‘The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. None of them was ever more than a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.’ Marcel Proust
Paul Cézanne had a Proustian streak. L’Estaque was a place he had known — by heart, as we might say — and mapped for his own convenience. For Cézanne, and for those who came after him, it was truly un lieu de mémoire, a memory place, of profound significance. Personally and professionally, L’Estaque meant more to him than we realise. Whatever the regrets, and the disappearances, the images that he retained of that place are indelibly imprinted on the map of modern consciousness.
What was L’Estaque for Cézanne? First of all, a refuge. For many years his mother rented a small house near the top of the town, to use as a summer retreat. On the outskirts of Marseille, about 18 miles along the coast from the Cézanne family home in Aix-en-Provence, L’Estaque was at once convenient and distant.
The family home was fraught with tension. His father, a self-made man, was a domineering character; he wanted the best for Cézanne, according to his lights. That meant a respectable profession and a good match. Painter, even artist-painter, did not qualify. Nor did his significant other, Hortense Fiquet, with whom Cézanne had a son, also christened Paul, in 1872, when he was in his early thirties. For a long time these facts were strictly unmentionable. Cézanne made every effort to conceal them from his father, for fear of paternal disapproval and disinheritance. Hortense was not openly avowed, nor Paul formally legitimized, until 1886, when they eventually married. Until well into his forties, Cézanne had a semi-secret family, kept out of sight and hidden from le papa.
Paul Cézanne, Vue sur L’Estaque et Le Château d’If, 1883-1885. This masterpiece is offered for sale in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s, London on 4 February. Click here to view the online catalogue.
His friends were privy to their existence, and so was his mother. Cézanne and his mother were fundamentally in sympathy. She was a moral support — his lifelong quest — and a trusted confidante. She also provided a bolthole. ‘Papa gave me 300 francs this month,’ Cézanne wrote to Zola in September 1878, after a long moment when he feared he might be cut off altogether. ‘Incredible. I believe he’s making eyes at a charming little maid we have in Aix; mother and I are in L’Estaque. What a turn-up.’
For Cézanne, therefore, L’Estaque was a safe house and sanctuary, doubly so during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Long afterwards, the dealer Vollard asked him what he did in the war. He replied: ‘Listen, Monsieur Vollard! During the war, I worked a lot sur le motif at L’Estaque.’ Cézanne was on the run from the authorities, civil and paternal. L’Estaque was his haven, a place of escape and emancipation.
L’Estaque cradled Cézanne and Cézanne fabled L’Estaque. His visions transformed the place, and our very
conception of place
Emancipation, and inspiration; in October 1906, soon after Cézanne’s death, the young Georges Braque came to stay for five months, as if on a pilgrimage, soaking up his surroundings like a chameleon. The light took his breath away: ‘There is something about the light that makes the sky of the Midi look higher, much higher than it does in the north.’
Georges Braque (1882–1963), Paysage à L’Estaque, 1907. Oil on canvas. 25 x 31 1/8 in. (63.5 x 79 cm.) This work is offered for sale in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s, London, on 4 February. Click here to view the online catalogue.
Back in L’Estaque the following year, Braque broke the mould. In October 1907 he embarked on a serial treatment of the elements of that place, its houses, its trees, its roads, its viaduct, which evolved over the next few months into a style of painting that had no name, no school, no code and no precedent — painting that we would come to call Cubism. The sheer audacity of this work, and the cool effrontery of its maker, propelled him into partnership with Picasso. Roped together like mountaineers, in Braque’s classic image, they entered into an extraordinary creative dialogue, rivalrous and unrivalled, legislating the future, vandalizing the past, completely subverting Western ways of seeing.
Left: Paul Cézanne, Gardanne, 1885-86; Right: Georges Braque, The Rio-Tinto Factories at L'Estaque, 1910.
For the successor generation, the discovery of Cézanne was decisive, in art and life. For Braque, in particular, deep immersion in Cézanne was a revelation of affinity and a kind of anamnesis, a memory of what he did not know he knew: ‘Cézanne! He swept away the idea of mastery in painting. He was not a rebel, Cézanne, but one of the greatest revolutionaries. He gave us a taste for risk. His personality was always in play, with his weaknesses and his strengths. With him, we’re poles apart from decorum. He melds his life in his work, the work in his life.’
Cézanne was the great exemplar. In him, moral values and colour values coalesced. As Braque underlined, ‘In Cézanne’s works we should see not only a new pictorial construction but also — too often forgotten — a new moral suggestion of space.’ Contemplating the scandalous little cubes, Matisse observed wisely that Braque’s houses (or rather the signs used to represent them) were employed formally, ‘to let them stand out in the ensemble of the landscape’, and at the same time morally, ‘to develop the idea of humanity which they stood for’. It has been well said that the landscapes of L’Estaque proposed a new claim on truth.
Paul Cézanne, La mer a l'Estaque, 1879.
L’Estaque cradled Cézanne and Cézanne fabled L’Estaque. His visions transformed the place, and our very conception of place. His regrets centred on a partnership foregone. Cézanne tried for 10 years to tempt his old comrade-in-arms Pissarro to make a home in the Midi.
In July 1876 these efforts gave rise to one of most celebrated of all Cézanne’s letters, and an analogy that has entered the culture: ‘I must tell you that your letter surprised me in L’Estaque …. I’ve started two little motifs of the sea, for Monsieur Chocquet, who talked to me about it. It’s like a playing card. Red roofs against blue sea. If the weather turns favourable perhaps I’ll be able to push them right to the end. … How happy the gentle landscapists of Auvers would be here, and that bastard Guillemet.’
Cézanne’s suggestions fell on deaf ears. Pissarro was immovable. That must have come as a bitter disappointment. From then on the great revolutionary pushed on alone. We have been rediscovering him ever since.