The present picture depicts a group of tall trees along the western wall of the Jas de Bouffan, a country retreat just outside of Aix-en-Provence that belonged to Cézanne's family from 1859 until 1899. Throughout his career, the grounds and farmland of the Jas de Bouffan provided Cézanne with many of his favorite landscape motifs. John Rewald has written, "For more than forty years this peaceful estate--with its large eighteenth-century house, its alley of old chestnut trees, its farmhouses, its low walls, beyond which on one side in the distance appeared Mont Sainte-Victoire and on the other, fields of a gently rolling terrain as far as once could see--offered the artist subjects of which he never seemed to tire" (op. cit., 1996, p. 80). In the mid-1880s, when the present canvas was painted, the landscape of the Jas de Bouffan was particularly important as both a source of inspiration and a formal vehicle for Cézanne's development of a new visual language. Joseph Rishel explains:
"These spaces, which had been familiar to Cézanne since his early twenties, provided a tremendous attraction for him in the mid-1880s. 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. The screen of trees and the enclosing wall were explored in several mediums over a range of seasons to a great variety of formal and expressive ends" (Cézanne, exh. cat.,The Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1996, p. 269).
The grounds of the Jas de Bouffan were centered on a large manor house with a red-tile roof and stone walls covered with yellow stucco (fig. 1). The property comprised of thirty-seven acres of land, which included tenant farms and vineyards, as well as a sizable garden with an oblong reflecting pool and a formal avenue of stately chestnut trees. Commenting on the significance of the Jas de Bouffan for Cézanne, Rewald writes:
"The place meant home to him. There was the vast salon which, in his exuberant youth, he had decorated with large wall-paintings, and, more important, there was the garden with its alley of magnificent old chestnut trees reflected in the limpid pool. There were the greenhouse and the low wall beyond which, on clear days, Sainte-Victoire was visible; there was the elongated farm-complex where he had watched the laborers play cards. There was also the priceless seclusion so essential to him, and the recollection of seasonal change--the bare branches forming elaborate designs against the windswept sky in winter; the trees decked out in tender green gauze in spring; the stillness of the trembling heat accented by the incessant singing of the cicadas in the summer; the vineyards turned purple and dead leaves rustling on the ground in fall. Never one to adapt easily to new environments, Cézanne had found in the familiarity of the many aspects of the Jas both reassurance and isolation, the perfect ingredients for his work" (Cézanne: The Late Work, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977, pp. 84-85).
The group of five trees depicted in the present painting still stand today situated in the Jas de Bouffan in front of a low wall beyond which vineyards extend (fig. 2). A closely related painting of the same five trees (fig. 3), now housed in the Courtauld Galleries in London, probably dates to 1885-1887 as well, as does a watercolor depicting the identical motif (Rewald no. 244). Of the three versions, the present picture is the only one that employs a vertical format which enhances the monumentality of the trees. Both this work and the Courtauld version are noteworthy for their sensitive execution. The tree trunks alone are solidly outlined; the remainder of the landscape is rendered as a vibrant symphony of greens, blues, yellows, and browns. Pigment is applied in vertical or diagonal series of connected zigzag strokes, each group forming an elongated spot of the same tint. This rhythmic network of color captures both the impression of quivering foliage and the shimmering effect of the sunlight as it filters through the trees. At the same time, the ordered arrangement of the color planes, coupled with the simplified monumentality of the trunks, imbues the painting with a structural solidity that transcends the mobile effects of light on foliage. The artist Emile Bernard observed Cézanne as he painted, and described his procedure:
"His method was singular, totally outside conventional means, and of an excessive complication. He began on the shadows with a single patch, which he then overlapped with a second, and a third, until all these hues, making a screen, modeled the object by coloring it. I understood immediately that his work was guided by a law of harmony and that the direction of all his modulations was fixed in advance, in his reason. In short, he proceeded in the same way as the old tapestry-weavers must have done, making related colors succeed one another until they met up with their contrast in the opposition" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1996, p. 451).
The handling of the foliage in the present painting is closely related to the system of densely packed, parallel brushstrokes (the so-called "constructive stroke") that Cézanne developed around 1880. This systematic, structured approach to facture was a breakthrough for the artist, and helped him to develop beyond the ephemeral character of Impressionism. Cézanne was well aware of the novelty and power of the technique. When Gauguin asked him in 1881 for his formula "for compressing the intense expression of all his sensations into a single and unique procedure," Cézanne reacted with extreme suspicion. More than a decade later, he remained unforgiving, telling the critic Gustave Geffroy, "I only had a little sensation, and Gauguin stole it" (quoted in P. Machotka, Cézanne: Landscape into Art, New Haven, 1996, p. 49). In the present picture, Cézanne retains the parallel touch, but imbues it with a flickering, luminous quality in place of the dense, woven effect that characterizes the paintings of the early 1880s (fig. 4). Rishel explained, "The strokes are grouped into explosive patches that rustle against one another, producing a blurry effect quite unlike earlier, carefully hewn works" (exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1996, p. 302). Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan is one of relatively few paintings to employ this distinctive method of handling, leading Rewald to suggest, "The fact that this particular use of the brush can be observed only in very few works (though there are echoes of it in some others) could indicate that the artist found it particularly adapted to the rendering of foliage, with its great variety of nuances and the constant flicker created by the trembling air of hot days or the gentle stirring of leaves on breezy ones. Indeed, Cézanne seems to have used these strokes almost exclusively for trees and shrubs" (op. cit., 1996, p. 369).
The stately poplars and towering chestnuts of the Jas de Bouffan were not the only trees that attracted Cézanne as a motif for painting. Indeed, of all the themes that preoccupied the artist throughout his career, none seems to have captivated him with such intensity as the depiction of woods and trees. The artist's friend and first biographer, Joachim Gasquet, recalled, "He loved trees. Toward the end, with his need for sustained solitude, an olive tree became his friend. The tree's wisdom entered his heart. 'It's a living being,' he said to me one day. 'I love it like an old colleague. I'd like to be buried at its feet'" (in Cézanne, Paris, 1921, pp. 72-73). There exist dozens of oils and about sixty-five watercolors that depict woods exclusively, far more than survive of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne's most celebrated subject. Françoise Cachin has written, "From the Ile-de-France landscapes of the 1870s to the paintings of the Bibémus quarry and the environs of the Château Noir from the very last years of his life, Cézanne obsessively explored motifs of trees, forests, thickets, screens of foliage, and leafy masses, all viewed from a person's average height, with no trace of sky and no depth of field, images of a nature whose vitality is almost suffocating" (exh. cat., op. cit., Philadelphia, 1996, p. 378).
Cézanne's taste for woods and underbrush as a principal motif emerged during the 1870s, a key period in his artistic development. At this time, Cézanne was working at Pontoise and Auvers alongside Pissarro, whose luminous palette and patient observation of nature were critical influences on the younger painter. In later years, Cézanne described his Impressionist mentor with gratitude and affection as "the humble and colossal Pissarro," and recalled, "Old Pissarro was a father to me; someone to turn to for advice, somebody like the good Lord Himself" (quoted in B.E. White, Impressionists Side by Side, New York, 1996, p. 109). Many of Pissarro's compositions feature screens of trees spread integrally over the canvas, a device that Cézanne used repeatedly throughout his artistic maturity. Indeed, the two artists painted a scene of this sort side-by-side in 1877, displaying their canvases in the same room at the Impressionist exhibition that year (fig. 5; cf. Pissarro and Venturi no. 380). With its vertical tree trunks, dense foliage, and compressed space, Cézanne's version of the motif provides a noteworthy compositional precedent for the present picture, executed nearly a decade later.
Landscapes such as Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan in turn exerted a profound effect on younger artists well into the twentieth century. In 1907-1908, for instance, Braque and Picasso executed a series of proto-Cubist forest scenes that bear the unmistakable stamp of Cézanne's influence (fig. 6). The abstract tapestry of color that comprises the foliage in works like the present one has also been cited as a source of inspiration for the American Abstract Expressionists. Clyfford Still wrote a Master's thesis on Cézanne in which he praised the older artist's "structural coordination and realization of form as color" (quoted in S. Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge, 1991, p. 93). Arshile Gorky, likewise, extolled Cézanne as "the greatest artist, shall I say, that has lived," and unabashedly adopted the master's palette, brushwork, and subject matter in works such as Landscape, Gaylordsville of 1937 (quoted in J.M. Jordan and R. Goldwater, The Paintings of Arshile Gorky: A Critical Catalogue, New York, 1982, p. 20).
The earliest recorded owner of the present painting was Ralph M. Coe of Cleveland, Ohio, who gifted much of his collection to the Cleveland Museum of Art. Coe owned at least one other painting by Cézanne, La maison abandonée of 1878-1879 (R. 351), which he loaned to an important retrospective of the artist's work in 1928 at the Wildenstein Galleries in New York.
(fig. 1) The Jas de Bouffan. circa 1935. Photographed by John Rewald.Barcode 23670624
(fig. 2) Trees at the Jas de Bouffan (motif for the present picture). circa 1935. Photographed by John Rewald.Barcode 23670631.
(fig. 3) Paul Cézanne, Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan, 1885-1887. Courtauld Institute Galleries, London. Barcode 23670648
(fig. 4) Paul Cézanne, Le Château de Midan, circa 1880. Glasgow Museums. Barcode 23670655
(fig. 5) Camille Pissarro, La cóte des boeufs, Pontoise, 1877. Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida (extended loan). Barcode 23671010
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Paysage, 1908. Private collection. Barcode 23670662