This work will be included in the forthcoming online catalogue raisonné of Paul Cézanne's watercolors, under the direction of Walter Feilchenfeldt, David Nash and Jayne Warman.
In this spare and luminous watercolor, rendered with an exquisite economy of means, Cézanne has transformed a tranquil, prosaic corner of the countryside–a bend in an unpaved lane, lined on either side by a row of tall trees–into a scene of exceptional poetry and grandeur. The broad, sunlit path, described by the white of the paper left in reserve, forms an abstract decorative curve, swooping generously into the painting at the left and enticing the viewer into the landscape. As the road recedes into depth along a gentle diagonal, it passes behind a screen of four stately trees, which stand like sentries at regular intervals, marking out the viewer’s implied progress along the path. Their bare, towering trunks, outlined in pencil and heightened with taupe wash, are cropped at the top to amplify the sense of monumentality. On the opposite side of the lane stands a row of lower-branching trees, already in green leaf, which close off the scene protectively in the middle distance.
“It was not Cézanne’s goal to give an anecdotal account of a picturesque corner of Provence, for he made no particular references to human activity and deliberately avoided superfluous detail,” Bruno Ely has written. “With accurate representation of the motif a continuing priority, the artist successfully fused the physical realities of the place with his aesthetic preoccupations” (Cézanne in Provence, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., pp. 150 and 152).
The precise location of the tree-lined path depicted in Arbres au bord d’une route has never been established, neither by John Rewald nor anyone else in the scholarly literature. Yet “Cézanne’s works are always about something. They have a physical subject, a specific place or tree or apple,” Joseph Rishel has noted, “observed and recorded under specific circumstances, even if we cannot identify it” (Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, p. 250). Rewald has dated the present watercolor circa 1885, and it is in the biographical circumstances of Cézanne’s life at this time–a period of great emotional turbulence for the famously gifted and withdrawn artist–that we perhaps find our best clues to the location of the motif.
Cézanne spent the mid-1880s in near-total seclusion in the south of France, venturing only intermittently to Paris. “His solution to his problems–isolation–cut him off from the art world (which he often regretted) but also provided the secret laboratory in which his work would develop,” Ely has written. “During this period, while Cézanne’s personal life was more chaotic than ever, his painting was moving inexorably toward permanence, immutability, and monumentality of form” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2006, p. 150).
The artist stayed from May 1883 until February 1884 (and possibly longer) in a rented cottage at L’Estaque, a fishing port on the bay of Marseille, and he was back there again in March 1885; his oils and watercolors from L’Estaque, though, nearly all show the sea, and it is highly unlikely that the coastal enclave provided the motif for Arbres au bord d’une route. Between these two sojourns, Cézanne lived and worked at the Jas de Bouffan, his family’s country estate near Aix, installing his mistress Hortense and their son Paul elsewhere to keep them a secret from his father. Cézanne’s two favorite motifs to paint at the Jas in the mid-1880s were the long avenue of chestnuts leading to the manor house and the tall, leafy trees on the very fringe of the property. Although the present watercolor does not depict either of these landscape features, it is closely related to them in its sensitive opposition of a screen of tall trees and the low, anchoring horizontal of a path or enclosure wall.
One possibility, therefore, is that Arbres au bord d’une route depicts a tree-lined road just beyond the borders of the Jas, leading to and from the estate, similar to the one depicted in the oil Environs du Jas de Bouffan, 1885-1887 (Rewald, no. 524; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). “These spaces, which had been familiar to Cézanne since his early twenties, provided a tremendous attraction for him in the mid-1880s,” Rishel has written. “They offered him motifs for some of his most ambitious landscapes of that decade, when Cézanne was achieving an artistic maturity that would enable him to instill them with a new breadth and complexity” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 269).
Following his return from L’Estaque to Aix in the spring of 1885, Cézanne had a brief, passionate liaison with an unidentified woman in town, which plunged him into a state of great distress and left him barely able to work throughout the summer. “I saw you, and you let me kiss you, from that moment I have had no peace from profound turmoil,” he lamented in a draft of a letter to his inamorata, preserved on the back of a drawing. “You will forgive the liberty that a soul tormented by anxiety takes in writing to you” (quoted in A. Danchev, Cézanne: A Life, New York, 2012, p. 229). In June, he collected Hortense and Paul from Paris, and they traveled en famille to visit Renoir at La Roche-Guyon. Soon after their arrival, however, Cézanne fled in a state of terrible agitation, first settling solo at an inn at Vernon and finally taking refuge at Zola’s house at Médan, after repeatedly beseeching his childhood friend to receive him.
The affair evidently came to naught, and by August, Cézanne’s agony had subsided and he could resume painting. Shaken by the entire experience and perhaps seeking to make amends to Hortense, the artist rented a house for her and Paul in Gardanne, some seven miles south of Aix, and enrolled the boy, age thirteen, in the village school. “I’m going every day to Gardanne, and coming back each evening to the countryside in Aix,” Cézanne explained to Zola. “If only I had an indifferent family, everything would have been for the best” (quoted in ibid., p. 231).
In addition to painting three views of Gardanne proper, Cézanne discovered numerous appealing motifs on his daily walks to and from the village, along the Meyreuil and La Barque roads (e.g. Rewald, nos. 573-574; Indianapolis Museum of Art, and National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). If Cézanne did not make Arbres au bord d’une route back home near the Jas, another possibility is that it depicts a spot on this route, its curved path evoking the experience of Cézanne the traveler, rounding the bend toward an uncertain future. “Working at Gardanne, and tramping to and fro, helped to restore his equilibrium,” Alex Danchev has written. “For Cézanne as for Rousseau, contemplation was a deliverance from the memory of suffering. In Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1776) the dejected Rousseau had written of a Cézanne-like attentiveness to nature, a re-trained attentiveness, tempered by experience (or misfortune)” (ibid., p. 232).
In Arbres au bord d’une route, the bare branches of the trees in the foreground lend the composition a certain geometric austerity; the delicate washes of spring green that pool on the ground, in contrast, imbue the scene with a sense of rebirth and renewal. Indeed, in April 1886, with the scantest of warning, Cézanne wed Hortense at the Hôtel de Ville in Aix, legitimizing their relationship after a full fourteen years together. “Green is one of the gayest colors, and most pleasing to the eye,” he wrote just weeks later to the collector Victor Chocquet. “To conclude, I can tell you that I am still busy painting and that there are treasures to be taken away from this country, which has not yet found an interpreter worthy of the riches it offers” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2006, p. 153).
Christie’s is honored to present another Cézanne watercolor from the Stafford Family Collection in our Impressionist and Modern Art Works on Paper Sale on 13 November 2015. For further details, please refer to Lot 1069 in the Works on Paper Sale catalogue.
Paul Cézanne, Bassin et lavoir du Jas de Bouffan, 1885-1886. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Paul Cézanne, Environs du Jas de Bouffan, 1885-1887. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Paul Cézanne, Les arbres du Jas de Bouffan dénudés, 1885-1886. National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo.
Paul Cézanne, La montagne Sainte-Victoire vue du Pont de Bayeux à Meyreuil, 1886-1888. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
The present lot hanging in Mr. And Mrs. Frederick Stafford 's Avenue Foch apartment, Paris, circa 1975.