Among Marsden Hartley's earliest images are his paintings of mountains, beginning in 1908 to 1909 with his masterwork, Carnival of Autumn (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Years later, while residing in France in 1927, Hartley revived his interest in the subject with an extraordinary series of paintings depicting Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain which fascinated Cezanne, and towers over the region of Provence.
He arrived in Provence the prior year, in 1926, settling in the town of Aix-en-Provence, where he leased a house called Canto Grihet ("Song of the Cricket"). As noted by Barbara Haskell, "He was immediately enthralled by Provence, sensing there a peace he had not felt since Berlin: 'It is the first spot on earth where I have felt right-in harmony-body, soul and mind-and if that can't be called a state of 'home' then nothing canI can't destroy the symbol of home in my mind and soul.'" (Marsden Hartley, New York, 1980, p. 74). Forced by circumstances to move a few months later, Hartley settled nearby into new quarters in the Chateau Noir forest. His residence was called Maison Maria, at one time the studio of the French painter, Paul Cézanne.
Having struggled to paint in the previous year, the effect of his move to Provence was electric. Hartley now undertook to transform his art, taking the innovations of Cézanne as his starting point. "Aix was permeated with the spirit of Cézanne," writes Barbara Haskell. "Not only had he lived in Aix most of his life and painted perhaps his best landscapes in the Chateau Noir forest, but for several years, Maison Maria had been his second studio and a frequent subject. In Hartley's search for some direction that might bring him much needed attention and emotional support, his imagination began to be dominated by Cézanne. Whereas his earlier emulation of Cézanne had focused on still lifes, Hartley now looked to the landscape motifs Cézanne had preferred in his later years. As if in homage to the French master, he executed a whole series of Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings based on the same view of the mountain Cézanne had favored. He appropriated not only Cézanne's subject matter, but his style as well, although the broad parallel brushstrokes in Hartley's paintings and their raw primary hues were clearly post-Cézannean. Cézanne's goal had been to 'make of Impressionism something solid and durable.' In Hartley's decision to take up where Cézanne had left off, he tried to push this goal even further. Hartley derived his basic technique of parallel striations of color from Cézanne, but by exaggerating the strokes and ordering them into distinct bands or registers, he created a remarkably architectonic effect. Although, like Cézanne, his color-strokes mix optically, in comparison to the architectural stability of Hartley's Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings, Cézanne's mountains appear diffused in shimmering light. Having found a direction, Hartley worked rapidly despite social isolation. By November he wrote that he was 'working like a "trooper" to get my pictures done so they can dry some before December 1.'" (Marsden Hartley, p 75).
As he did years before when he transformed Picasso's synthetic cubism into his epic German Officer series, with Mont Sainte-Victoire Hartley transforms the innovations of Cézanne to create a highly original painting that signals a new direction for his art. Large in scale, the painting conveys a profound sense of the mountain's enormity, which is further emphasized by Hartley's decision to nearly fill the canvas with his depiction of the mountain's peak, separated from the surrounding landscape of Provence. The brushwork itself is delicate, filled with innumerable threads of color, and arranged in great arching bands of green, pink, violet and blue.
Hartley returned to the United States in January 1928, to attend an exhibition of his art in Chicago. In a poem entitled "The Mountain and the Reconstruction" which he wrote for the accompanying catalogue, Hartley articulated his new approach to painting. "In the poem," writes Barbara Haskell, "he proposed that the artist should refrain from expressing a personal life by psychologically losing himself in the motif to be painted, identifying with it completely." The culminating moment for his new work took place the following year, when Hartley exhibited the present painting (along with other renditions of Mont Sainte-Victoire and a group of still lifes) at the Intimate Gallery, which Alfred Stieglitz had established in 1925. "In the foreword to Hartley's exhibition catalogue," Barbara Haskell notes, "Lee Simonson commented favorably upon Hartley's retreat from personal expression, writing that Hartley's Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings represented a transference of self, an identification of the artist with an object: 'In the interval between Maine and Aix, Hartley did, like Alice through the Looking Glass, seem to disappear for a while down Kandinsky's Kaleidoscope and be lost among its colored fragments. Hartley after ten years of journeying has found his mountain again.'" (Marsden Hartley, pp. 76, 78).