Turner to Monet
L’Estaque, a fishing village on the French coast of the Mediterranean, was a place that Cézanne visited often in the 1870s and 1880s. Why, amongst more picturesque features such as blue sea and a pretty village of ochre stone and red tiles, did the artist address such a difficult and unappealing prospect as this? A viaduct is only an overland passage between more dramatic features – under mountains or cliffs, through a valley or over a river far below – and this bridge for the railway track has none of the elegantly classical appeal of Corot’s Roman arches. Indeed, the viaduct is barely noticeable: it sits in the lowest band of the painting, the main horizontal of the composition. Perhaps it was, as always, simply because he could. The nature of beauty itself was changing as the century continued, from gentle to hard, from simple, lush and historic to complex, spare and modern. For Cézanne, eternal verities became mutable, and reality was filled with infinite possibilities.
During February and March 1882 Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a much more luscious painter than the austere Cézanne, paid a visit to his contemporary at l’Estaque while en route from Italy to Paris. They painted the same scene, but the two resulting landscapes could not differ more, considering they were executed side by side.1 Johnson describes Cézanne’s strategies on the canvas:
The flatness of the effect, accentuated by repetition of the receding and advancing color and tone values may, on first impression, bear some resemblance to tapestry design; but this quality is denied by the special depth and volume and solidity of the forms which Cézanne achieves … He has piled the planes up vertically and has silhouetted distant hills instead of allowing them to dissolve in air and space.2
The contest between fact and fiction, which underlies landscape painting in the nineteenth century, is seen plainly here, in the choices that Cézanne makes. He understands that the horizontal railway lines below the cliffs undermine the vertical and diagonal slopes of the mountains. The dizzying stacks of rock, made of parallel hatched strokes of paint, communicate insecurity rather than the permanence of stone and mountains. The close-up, frontal encounter reinforces the dominance of the artist’s view. It is the implied struggle between doubt and certainty that makes Cézanne so modern.
1 John Rewald, The paintings of Paul Cézanne: a catalogue raisonné, vol. 1, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996, cat. 441, p. 297; the other canvas is Renoir’s Crags at l’Estaque, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
2 Ellen H. Johnson, ‘Cézanne and a pine tree: Viaduct at l’Estaque, a footnote’, Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 1, Fall, 1963, pp. 24–8, quoted in Rewald, p. 297.