This picture occupies an intriguing position in the development of Cézanne's landscape style. It has definite origins in the Auvers landscapes of circa 1873-74 as well as reflecting the beginnings of his "constructive stroke" which he began to use at the end of the 1870s. Consequently it is not surprising that the dating of the picture has provoked some disagreement amongst Cézanne commentators. Rivière in 1923 dated it to 1873. This dating was accepted by Venturi in his 1936 catalogue raisonné where he dated it 1873-75. It was the occasion of the Orangerie exhibition in Paris in 1954 that prompted Douglas Cooper to propose a new dating of circa 1879. Lawrence Gowing followed up in 1956 to affirm the 1879 dating and said "it is as likely to have been painted in 1880 as in the previous year." Interestingly, John Rewald has discovered that in the Vollard archives Cézanne's son dated the picture to 1878. Rewald himself, for his forthcoming catalogue raisonné, now dates the picture to circa 1879.
The identity of the cottage depicted in the picture has, up to now, been uncertain. Venturi, without hinting at his source, identifies it as a house which had previously stood in front of Eugène Murer's house in Auvers (by the date of Venturi's catalogue he asserted that it had been demolished). In the 1904 Salon d'Automne exhibition it was titled (no doubt by Vollard) La Maison du Pendu, providing a connection with the celebrated picture of the same title (Venturi 133), then in the Camondo collection and now in the Musée d'Orsay. Alain Mothe, author of Vincent van Gogh à Auvers-sur-Oise published in 1987, has now conclusively identified the cottage in this picture as no. 7 rue du Gré in the village of Chaponval in the Valhermeil district of Auvers. It is Vincent van Gogh's numerous paintings and drawings of this area that have provided the key to identifying the cottage. Seen from a different and a lower vantage point the same cottage, with its characteristic tiled half wall and undulating thatched roof, can be seen at the centre of the pen drawing by van Gogh Paysage Boisé (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; de la Faille no. 1640) and the related oil painting (Les Chaumières, Hermitage, St. Petersburg; de la Faille no. 750). The taller tiled house standing next door at 9 rue du Gré was in fact the Maison de Père Lacroix which Cézanne had already painted in 1873 (Venturi no. 138) and in which part of the characteristic undulating thatch of the cottage in this picture can be seen at the left. Lacroix's house was also painted by van Gogh (Maison à Auvers, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio; de la Faille no. 759). Alain Mothe writes, "Pour Maison dans les arbres, Auvers, Cézanne a renforcé l'effet de hauteur du bâtiment, on le regardant d'un point de vue légèrement surélevé, en le rehaussant par le mur de clôture à l'avant-plan, en l'encadrant par les lignes verticales des arbres. Ainsi, la chaumière paraît bien plus monumentale que nature, d'autant qu'on la découvre dans l'ouverture des arbres. Une photographie du même point de vue semble bien difficile à prendre aujourd'hui, à cause des constructions nouvelles, de l'abondante végétation. La Maison du père Lacroix n'a presque changé depuis Cézanne; la chaumière, elle, a été beaucoup remaniée: façades rehaussées consécutivement à la suppression des chaumes."
In 1872 Cézanne had moved to Pontoise to spend some months painting alongside Pissarro and Guillaumin. Later in the year he moved to nearby Auvers in response to an invitation he had received from Dr Gachet. It was from Pissarro that Cézanne learnt the principles of Impressionism. His palette lightened and he began to use varied touch in his brushwork as he attempted to render the effects of light and atmosphere in his landscapes. Meyer Shapiro wrote, "Pissarro taught Cézanne a method of slow, patient painting directly from nature. It was a discipline in seeing, which led him to replace by fresh colors all those conventional graduations and brusque passages of light and dark that had served him as modelling or as dramatic accents. The Impressionist approach thus made painting for Cézanne more purely visual, freeing him from this rigorous style...Impressionism released the young Cézanne from troubling fancies by directing him to nature; it brought him a discipline of representation, together with the joys of light and colour which replaced the gloomy tones of his vehement, rebellious phase. Yet his Impressionist pictures, compared to those of his friend Pissarro, or to Monet's, are generally graver, more trowelled, more charged with contrasts. Unlike these men, he was always concerned with composition." (M. Shapiro, Cézanne, New York, 1952, pp. 10, 26).
Cézanne was attracted to the Auvers landscape and painted, in similar though less rigorous compositions than the present work, a number of cottages nestling in densely wooded landscape (e.g. Venturi nos. 138, 139, 143, 149). In these pictures Venturi sees Cézanne moving away from Pissarro in technical terms, "Dans ces limites de temps et de gout, Cézanne a crée un nombre de paysages bien personnel. Les chaumières l'ont intéressé tant par leur unité qu'en raison de leur forme ouverte. Comparisons les chaumières de Cézanne [Venturi nos. 134, 135 and the present picture, 148] avec celles qu'a peint Pissarro, Pissarro réproduit les chaumes d'un façon plus réaliste et par conséquent il change un peu son style lorsqu'il peint un mur. Avec Cézanne, le besoin de l'unité de style est tout-puissant; ainsi dans ses tableaux de chaumières tout est peint de ca même façon, tout assume le style du chaume. Il n'est donc pas moins objectif que Pissarro; seulement l'objet diffère. Pour Pissarro il se trouve dans le chose vue isolèment; pour Cézanne l'objet, c'est le style. Il en résulte cette conséquence importante que ce qu'on appelle les déformations de Cézanne ne sont autre chose que l'adaptation des objets représentés à l'unité du style.
'Une maison au milieu des arbres est une joie humaine d'autant plus réussie qu'elle est plus nature [the present picture]. Les arbres interrompent ce qui s'introduit toujours dans une maison d'abstraite et de géométrique. Les années et l'incurie font le reste. Le rythme des lumières et des ombres met de l'ordre et de l'unité au milieu d'élémentes qui se confondent entre eux' (Venturi, op.cit., pp. 32-33).
The mid 1870s were difficult times for the Impressionists as they struggled for recognition. Cézanne, despite his relative isolation from his contemporaries, was not unaffected as he wrote to Emile Zola on 24 August 1877, 'I am not too dissatisfied, but it appears that profound desolation reigns in the Impressionist camp. Gold is not exactly flowing into their pockets and the pictures are rotting on the spot. We are living in troubled times and I do not know when unhappy painting will regain a little of its lustre." Cézanne's fortunes were further affected when his father opened a letter addressed to Cézanne from Chocquet which referred to Cézanne's mistress Hortense and the existence of a child. Despite Cézanne's denials his father reduced his allowance from 200 to 100 francs a month. Cézanne was forced to rely on Zola's generosity in order to keep his family. However, he managed to escape North to his beloved Auvers and Pontoise. Much of the years 1879 and 1880 were spent in Mélun although he visited Pissarro in Pontoise for a short time in April 1879 and also stayed with Zola at his new country estate at Médan. It is therefore possible that Maison dans les Arbres was painted on a second visit to Auvers/Pontoise in 1879. It is interesting to note that at this time Pissarro was also concentrating on similarly constructed landscapes such as Le Fond de l'Hermitage (Pissarro & Venturi 489).
Maison dans les Arbres exhibits the developments of Cézanne's technique in 1879 as well as demonstrating how he built up an image on the canvas. The edges of the picture are left with only a thin covering of paint whereas the central area has a much greater weight of paint built up to delineate the structure of the trees and houses. Cézanne commenced the canvas with a few light, wispy black outlines of the main compositional elements. Over this were brushed in almost transparent washes the local colours. Having established the basic structure and tonal colour values Cézanne proceeded to apply much thicker paint to build up the texture of the forms and it is in these passages that the characteristic constructive stroke - Cézannes system of parallel, separate brush strokes applied diagonally to model forms and texture - appear. Cézanne overlays these heavily worked areas with black outlines to reinforce the forms.
Cézanne sought to achieve an overall pictorial unity. The study of landscape, without the incidental distraction of figures, was ideal for this purpose. He chose compositions with a rigid structure of horizontals and verticals, thus Maison dans les Arbres has strong framing vertical trees at the left and right through which the tightly-knit cluster of houses are approached. The rhythms of the landscape are emphasised and the individual characteristics of local colour and texture are subjugated to painterly qualities of the pigment. This insistence on a cohesive surface was an entirely personal development by Cézanne and marked his separation from the other Impressionist artists.