France 1839 – 1906
Rocks near the caves above the Château Noir
[Rochers près des grottes au-dessus du Château Noir] c. 1904
oil on canvas
canvas 65.0 (h) x 54.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Accepted in lieu of tax 1978
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
His method was singular, totally outside conventional means … He began on the shadows, with a single patch, which he then overlapped with a second, and a third, until all of these hues, making a screen, modelled the object by colouring it. I understood immediately that his work was guided by a law of harmony, that the direction of all his modulations was fixed in advance, in his reason.—Emile Bernard1
Painted two years before his death, this is one of Cézanne’s many paintings celebrating the country around Aix-en-Provence—the majestic vision of Mount Sainte-Victoire, the architectural tectonic forms of the Bibémus quarry, or the gothic melancholy of the Chateau Noir.
While interested in, and influenced by, Impressionism—he showed works in the exhibitions of 1874 and 1877—Cezanne also reacted strongly against it. ‘I wanted to make of Impressionism something solid and enduring, like the art in museums.’2 The key word here is ‘solid’. Cézanne was less interested in capturing the sense of fleeting evanescence than he was obsessed with the capacity of paint, and particularly of colour itself, to realise volumetric form (solidness) and the irrefutable presence of the ‘objectness’ of the object shown.
As the Bernard quote above indicates, Cézanne was to do so in the most idiosyncratic of ways. In the case of Rocks, the finished oil displays the same paradoxical airiness of the watercolour studies which pre-date it, yet the solidity of the boulders is undeniable.
While Cézanne’s early work was constantly rejected by the Salon, the fact that Henri Matisse bought Rocks shows how much his later work was admired by a number of much younger Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists.3 (Matisse and Bernard were thirty years his junior.)
What Cézanne captures in Rocks are the ever-present powerful tectonic forces of the earth. There is an undeniable sense of diagonal gravitational pull between the smaller boulder precariously lodged in the extreme upper left of the composition and the larger boulder, seemingly only recently settled in the lower right-hand corner of the painting and staked there compositionally by the trees which seem to emerge from its very surface. There is both movement and stillness here, as though we are caught between moments of impending geological drama. The close focus owes a debt to Gustave Courbet.
This strong diagonal presentation of rock and tree forms also bears a remarkable resemblance to Lorenzo Lotto’s St Jerome in the desert c. 15064. As a devout Catholic, there seems no doubt that for Cézanne, God was always immanent in the landscape. At the end of his life, it was here, in these simpler Provençal landscapes—the Bibémus quarry, the Chateau Noir, and the rocks of these grottes (grottos), with the quasi-religious devotional overtones of the word itself—that Cézanne found both spiritual solace and artistic inspiration.
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
- Bernard, 1 and 15 October 1907, quoted in Françoise Cachin, Isabelle Cahn, Walter Feilchenfeldt et al., Cézanne, London: Tate Publishing, 1996, p. 451.
- Quoted in Genevieve Monnier, In ‘Paul Cézanne’, Jane Turner (ed.), The dictionary of art, vol. 6, London: Macmillan 1996, p. 366.
- Jacques Guenne, ‘Entretien avec Henri Matisse’, L’art vivant, no. 18, 15 September 1925, pp. 1–6.
- Musée du Louvre, Paris. Cézanne may have seen Lotto’s work on his visits to the Louvre as a young man.