France 1839 – 1906
[La Montagne Sainte-Victoire] c. 1890
oil on canvas
canvas 65.0 (h) x 92.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Gift of the Pellerin family 1969
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
The notion of Cézannesque universality rests, geographically at least, on the head of a pin. Is it possible that such a tiny area, with Aix as its centre of gravity, could have produced such powerful effects?—Bruno Ely1
Rising to 1011 metres, the massive limestone peak of Mount Sainte-Victoire dominates the countryside around Aix, and the oeuvre of Cézanne. The artist produced at least thirty canvases and many watercolours, unifying the forms and rhythms of the landscape with short diagonal brushstrokes and patches of colour. In his vast panoramas of the early 1880s he contrasts the mountain and foreground vegetation, exploring ways for Mount Sainte-Victoire to become the compositional focus. In later works, the mountain dominates the entire scene, often merging into the sky. By limiting his palette to greens, blues, grey-violet and cream, Cézanne emphasises the grandeur and gravity of the landscape.
Despite the artist’s constant moves—he only settled permanently in Aix in 1897—and the difficulty of dating many works, Mount Sainte-Victoire imposes a geological consistency and series-like fidelity on Cézanne’s oeuvre.2 In this painting and others of the first series—Mount Sainte-Victoire and the viaduct of the Arc Valley 1882–85 (p.37) and Mount Sainte-Victoire with large pine c. 18873 being two of the most famous—Cézanne shows details of his sister- and brother-in-law’s property, the walls, fields and neighbouring farmhouses, the Arc River and railway viaduct. He uses the architectural elements to enhance the landscape, as though to ‘contrast the wayward and irregular forms of the natural world with the more orderly geometric shapes of man’s own devising’.4 By changing his position slightly, Cézanne creates subtle variations in the geometric relationship between the landscape and built environment.
In the early paintings, Cézanne employs trees to frame or interrupt his composition; later, as he ‘subtracts’ these elements, the relationship between mountain and its surrounds is examined in other ways. The wall in the extreme foreground of this painting is a traditional repoussoir device, framing the composition and providing an entrée for the viewer; it forms a parallel with the aqueduct in the valley below, and counterpoint to the pyramid-like mountain. The corner of the wall also announces the point at which the foliage sweeps back, like imaginary theatre curtains, to reveal the grandeur of Mount Sainte-Victoire beyond. Rather than applying the same cross-hatching technique to the whole canvas, as he does in the later series, Cézanne adjusts the direction of his brushstrokes to his forms. The canvas is visible between the spare, quickly worked brushwork. As the artist wrote to his first biographer, Joachim Gasquet:
the blue smell of the pines … must be married to the green smell of the plains which are refreshed every morning, with the smell of stones, the perfume of distant marble from Sainte-Victoire. I have not expressed it. It must be done. And by colours, not literature.5
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Bruno Ely, ‘Cézanne’s youth and the intellectual and artistic milieu in Aix’, in Philip Conisbee and Denis Coutagne, Cézanne in Provence, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art; Aix-en-Provence: Musée Granet; Paris: Reunion de musées nationaux 2006, p. 28.
- Bruno Ely, ‘Gardanne, Montbriand, and Bellevue’, in Conisbee and Coutagne, p. 161.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Courtauld Institute Gallery, London.
- Richard Verdi, Cézanne, London: Thames and Hudson 1992, p. 112.
- Quoted in Nicholas Wadley, Cézanne and his art, New York: Galahad Books 1975, p. 77.