Painted circa 1869, Le village des pêcheurs à L'Estaque is a rare early landscape by Paul Cézanne dating from the formative years leading up to the 1870s; its importance is reflected both in its featuring in an extensive range of literature including some of the earliest monographs on the artist, and also in its prestigious provenance-- it formed a part of the legendary collection of Auguste Pellerin.
L'Estaque was to become one of the great cradles for the development of Cézanne's painterly style and his aim to synthesise sight and sensation on the canvas. His mother had taken a house in the fishing village some years earlier, and Cézanne had often visited it, making the short trip from his parental home at the Jas de Bouffan, painting the nearby landscape, often in the company of his artist friends such as Marion and Guillemet, as well as the writer Emile Zola. L'Estaque was to become even more of a home and refuge to Cézanne around the period that Le village des pêcheurs à L'Estaque was painted because, in 1870, he was hiding both from the forced conscription being enforced during the Franco-Prussian War, and also from the prying eyes of his parents, as he was now living with his model and lover, Hortense Fiquet.
It was in the late 1860s that Cézanne truly began to develop a style that reacted in a new manner to the peculiarities of the landscape there. For L'Estaque occupies, despite its small size, a sprawling position descending from a basin and going down to the sea. It is from the elevated position of the basin, looking down on the roofs towards the sea, that he painted Le village des pêcheurs à L'Estaque. It is perhaps apt to look at his friend Zola's description of L'Estaque, which featured in his novel Nais Micoulin:
'A village just outside of Marseilles, in the centre of an alley of rocks which close the bay... The country is superb. The arms of rock stretch out on either side of the gulf, while the islands, extending in width, seem to bar the horizon, and the sea is but a vast basin, a lake of brilliant blue when the weather is fine. At the foot of the mountains the houses of Marseilles are seen on different levels of the low hills; when the air is clear one can see, from L'Estaque, the grey Joliette breakwater and the thin masts of the vessels in the port' (E. Zola, quoted in J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, trans. M.H. Liebman, London, n.d., p. 80).
This description of the village in which painter and writer spent a good deal of time together may even reflect Cézanne's own landscapes of the area, such as Le village des pêcheurs à L'Estaque.
In this picture, Cézanne has rendered the landscape with a daring boldness and simplicity. The downward angle is revolutionary in several senses: many of Cézanne's landscapes of the area featured the water incidentally or not at all, whereas here it fills the top of the canvas; he has deliberately selected an angle of viewing that excludes the sky, a standard constituent in most landscapes; and also, it shows the painter looking down at a gradient that is far from the more neutral viewing position taken by most artists. This point in L'Estaque was obviously a favoured one, as it was only by turning to the left that he captured the view shown in La neige fondue à L'Estaque (itself a view that he would reprise a decade later in Le viaduc à L'Estaque (R439)). The landscape has been depicted through the use of a build-up of thick bands of colour, many of them in subtle tones, in part prefiguring the tesserae-like planar technique that Cézanne would later develop. Despite the thickness of the shapes and forms that he has so boldly used to create this view of the houses receding into the distance, the brushstrokes themselves are controlled in calculation and sensation in this depiction, certainly not an impromptu composition.
Cézanne had long struggled to make others understand or accept his unique aesthetic, his unique attempt to condense sensation into a picture. 'There are two things in painting, vision and mind, and they should work in unison,' Cézanne would later explain. 'As a painter, one must try to develop them harmoniously: vision, by looking at nature; mind, by ruling~one's senses logically, thus providing the means of expression (P. Cézanne, quoted in F. Elgar, Cézanne, London, 1969, p. 85). It was within the sheer perspectives and rich colours of L'Estaque that Cézanne began to formulate the style that would prove so groundbreaking that Braque, in homage to the late Master of Aix, would visit the village and develop the groundwork for Cubism there three and a half decades later.
For Cézanne, one of the great breakthroughs during this period was his new understanding of the example of Camille Pissarro, with whom he had long been in correspondence and who would later take him on plein air painting expeditions around Pontoise. 'When I think about it, it was only at L'Estaque that I came to fully understand Pissarro-- a painter like myself,' Cézanne would later recall (P. Cézanne, quoted in R. Kendall (ed.), Cézanne by himself: Drawings, Paintings, Writings, London, 2004, p. 213). However, while Le village des pêcheurs à L'Estaque may have been painted before the motif itself, it is clear that it was not Pissarro's Impressionism (though the term had not yet been invented) that interested Cézanne, but the idea of being able to infuse a picture with some of the emotions and sensations experienced by the artist at the time. In this sense, it appears that Cézanne was guided by the dual influences of Delacroix and by Stendhal's Histoire de la peinture en Italie, which he had recently read. John Rewald linked early landscapes such as this to statements in that book such as, 'Each artist must see nature in his own style. What could be more absurd than to take that of another man and that of another often contrary personality?' (Stendhal, quoted in J. Rewald, The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, London, 1996, p. 131).
In this light, it is interesting to note that Véronique Serrano, in the catalogue for the exhibition Cézanne en Provence, has posited that it was of this picture that Roger Fry was writing in the following passage, discussing the artist's early landscapes:
'We find here the same dramatic emphasis, the same exuberance and vehemence in the drawing and in the abrupt oppositions of tone... There is always the same defiant handling, the same determination to crush the spectator by the vehemence of the imaginative attack and to import upon him at once the artist's own emotional attitude...If ever the art of Cézanne could be considered to have touched that of his friend Zola it is at such a moment where an essentially romantic emotion is conveyed through a literal statement of commonplace matters of fact' (R. Fry, Cézanne: A Study of his development, London, 1927, p. 23).
Cézanne's own sensibility was profoundly poetic. Ironically, during their school days, it was Zola who won drawing prizes, while Cézanne was a keen poet. And it is this poetry, this contemplative aspect, that is so evident in the unpeopled stillness and elevated viewpoint of Le village des pêcheurs à L'Estaque.
It is a mark of the importance of this picture that it featured in the Tavernier Collection, before being acquired by Eugène Blot, a keen collector and patron of the Impressionists who would, some years after he owned Le village des pêcheurs à L'Estaque, become a dealer. He had been one of the founders, and indeed the treasurer, of the Societé des amis du Musée du Luxembourg; at the sale of his collection in 1900, this picture was offered alongside works by Caillebotte, Degas, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and many others. Le village des pêcheurs à L'Estaque was subsequently owned by Auguste Pellerin, the magnate whose legendary collection of Cézanne's works numbered over a hundred, including some of the artist's most celebrated masterpieces, many of which are now in museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art.