The present watercolor depicts a group of tall trees along the western wall of the Jas de Bouffan, an estate just outside of Aix-en-Provence that belonged to Cézanne's family from 1859 until 1899. Throughout his career, the grounds and farmland of the Jas de Bouffan provided Cézanne with many of his favorite landscape motifs. John Rewald has written, "For more than forty years this peaceful estate--with its large eighteenth-century house, its alley of old chestnut trees, its farmhouses, its low walls, beyond which on one side in the distance appeared Mont Sainte-Victoire and on the other, fields of a gently rolling terrain as far as once could see--offered the artist subjects of which he never seemed to tire" (in The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1996, vol. I, p. 80). Elsewhere, Rewald has explained:
"The place meant home to him. There was the vast salon which, in his exuberant youth, he had decorated with large wall-paintings, and, more important, there was the garden with its alley of magnificent old chestnut trees reflected in the limpid pool. There were the greenhouse and the low wall beyond which, on clear days, Sainte-Victoire was visible; there was the elongated farm-complex where he had watched the laborers play cards. There was also the priceless seclusion so essential to him, and the recollection of seasonal changes--the bare branches forming elaborate designs against the windswept sky in winter; the trees decked out in tender green gauze in spring... Never one to adapt easily to new environments, Cézanne had found in the familiarity of the many aspects of the Jas both reassurance and isolation, the perfect ingredients for his work" (in Cézanne: The Late Work, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977, pp. 84-85).
Les grands arbres is part of an important group of landscapes that Cézanne painted at the Jas de Bouffan during the mid-1880s. Whereas his earlier views of the grounds had focused on the ornamental pool, these later works principally depict either the stately avenue of chestnuts behind the manor house or the large, leafy trees at the fringes of the estate. The screen of trees in the present painting still stands today, in front of a low wall beyond which vineyards extend (fig. 1). Cézanne depicted the same trees from a very similar vantage point in two oil paintings (Rewald, nos. 546-547) and one other watercolor (Rewald Watercolors, no. 244), all from 1885-1887. These paintings occupy an important position in Cézanne's formal and expressive development during this period. As Denis Coutagne has commented, "He was clearly consolidating the advances he had made at L'Estaque and Gardanne: there is a tremendous spatial breadth to these works, even when the view is restricted by the framing. Cézanne shows a predilection for the interplay of tree trunks and branches, eschewing wider views of the woods or avenue and seeking instead to express the monumentality of the space between these arboreal forms" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 86).
In the present watercolor, Cézanne emphasizes the contrast between the simplified monumentality of the enduring, vertical tree trunks and the exuberant, vividly colored eddies of the quivering foliage. Rewald has written about this particular work, "In contrast to some of his meticulous drawings that were to receive only a few, subtle color indications, Cézanne seems to have executed at the very same time works in which the role of the pencil line remained subdued so that a profusion of color touches could constitute the dominant feature. That is the case here, where a vibrant brush freely distributed delicate washes over a large sheet, re-creating through its spontaneous swirls the animation of luxuriant foliage trembling in the summer heat" (in op. cit., 1983, p. 129).
(fig. 1) Trees at the Jas de Bouffan (the motif for the present picture). Photographed by John Rewald, circa 1935. BARCODE 26000657