"L'oeuvre de Cézanne comprend environ soixante tableaux ou aquarelles de Sainte-Victoire. Elle est devenue dans les dernières années de sa vie, et singulièrement à partir de 1902, le motif dominant de sa peinture...Cézanne a pratiquer l'aquarelle tout le long de sa carrière, comme un genre spécifique. Etrangement Cézanne le laborieux, le tenace, quand il lui faut poursuivre ses études picturales se révèle l'un des plus étonnant aquarellistes. La necessité de résoudre une image en quelques minutes oblige le peintre à concentrer son émotion et sa rigeur visuelle sur le papier...Les touches se juxtaposent ou se superposent sans chercher à imiter, seulement à créer des rapports, des tensions, des profondeurs. Les tons chauds, les tons froids, les oppositions de couleurs primaires et secondaires, tout interfère dans cette alchimie.
"Touchant Sainte-Victoire, le genre aquarelle donne de la montagne une vision qu'aucune peinture à l'huile ne revèle. Sainte-Victoire a le mystère de sa roche naturelle. Car dans la silhouette au dessus du Cengle se réverbèrent toutes les nuances diaprées du ciel ou les impressions lourdes de terres rouges, de bois aux masses brunes. Confronté à ce motif, Cézanne trouve alors avec l'aquarelle une perfection absolue. Il peut donner aux arêtes rocheuses l'élan et la mobilité qu'elles ont, car le montagne, si délimitée en soi, se fond toujours dans l'atmosphère: crispée en hiver, elle devient vaporeuse en été. Mais toujours le ciel lisses ses plaques marmoréennes. Alors la falaise tient lieu de récif où les nuages, les lumières se brisent, et se brisent, irisent les ombres, les champs, l'atmosphère toute entière." (H. Maldiney and D. Coutagne in Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne, Aix, 1991, pp. 275, 313).
The motif of Mont Sainte-Victoire first appeared in Cézanne's work in the background of the 1867 picture L'Enlèvement (Venturi 101). Although the image was treated by many other celebrated or Aixois artists, most notably François-Marius Granet, it was not until the 1880s that it assumed any great importance in Cézanne's oeuvre. During the 1890s he began to seek out new sites around Aix such as the Bibémus Quarry, Le Tholonet and Chateau Noir to paint. In 1899 his beloved Jas de Bouffan was sold and he moved into a house at 23 rue Boulegon in Aix. Needing a studio in the countryside he at first acquired a small room in the Chateau Noir. This proved unsatisfactory and in November 1901 he purchased a plot of land halfway up the hill of Les Lauves, to the north of Aix. He built a studio there which comprised rooms on the ground floor and a large studio on the first floor which overlooked Aix.
The view Cézanne painted in this magnificent watercolour was not one visible from his studio. In order to find the spot from which he painted this watercolour Cézanne needed to go further on up and round the hill. John Rewald remarks, "To reach it, he turned left from the main road into a lane called Chemin des Marguerites, to the right of which lies a field that yields this view of the immense valley dominated by Sainte-Victoire." (Paul Cézanne, The Watercolours, London, 1983, p. 239). Cézanne did a number of works from roughly this spot, all dating from this last period 1902-1906, notably the oil painting (Venturi 804) and Rewald watercolours nos. 581a-592, 594-597 in which he reached the height of lyrical expression. The group of farmhouses in the centre also feature in no. 594.
Denis Coutagne describes the particular composition Cézanne constructed in this watercolour; "l'oeuvre se compose de trois parties que délimitent deux lignes horizontales, Sainte-Victoire très haute sur le papier a des reflets rouges et mauves inattendus sous un ciel presque blanc. Cézanne lui garde la mouvance de ses failles et des couches géologiques. La partie intermédiaire garde des références figuratives évidentes; arbre, maison, chemin et joue d'opposition de valeur plus que de couleur. La partie basse peut correspondre à un talus precédé d'un abrisseau, mais tout se passe différemment: la forme triangle des branches tout en bas de l'aquarelle, s'oppose très exactement à celle de la montagne. Voilà la montagne se donne en reflet dans l'aquarelle (reflet inversé). Une grande liberté anime l'ensemble de cette aquarelle; l'on admirera la reprise des touches vertes si delicatement jetées entre les taches sombres de la plaine...Tout n'est que rigeur et vibration dans l'expression d'une oeuvre qu'un premier regard révèle comme une ébauche" (op.cit., p. 313).
Revealed in this watercolour with the freshness of its colours and the extraordinary liquidity of wash application is the full glory of Cézanne's mature watercolour technique. Cézanne had acquired a complete confidence in the spontaneous application of watercolour on paper. John Rewald describes this watercolour technique of the period as reminiscent of his oil paintings, "Proceeding only with very light spots of colour, he covered the white sheet with several successive layers. To prevent the wet spots running into each other, this procedure demands that each one dry completely before the next one is applied. It is this very slow method, which Cézanne used, however, without sacrificing the spontaneous charm of the medium, endowing his watercolours with a luminous beauty never before attained. For unlike oils, the various layers of watercolour as used by Cézanne remain transparent; they do not imprison forms or define them but rather indicate their shapes in such a loose way that each patch seems to move when looked at" (Cézanne, a Biography, New York, 1986, p. 237). The present watercolour has a number of tackholes at the corners which "signify that the artist was in the habit of detaching them [his watercolours] after every session and reattaching them to his drawing board whenever he wished to continue working on them. But it could also mean that he pinned them to the walls of his studio or his home to contemplate them and think about what still remained to be done" (ibid, p. 36).
The only eye-witness account of Cézanne's working method at this time is provided by Emile Bernard who visited Cézanne in 1904 and watched him at work on a watercolour of Mont Sainte-Victoire: "His method was remarkable, absolutely different from the usual way and extremely complicated. He began on the shadow with a single patch, which he then overlapped with a second, and a third, until these patches, hinging one to another like screens (faisant écrans), not only colored the object but moulded its form. I realised then that it was a law of harmony that directed his work, and that the course these modulations took was fixed beforehand in his mind...He deduced general laws, then drew from them principles which he applied by a kind of convention, so that he interpreted rather than copied what he saw. His vision was much more in his brain than in his eye." A lengthy correspondence between Cézanne and Bernard ensued in which the younger artist attempted to draw from Cézanne the theories behind his work. Somewhat irritated, Cézanne found it difficult to formulate intellectual theories preferring to state on numerous occasions that he was guided purely by the study of nature and the motif. However some of his observations throw light upon his watercolours of the period including his "cubist" statement in the letter of 15 April 1904 "treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men is more depth than surface whence the need of introducing into our light vibrations, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blue to give the impression of air." And again on 26 May, "Talks on art are almost useless. Literature expresses itself by abstractions whereas painting by means of drawing and colour, gives concrete shape to sensations and perceptions. One is neither too scrupulous nor too sincere nor too submissive to nature; but one is more or less master of one's model, and above all, of the means of expression. Get to the heart of what is before you and continue to express yourself as logically as possible." One of his last letters, written to his son Paul on 13 October 1906 sums up his philosophy, "I must carry on. I simply must produce after nature - sketches, pictures, if I were to do any, would be merely constructions after nature, based on method, sensations, and developments suggested by the model."
In these late watercolours, as exemplified by the present work, there is a sense of achievement, of finding "the promised land". They represent the summation of the art of watercolour. John Rewald remarks, "The brushwork of the late watercolour is bold and large, superbly fluent and self-assured. The minute pencilled skeleton that was once adorned by a few delicate touches of color has now, disappeared altogether. Sometimes there are hasty and vague pencil indications that establish basic shapes and guide the brush through intricate panoramas of fields and trees, buildings and curved roads, rocks and branches, not to mention the crags of Mont Sainte-Victoire.
"The brush attacks the paper directly, spreading its multicolored touches with a breathtaking - one might say meditated and controlled - spontaneity, accumulating transparent veils from which forms disengage themselves and assert their identity by contrast with the whiteness of the support. It is as though the superimposed washes with their carefully balanced hues mold each feature of the composition while at the same time leaving it absolutely free to expand, to vibrate, to sparkle.
"No matter what his subjects, though, one senses behind his achievements the elation of a man who has found his own way of manipulating watercolor and submitting it to his creative needs and powers." (Paul Cézanne, The Watercolours, p. 37).
This watercolour was formerly in the private collection of the Bernheim-Jeune family who, in 1907, organised the first exhibition to be devoted exclusively to Cézanne's watercolours. Because of the emerging reputation of Cézanne, and Vollard's success with selling his works, the brothers Josse and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune visited Cézanne in Aix in the spring of 1902. Cézanne remained wary, preferring to deal exclusively with his first champion, Vollard. He was to write to Charles Camoin on 11 March 1902, "The Bernheims and another dealer have been to see me; my son did a little business with them. But I remain true to Vollard and am only sorry that my son has now given them the impression that I would ever sell my pictures to anyone else." So it was not until after Cézanne's death that the Bernheim-Jeunes were able to handle Cézanne's works to any great extent. Since then they have put on many Cézanne exhibitions, including the present watercolour in shows in 1956, 1960 and 1971.
We are grateful to John Rewald for providing the photograph of Mont Sainte-Victoire from Les Lauves, a view not possible today because of urban development. The extracts from Cézanne's letters are taken from Paul Cézanne Letters, edited by John Rewald, London, 1941