“When you’re born there, it’s hopeless, nothing compares!…The whole future of art is to be found here in the south of France.” So described Paul Cezanne his love for the region which defined his art. Today he remains the main ambassador for his home town, Aix-en-Provence.
Aix town centre has changed little since Cezanne walked its streets over a century ago. Edged with plane trees and sidewalk cafes, the Cours Mirabeau, southern France’s stateliest avenue dubbed the “Champs Elysees of the South”,is still the heart of the city, separating the medieval old town (Vieil Aix) from the elegant Mazarin district, filled with townhouses for the richest families when the city was enlarged in the 17th century.
On a guided walking tour, In the Footsteps of Cezanne, you can visit several landmarks which figured prominently in the Cezanne’s life, including his birthplace, the school he attended with childhood friend Emile Zola, the location of his father’s hat shop and the apartment he returned to after a day’s painting. (Sadly, his favourite watering-hole, Les Deux Garcons, closed abruptly in 2019 amid alleged financial misdealings and was later heavily damaged in a suspicious fire.) www.aixenprovencetourism.com
A short bus service to the north of town stops yards from Cezanne’s Studio, built especially for him and where he worked virtually every day for the last few years of his life. The light-filled space has been left as if Cezanne had just popped out for lunch in town before returning for an afternoon session.
Amid the artistic clutter you will spot the backpack which held his easel and painting materials and many of the actual objects from in his paintings, including an olive pot he depicted many times, a collection of skulls and a Cupid statue. www.atelier-cezanne.com
A short walk up the hill is Cezanne’s favourite lookout, Le Terrain des Peintres, and a view of the Sainte-Victoire mountain, which he obsessively featured in over 80 oils and watercolours. From this viewpoint, the peak appears as a triangular shape, which appealed to Cezanne’s sense of geometry. From here too the limestone best reflects the light. Standing around the pleasant rest area are reproductions of some of his works imprinted on glazed lava stone.
Cezanne also found inspiration in the area’s Bibemus Quarries, which had been worked since ancient times, but by Cezanne’s lifetime were practically abandoned. The pale stone of many of the 17th and 18th century mansions and monuments in Aix was brought from here.
The geometrical shapes of the quarries’ soaring walls and rocky outcrops provided the inspiration which edged Cezanne towards Cubism. He rented a small hut there, where he kept his canvases and often slept before setting out to paint. Reproductions of works on the sites where he painted them pepper the quarry, which can be visited only by guided tour from the main tourist office.
This article appears in Artmag’s digital edition, 15th May.