Painted in 1907, Paysage à L’Estaque is a fine example of Georges Braque’s rare, early landscapes of Provence from a pivotal moment in the artist’s development. Paysage à L’Estaque was painted in the midst of one of the most experimental and seminal years in Braque’s career, at a time when the artist was becoming increasingly interested in the depiction of form that would, a year later, lead him to paint some of the earliest ‘proto-cubist’ works. Soon after Paysage à L’Estaque was painted, Braque saw the highly influential posthumous retrospective of Cézanne in Paris, and in late November of that same year, he visited the young Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso at his studio in the Bateau Lavoir for the first time. This auspicious meeting was the beginning of one of the greatest artistic partnerships in history; together the artists would develop the radical and influential art movement, Cubism.
The landscape of L’Estaque, a fishing-port in the South of France, near Marseille, is the subject of the present work. The South of France was already a hallowed area for artists, having inspired the likes of Signac, Matisse and Cézanne. Braque’s first visit to the Midi had occurred in 1906, the year before the present work was painted. Braque was born in the north of France and had never ventured further south than Paris. His experience of the rich, luminous light and raw colours of Provence was a sheer revelation; he exclaimed, ‘It’s there that I felt all the elation, all the joy, welling up inside me. Just imagine, I left the drab, gloomy Paris studios where you were still working in bitumen. There, by contrast, what a revelation, what a blossoming!’ (Braque, quoted in A. Danchev, Georges Braque, A Life, London, 2005, p. 41). He remained in the Midi until the spring of 1907, when he returned to Paris, yet was quickly lured back to the south in June of the same year, venturing once more to L’Estaque and La Ciotat, another coastal town, until the autumn.
With an array of soft hues, Paysage à L’Estaque exemplifies the end of Braque’s pivotal Fauvist period. Two years before the present work was painted, Braque had encountered the radical experimentations with colour in the Fauvist paintings of Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck, which were exhibited at the Salon d’Automne of 1905. Inspired by the sheer exuberance of the force and purity of colour applied to the canvas without a descriptive or representational function, Braque began to forge his own Fauvist style. Under the intense light of the Midi, his canvases were illuminated with glowing colour, applied in dabs of paint and linear brush strokes. In contrast to his Fauvist colleagues, Braque’s compositions demonstrated a more deliberate compositional organisation and formal structure. Over the course of 1907, the year Paysage à L’Estaque was painted, the artist’s use of bold, unnaturalistic colour was combined with an increasing preoccupation and interest in the representation and construction of pictorial space. Soaked in colour, the landscape of Paysage à L’Estaque is framed and structured by four trees in the foreground, the hillside vista adorned with the characteristic red-roofed houses of L’Estaque, stretching beyond. The repeated, undulating curves of the landscape, the trees, foliage and hills, create a sinuous visual rhythm, unifying the different facets of colour and creating a graceful lyricism that is unseen in many other Fauvist works.
Braque’s interest in conveying the rhythms and forms of the landscape is evident in Paysage à L’Estaque; the areas of colour that describe the curving forms of the landscape suggest a sense of mass and form. The delicate, powdery hues of yellow, blue, mauve and pink are softly harmonious, a contrast to Braque’s earlier explosive landscapes; the exploration of violent tonal contrasts and juxtapositions of colour replaced by the artist’s burgeoning interest in solid form and how to depict it. By the time Paysage à L’Estaque was painted, Braque was increasingly looking for new ways to express the world around him; a new means of expressing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane. The artist recalled that, ‘I realized that the exaltation which had overwhelmed me during my first visit [to the Midi] and which I had transmitted onto canvas was no longer the same. I saw that there was something further. I had to cast around for another means of self-expression more in keeping with my nature’ (Braque, quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume II 1907-1917: The Painter of Modern Life, London, 2009, p. 68). It was in the work of Cézanne that Braque would find the pictorial vocabulary that he needed in order to convey his distinctive visual experiments with form. Braque later reflected, ‘everything about [Cézanne] was sympathetic to me, the man, his character, everything…’ (Braque, quoted in J. Russell, Georges Braque, London, 1959, p. 9). Braque’s growing regard for Cézanne was galvanised when the artist attended the posthumous retrospective of his work at the Salon d’Automne in October 1907. From this point onwards, Braque no longer experimented with chromatic constructions of colour but instead created landscapes consisting of jutting, angular forms, which paved the way for the earliest cubist paintings. Braque’s Fauvist moment was brief, lasting for just two years, however, it was crucial to his development as an artist, allowing him to forge his artistic identity and to locate the central tenets that would govern his subsequent artistic developments. In 1907, the year that Paysage à L’Estaque was painted, the artist emphatically stated, ‘At that moment I understood that I was a painter. Until then I had not believed it’ (Braque, quoted in op. cit., p. 42).
Paysage à L’Estaque was included in the highly important exhibition held in 1908 at the Galerie Kahnweiler. Braque had first met the German-born art dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, on his return from L’Estaque in the autumn of 1907. Kahnweiler had arrived in Paris with a singular aim: to buy, sell and exhibit contemporary art. The dealer had bought a number of paintings by Braque from the Salon des Indépendants in spring 1907, and continued to buy his work, exhibiting it in a one-man show in 1908. It was in his review of the exhibition that art critic Louis Vauxcelles first described Braque’s work from 1908 as consisting of ‘little cubes’, which developed into the term ‘Cubism’. Kahnweiler was a crucial figure in the development of Cubism, providing financial support for his artists, who included Braque, Picasso, Gris and Derain, as well as remaining a vital champion and staunch defender of their radical artistic innovations. Kahnweiler's show would be the last public, solo exhibition of Braque’s work in Paris until 1918, a decade later, emphasising the unequivocal importance of the exhibition in consolidating the astonishing developments in Braque’s career until that point.