the cramped quarters. Immediately after purchasing the property on Les Lauves, Cézanne engaged an architect and a mason to build a new house for him. Completed in September of 1902, the house featured a studio roughly 25 square feet, with ceilings soaring to 15 feet. The large windows offered a panoramic view over Aix and its environs, extending from the Jas de Bouffan in the west to the slopes of Le Tholonet in the east. Cézanne never lived at Les Lauves, choosing instead to come from his apartment in Aix each day to work. By all accounts, however, he was delighted with the new space, writing to Ambroise Vollard in the fall of 1902, 'I have a large studio in the country. I work there, I am better off than in town' (quoted in J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1996, p. 535).
During the last four years of his life, the studio at Les Lauves was the focal point for Cézanne’s artistic endeavours. According to Emile Bernard, who worked closely with the painter during this period, Cézanne arrived at Les Lauves, which was about a kilometre's Paul Cézanne, La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue de Bibémus, circa 1897. Baltimore Museum of Art. walk from his apartment in Aix, each day at 6am. In the morning, he worked on projects in the studio itself, including the celebrated Grandes baigneuses, the portraits of his gardener Vallier, and a group of watercolours depicting the view over the rooftops of Aix. After returning to town for lunch, he spent the afternoon painting outdoors, either on Les Lauves or in the heavily wooded countryside around Le Tholonet. The late views of Mont Sainte Victoire, including the present watercolour, were painted from a knoll near the summit of Les Lauves, about one kilometre above Cézanne’s studio.
From this vantage point, looking almost due east across a wide plain, the mountain presents its most striking profile. The gentle contours of the northern slope (on the left in Cézanne’s views) crest in a dramatic peak of rock before falling steeply toward the broad plateau of Le Cengle. 'When Cézanne walked up the fairly steep road beyond the studio he built in 1902 and reached the crest of Les Lauves, a fascinating and exhilarating panorama unfolded to his right,' John Rewald has written. 'From there the familiar mountain… presented itself as an irregular triangle, its long back gently rising to the abrupt, cliff-like front that tapered off to the horizontal extension of the Mont du Cengle. Rather than squatting beneath the immensity of the skies, the mountain seems pointed toward heaven, as imposing as ever, and possibly even more majestic. Floating ethereally in the southern light, it appears like a glorious symbol of Provence' (J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, The Watercolors: A Catalogue Raisonné, Boston, 1983, p. 240).
Cézanne painted nine major oils and seventeen watercolours of Mont Sainte-Victoire from Les Lauves between 1902 and 1906 (Rewald, nos. 910-916, 931-932, 938; Rewald Watercolors, nos. 581a-597). Although the vantage points are not identical, they are very close together, representing only a slight shift in the artist’s line of sight or at most a short walk. As Cézanne wrote to his son Paul in mid-1906, 'The motifs multiply, the same subject seen from a different angle offers subject for study of the most powerful interest and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without changing place, by turning now more to the right, now more to the left' (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2006, p. 283). Unlike Monet’s series paintings of the 1890s, however, Cézanne’s late views of Mont Sainte-Victoire were not conceived as an ensemble. Painted over a period of four years, they have different dimensions and orientations, and they vary widely in palette and brushwork. Moreover, in place of the systematic exploration of transitory effects that characterizes Monet’s series, Cézanne’s paintings from Les Lauves emphasise the timeless, heroic quality of the mountain, silhouetted against the sky.
The watercolours depicting Mont Sainte-Victoire are among the most extraordinary works from this group of paintings. In the present example, Cézanne has divided the mass of the mountain into two zones: the front, lit by the sun, where the paper remains bare, and the back, covered in deep shadow. Emile Bernard, who accompanied Cézanne up Les Lauves in 1904, left a detailed record of how Cézanne painted a watercolour: 'His method was remarkable, absolutely different from the usual process, and extremely complicated. He began on the shadow with a single patch, which he then overlapped with a second, then a third, until all those tints, hinging one to another like screens, not only coloured the object but modelled its form' (quoted in Rewald, op. cit., 1983, p. 238).
Cézanne also allowed each patch to dry before applying an overlapping one, preventing the colours from running into one another. Theodore Reff has explained, 'In Cézanne’s late watercolours we discover other aspects of his achievement as a landscape painter. Since their colour washes remain transparent no matter how often they overlap, allowing the paper to shine through, its whiteness enhances the luminosity of the already high-keyed greens, blues, crimsons, and yellows so characteristic of the late landscape watercolours, imbuing them with a joyful radiance unmatched in the corresponding oils. Rendered in transparent wash, the Mont Sainte- Victoire becomes a weightless, hovering form, suffused with light like the sky' (Cézanne: The Late Work, exh. cat., New York, 1977, p. 29).
Although Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire more frequently from Les Lauves than from any other location, the mountain played a critical role in his oeuvre long before 1902. In the 1880s, he made around twenty views of the mountain from Bellevue, a hill to the southwest of Aix where his sister owned a farm. Heavily influenced by the classical tradition of Poussin, these paintings depict a panoramic view over the verdant valley of the River Arc. A group of pine trees in the foreground functions as a repoussoir device, and the mountain itself closes the sweeping vista in the back.
In the mid-1890s, forsaking the bucolic naturalism of the Bellevue sequence, Cézanne painted a series of romantic and expressive views of Mont Sainte-Victoire from the isolated grounds east of Aix, the area of the Bibémus quarry and the Château Noir. In these paintings, Cézanne has drawn much nearer to the base of the mountain, and the peak seems to surge up in close proximity. Finally, in the paintings from Les Lauves, Cézanne returned to a distant view of the Aixois landmark. In contrast to the Bellevue paintings, however, the mountain is now the focal point of the composition rather than a mere foil for the densely inhabited valley. 'In his final paintings of Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne succeeded in rescuing the mountain from the mundane bourgeois world in which modernity had steeped it,' Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer has concluded. 'His abstracted geometric rendering transformed Sainte-Victoire from an image of nature to a natural icon' (N. Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, Cézanne and Provence: The Painter in His Culture, Chicago, 2003, pp. 181-182).