During the last ten years of his life, Cézanne frequently painted in the vast, isolated terrain east of Aix-en-Provence. He particularly favored the road leading to the hamlet of Le Tholonet, which offered splendid views of Mont Sainte-Victoire and access to the abandoned stone quarry of Bibémus and the adjacent estate of the Château Noir. This rocky, rugged landscape (figs. 1 and 2), dotted with prehistoric caves and Celtic, Roman, and medieval ruins, was a place of memory for Cézanne, who had explored the area extensively during childhood rambles with Émile Zola. In 1858, after leaving Provence for Paris, Zola wrote about the powerful bond with the pays d'Aix that he and Cézanne shared: "Is it because of the trees swaying in the breeze, because of the wild gorges, the rocks piled on top of each other like Pelion on Ossa, is it the picturesque landscape of Provence which draws me there?" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2006, pp. 191-192). Cézanne too was deeply aware of "the links which bind me to this old native soil" and once admitted, "Were it not that I am deeply in love with the landscape of my country, I should not be here" (quoted in Cézanne: The Late Work, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977, p. 26). The works that Cézanne painted in this region are redolent with this sense of nostalgia. As Philip Conisbee has written, "From Bibémus to the Château Noir and Le Tholonet--with their dark pines, whose twisting roots seem to struggle for existence with the rocks and large boulders strewn around the sites--the almost primeval mystery of the bosky hillsides drew from Cézanne some of his most complete and compelling works" (in exh. cat., op. cit., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2006, p. 198).
Cézanne began painting near Le Tholonet in the mid-1890s, shortly after he abandoned the Jas de Bouffan, his family estate at Aix, as a subject for landscape (see Lots 39 and 40). The earliest record of his presence in the area dates to November 1895, when he took a day's excursion there with two childhood friends, the artists Achille Emperaire and Philippe Solari. By 1896, Cézanne had rented a rustic stone cabin at the edge of Bibémus quarry, where he could work and store painting equipment; the following year, he leased a room at the Château Noir as well. Even after his new studio at Les Lauves was completed in 1902 (see Lot 33), Cézanne continued to paint frequently in the area, traveling by coach from Aix. Emile Bernard, who worked alongside Cézanne in 1904, recalled one such outing: "We set out joyously, following a route that became more and more impressive. Pine forests appeared at last, and he made me get out so I could have a better look at the views with him. We explored the area together. In spite of his age, he was very nimble walking among the rocks. I was careful not to help him at all. When he was in a difficult spot, he got down on all fours and crawled while chatting" (quoted in ibid., p. 192). Indeed, the landscape of Le Tholonet seems to have held ever greater appeal for Cézanne as he aged. Conisbee has written, "Such rocky places were traditionally associated with melancholy--one thinks of the haunts of hermits and ascetics. There is an uncanny sense of Cézanne's role as the invisible subject of these works, like one of Titian's profound late paintings of Saint Jerome in the wilderness, where the role of the repentant saint is taken by the artist" (in ibid., pp. 199-200).
The exact site where the present watercolor was painted has not been identified, but it most likely depicts a bend in the rough path leading from the Route du Tholonet toward the Château Noir. The white of the paper is used to describe the road itself, while the densely painted vegetation shimmers with tints of blue, violet, yellow, red, and pink, transforming the somber forest interior into a mosaic of dazzling, translucent color. Regarding a closely related watercolor, Joseph Rishel has written, "Because the steep hillside enclosed the view, the sheet has become a tapestry of forest colors that continues to the top edge. Perhaps to compensate for the absence of any release into the sky at the top, Cézanne stepped back slightly from the path in the foreground and let the paper open up the image, in reverse, as it were. All of this is carried out in a spirit of lively but unhurried ease, in keeping with the almost secret intimacy of this place" (in Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 454). Likewise, Götz Adriani has commented, "In this instance, [Cézanne] was drawn neither by the scenic mountain massif nor the only slightly less picturesque Château Noir, but rather by a forest road he happened to notice in passing. His painting of this lonely spot, protected from the gazes of the curious and far from the traffic of the main roads, was in part a testimonial to an area he had known since childhood. The motif also presented a challenge, demanding that he utilize his powers of imagination to the utmost. The task of translating its unimposing view of a road leading back into the distance became for him an exercise in pure painting. He could now entrust the picture concept exclusively to the rhythms of color" (in Cézanne Paintings, exh. cat., Kunsthalle, Tübingen, 1993, p. 223).
On the reverse of the present sheet is a view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the most prominent feature of the landscape around Aix and a signature motif in Cézanne's oeuvre (see Lot 33). This example is one of seventeen watercolors that Cézanne painted in 1902-1906, which depict the craggy peak of Mont Sainte-Victoire from the slope of Les Lauves, a hill directly north of Aix where Cézanne's last studio was located (Rewald Watercolors, nos. 581a-597).
(fig. 1) Paul Cézanne, La citerne dans le parc du Château Noir, circa 1900. Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, New Jersey. BARCODE 25010411
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, Rocks near the Grottoes above the Château Noir, circa 1904. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 25010428