L'Estaque is a hamlet on the bay of Marseilles, five miles northwest of Marseilles itself and eighteen miles southwest of Aix-en-Provence. Cézanne's mother rented a cottage there for summer vacations, and the artist visited the village frequently, including extended stays in 1870, 1878-1879, and 1883. He was drawn there both by the town's proximity to his family in Aix and by the beauty of its views. At l'Estaque Cézanne fully explored the potential of plein-air painting, executing some of his greatest landscapes.
Writing about Cézanne's views of the bay of Marseilles, Meyer Shapiro has commented:
A marvelous peace and strength emanate from [his] work--the true feeling of the Mediterranean, the joy of an ancient nature which man has known how to sustain through the simplicity of his own constructions. (M. Shapiro, Paul Cezanne, New York, 1952, p. 62)
Cézanne executed the present picture sometime between July 1878 and March 1879. It is one of three closely related views of l'Estaque which he painted at this time; of the other two, one has a canopy of trees in the foreground (fig. 1) like the present work, while the other is distinguished by the absence of the trees (Rewald, no. 392; Stiftung Langmatt Sydney and Jenny Brown, Baden). Although Cézanne depicted the same group of buildings in all three paintings, he slightly varied the viewpoint in each, as well as the details of the structures. In the present work, for example, the building in the middle distance at the right appears longer than it does in the other two paintings, while the hut silhouetted against the water in the center is narrower than in the other versions; moreover, Cézanne truncated the smokestack at the left, which appears much taller in the related pictures. (The presence of the smokestack suggests that the building is a tile or brick factory, a common industry in l'Estaque.) The treatment of the foliage in the three paintings also differs: in the present work it is sketchier and lighter than in the version in the Musée Picasso (fig. 1). As John Rewald has commented about the present picture, "The upper part, where trees and water meet, is handled with particular freedom" (J. Rewald, op. cit., p. 264).
The composition of the present painting has a dynamic equilibrium. The placement of the trees is nearly symmetrical, and the narrow ledge of land at the bottom of the canvas is balanced by the light band of sky at the top. The land in the middle distance forms an irregular triangle that rises from the left to the right, and the trees at the right form a triangle that rises from the right to the left; the lines of the two triangles cross just slightly above and to the right of the center of the picture. Lionello Venturi, in reference to the Musée Picasso painting, praised "the perfect equilibrium of the composition: expression of beauty, strength, certitude" (L. Venturi, op. cit, p. 53).
To paint his landscapes at l'Estaque, Cézanne typically climbed the hills above the village and set up his easel on the edge of the pine woods there. This vantage, seen here, permitted both the privacy he sought when painting and the best views of the village and bay. The present work is also characteristic in its depiction of the land as a triangular wedge. In the two other views of the bay which Rewald has dated 1878-1879, Cézanne treated the fall of the land in the same fashion (fig. 2 and Rewald, no. 394; Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester).
In two letters written to Zola in the latter part of 1878, Cézanne mentioned his engagement with landscape painting:
I intend spending the whole time there if my father gives me the money. In this way I could continue some studies I am making at l'Estaque, which I do not propose leaving until the last possible moment. (Letter of August 27, 1878; in ed. J. Rewald, Paul Cézanne, Letters, London, 1941, pp. 121-122)
There are some very beautiful views here. The difficulty is to reproduce them, it is not exactly my line. I began to perceive nature rather late; though this does not prevent it being full of interest for me. (Letter of December 19, 1878; in ibid., p. 131)
The present painting may be one of the nature-studies Cézanne had in mind when writing to Zola. Indeed, of the seven l'Estaque pictures which Rewald has dated 1878-1879, three, including the present painting, depict this same view. (Moreover, five of these pictures are already in institutional collections.)
Earlier Cézanne had written to Zola in praise of plein-air painting:
But you know all pictures painted inside, in the studio, will never be as good as the things done outside. When out-of-doors scenes are represented, the contrasts between the figures and the ground is astounding and the landscape is magnificent. I see some superb things and I shall have to make up my mind only to do things out-of-doors. (Letter of October 19, 1866; in ibid., pp. 74-75)
Zola also knew l'Estaque well and wrote a beautiful description of it in his novel Naos Micoulin:
A market town situated at the farthest suburban reaches of Marseilles, at the end of a rocky cul-de-sac, which closes off the bay... The countryside is superb. From both sides of the bay rocky arms are outstretched so that the offshore islands seem to block the horizon and the sea is nothing but a vast pool, a lake, intensely blue in good weather. At the foot of the mountains, in the background, Marseilles, Marseilles staggering its houses on the low hills... And the coast takes leave of Marseilles, deepens and widens in great indentations before arriving at l'Estaque, bordered by the factories that release from time to time tall plumes of smoke... But the village, its back against the mountains, is traversed by roads that disappear in the midst of a chaos of jagged rocks... Nothing equals the wild majesty of these gorges hollowed out between the hills, narrow paths twisting at the bottom of an abyss, arid slopes covered with pines and with walls the color of rust and blood... Then again paths full of brambles, inpenetrable thickets, piles of stones, dried up streams, all the surprises of a walk through a desert. High up, above the black border of the pines is placed the endless band of blue silk of the sky... When this dried out country gets thoroughly wet, it takes on colors...of great violence: the red earth bleeds, the pines have an emerald reflection, the rocks are bright with the whiteness of fresh laundry. (Quoted in J. Rewald, Cézanne, A Biography, New York, 1986, p. 93)
When Renoir visited Cézanne in l'Estaque, he too was moved by the sublimity of the landscape, exclaiming:
How beautiful it is! It's certainly the most beautiful place in the world, and not yet inhabited... There are only some fishermen and the mountains...so there are no walls, no properties or few ...here I have the true countryside at my doorstep. (Quoted in J. House, Renoir, London, 1985, p. 233)
1878 was a difficult year for Cézanne. In the spring his father discovered that Cézanne had a mistress, Hortense Fiquet, and an illegitimate son; disapproving of the situation, he cut the painter's stipend in half to one hundred francs a month. To survive, Cézanne turned to Zola, who gave him an additional sixty francs a month. However, by the end of the year Cézanne and his father had reconciled, and the artist's work at l'Estaque resumed.
(fig. 1) Paul Cézanne, La mer à l'Estaque derrière les arbres, 1878-1879
Musée Picasso, Paris
(fig. 2) Paul Cézanne, Le Golfe de Marseille vu de l'Estaque, 1878-1879
Musée d'Orsay, Paris