‘Radical and innovative’: Cézanne’s love letter to a coastal French paradise

A painting of Paul Cézanne’s sanctuary, L’Estaque, represents the artist at the height of an ‘intense surge of creativity’

L’Estaque aux toits rouges by Paul Cézanne is one of the finest views of L’Estaque, the Provençal fishing village where the artist forged a radical new way of depicting the world around him. 

Exhibited in 1936 and hidden away ever since, this remarkable piece will finally come back on view as part of The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism, taking place at Christie’s New York on 11 November.

While Cézanne is primarily associated with Aix-en-Provence, the village of L’Estaque near Marseille was a place that he returned to again and again when he sought sanctuary. His relationship with the village began when he holidayed there as a child with his mother. Then, in 1870, when Cézanne left Paris to avoid conscription into the army following the start of the Franco-Prussian War, he escaped to L’Estaque.


Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), L’Estaque aux toits rouges, 1883-85. Oil on canvas. 25 3/4 x 32 in (65.5 x 81.4 cm). Estimate: $35,000,000-55,000,000. Offered in The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism on 11 November at Christie’s in New York

In 1878, Cézanne once again fled to L’Estaque to avoid the disapproval of his father, who had discovered Cézanne’s semi-secret family life with his unwed partner Hortense and their illegitimate son, Paul.

It was in this town, secluded from his family and the art world of Paris, that Cézanne painted some of the most innovative landscapes of his career. From the Musée Picasso, Paris to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, many of these vistas of the sea seen beyond L’Estaque are now housed in museum collections around the world. L’Estaque aux toits rouges is one of six landscapes of this view to remain in private hands.

L’Estaque aux toits rouges is one of the emblematic works of that time. Painted between 1883 and 1885, when Cezanne was in his mid-forties, it shows how, through intense observation, Cézanne transformed the landscape into planes and facets of colour. Shadows are gone and the Provençal light is depicted through a brighter palette, while the balance between the trees, buildings and the flat blue sea vibrates at a perfect tension, evoking the intense heat of the south.


Left: Paul Cézanne, L’Estaque, 1879-83. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Right: Paul Cézanne, La mer à L’Estaque derrière les arbres, 1878-79. Musée Picasso, Paris

Max Carter, Head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art department in New York, says that the painting incorporates ‘warm Mediterranean light in its purest form’ as well as ‘the solid architectural forms that mark Cézanne’s career’. He describes it as ‘one of the key expressions that would lead, 30 years later, to Cubism’.

‘It is radical and innovative,’ says Carter. ‘What others in the Impressionist movement were doing was capturing the immediate effect of light, what Cézanne was doing was looking at how we perceive objects.’ This would have a profound effect on painters who followed Cézanne, as later visits to L’Estaque by artists such as Georges Braque show.

‘[In this painting], he breaks down the colour and the structures stroke by stroke, colour by colour,’ Carter continues. ‘The Cubists took these explorations to their terminal conclusion.’


Les Bouches-du-Rhône illustrées, c. 1935. Photograph courtesy of Fonds Alain Mothe - Société Paul Cézanne

The intense light and striking landscape of L’Estaque provided Cézanne with the path towards this artistic aim. Now working predominantly from elevated viewpoints, he began to capture nature in an increasingly simplified and monumental manner.

L’Estaque enabled Cézanne to reconsider how he portrayed the world. ‘It’s like a playing card,’ he wrote to his friend and mentor Camille Pissarro in 1876. ‘Red roofs against the blue sea… It’s olive trees and pines, which always keep their leaves. The sun here is so frightful that it seems to me the objects are silhouetted not in white or black, but in blue, red, brown, violet. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that this is the opposite of modeling.’

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Carter says that, by this point, Cézanne was ‘coming into his own’ as a painter. ‘He has graduated beyond the heavy, thickly impastoed, painterly works of his early career and refined his brushwork and approach — resolving questions of volume, space and architecture.’

The series of paintings created by Cézanne in L’Estaque made the village ‘a site of proto-Cubism’. Carter adds: ‘Cézanne’s landscapes of the 1880s led Braque there.’

While L’Estaque aux toits rouges speaks for itself, it started a conversation that would reverberate down the history of art.

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