“There are two things in painting, vision and mind, and they should work in unison,” Cézanne maintained. “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” (quoted in F. Elgar, Cézanne, London, 1969, p. 85).
In Village derrière des arbres, painted probably in the fall of 1879, at an utterly transformative moment for Cézanne’s art, these two elements co-exist in a delicately wrought and powerfully modern balance. The cloud-swept sky and the foliage of the framing trees are described with a loose, feathery, Impressionist touch that suggests a fleeting moment before the natural motif. For the village of the painting’s title, by contrast–the focal point of this stately landscape, onto which the trees in the foreground open like the curtains of a stage–Cézanne experimented with an increasingly abstract construction. He organized the view into a series of horizontal bands and laid down pigment in regular, square strokes, moving ever closer to his lofty goal to “make of Impressionism something solid and enduring like the art in museums” (quoted in P.M. Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, Berkeley, 2001, p. 169).
“In the years around 1880, Cézanne developed ways of looking and painting–especially in his landscapes–that he was to spend the rest of his life refining,” Joseph Rishel has written. “The key to this breakthrough was a novel approach to facture, the way pigment was applied to canvas...that liberated him from Impressionism. It allowed him to render landscape with remarkable sensuality and specificity, but, unlike the ambitious plein-air paintings of his contemporaries, it transformed the transient into something classical, structured, and serene” (Cézanne, exh. cat., Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1995, pp. 193 and 217).
Cézanne painted Village derrière des arbres somewhere on the outskirts of Paris, working side-by-side with his old friend Armand Guillaumin; the exact location of the motif has never been identified. The two artists stood at practically the same spot, selecting an elevated vantage point that offered valuable privacy (Cézanne could not abide bystanders when he painted) and a panoramic view over the cubic houses and encompassing greenery of the picturesque village. They both worked on upright canvases of very similar dimensions, the vertical format–unexpected for a landscape–lending the composition remarkable concentration and strength. In Guillaumin’s version of the scene, there are more leaves on the trees in the foreground, which appear almost bare in Cézanne’s painting; yet each features the bush with the yellow leaves in the lower right corner. “It is likely that this is an autumn scene,” John Rewald has explained, “and that Cézanne, working more slowly and concentrating on specific areas, only ‘reached’ the top of his canvas by the time the wind had swept the leaves away” (op. cit., 1996, p. 268).
Far more striking, though, is the contrast between Guillaumin’s purely Impressionist technique and Cézanne’s evolving modern approach, in which freely worked passages of painting are juxtaposed with radically condensed ones, one serving as a foil for the other. Cézanne had experimented with these new means of expression during the previous year at L’Estaque, where he had taken refuge after his domineering father intercepted a letter and learned of the artist’s mistress Hortense and their young son Paul. Although he still felt himself struggling to impose an enduring and disciplined pictorial logic on the landscape–“Nature presents me with the greatest problems,” he lamented–he returned to Paris in early 1879 with a clear path forward (A. Danchev, ed., The Letters of Paul Cézanne, Los Angeles, 2013, p. 199). “Building on the discoveries and transformations resulting from his months of intensive work in Provence in 1878-1879,” Mary Tompkins Lewis has written, “Cézanne produced some of his most powerfully structured landscapes to date after returning north that spring” (Cézanne, London, 2000, p. 198).
In Village derrière des arbres, Cézanne has organized the landscape around a clear and cohesive succession of planes that lead the eye into the distance, where the gently sloping hillside closes off the vista. Two stands of tall trees, reaching all the way to the upper edge of the canvas, act as repoussoirs that enclose the central prospect, which in turn unfurls in a measured sequence of horizontal bands like a modern paysage composé. Cézanne had first explored the scenic device of framing trees at Auvers with Pissarro earlier in the decade (Rewald, nos. 200 and 277; Christie’s, New York, 3 November 2004, lot 16) and then reprised it at L’Estaque in 1878 (nos. 395-396; Musée Picasso, Paris, and Christie’s, New York, 6 November 2002, lot 16); it would remain a favorite compositional strategy into the mid-1880s, when he used it to structure some of his earliest views of Mont Sainte-Victoire (nos. 598-599; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., and Courtauld Gallery, London). In the present scene, the pronounced verticals of the foreground tree trunks are echoed in the repeated upright accents of walls and chimneys that enliven the townscape, as well as in the taut, rectilinear rhythm of Cézanne’s novel “constructive stroke.”
By the time Cézanne painted this unmistakably avant-garde canvas, his long-standing friendship with the more traditional Guillaumin was starting to cool. The two had met at the Académie Suisse in 1862; soon after, Guillaumin introduced his tempestuous new friend to the sage Pissarro, a decade their senior, who would become Cézanne’s foremost mentor among the Impressionists. Cézanne and Guillaumin grew closer in 1875, when they moved into next-door apartments on the quai d’Anjou. Cézanne painted a self-portrait in Guillaumin’s studio, in which he is seated in front of a landscape that his friend had recently shown at the First Impressionist Exhibition (Rewald, no. 182; Musée d’Orsay, Paris). A view of the studio by Guillaumin shows the same landscape hanging on the wall alongside a portrait of Hortense that Cézanne had given him a gift (no. 180). Cézanne even copied one of Guillaumin’s paintings of laborers along the Seine, re-working the original with a tighter structure and more systematic touch (Rewald, no. 293; Kunsthalle, Hamburg). “One might almost see here an attempt by Cézanne to evaluate the effect and possibilities of the square brushstroke he was then developing when applied to a typical Impressionist work,” Rewald has proposed (op. cit., 1996, p. 200).
In the mid- and late 1870s, the two artists took periodic painting expeditions together in the environs of Paris, where Guillaumin was tethered to a government job. Rewald records at least three landscapes by Cézanne, in addition to the present one, that depict almost the identical motif as a contemporaneous work by Guillaumin (nos. 266, 276 and 388), and there could well be more. After 1881, however, there is no evidence of further contact between Cézanne and Guillaumin, and Pissarro in fact was indignant when the two artists’ former friendship was broached during Cézanne’s revelatory solo show at Vollard in 1895, which he had been instrumental in persuading the dealer to mount. “Would you believe that [the dealer] Heymann has the cheek to advance the absurdity that Cézanne has always been influenced by Guillaumin? Then how do you expect outsiders to understand anything! This monstrosity was expressed at Vollard’s. Vollard turned blue” (quoted in J. Rewald, op. cit., 1986, p. 118).