Paul Cézanne: Château Noir 1903–4
New York, Museum of Modern Art
Today Paul Cézanne is admired as one of the greatest artists of the late 19th century; which makes it all the more surprising to recall that in his own time, few people liked Cézanne’s work. In fact, when Cézanne offered his hometown, Aix-en-Provence, a large collection of his paintings they responded with a firm ‘non.’ However, his fellow artists thought differently and it was Claude Monet who first purchased this painting of the Château Noir from Cézanne for his home in Giverny.
The painting depicts the Provençal landscape that so entranced Cézanne. The son of a well-to-do banker, Cézanne spent an idyllic childhood amidst Provence’s ancient history and natural beauty. He dropped out of law school to become an artist and spend much of the 1860s and 1870s as a struggling painter in Paris where he was part of the same circle as Manet, Monet and Pissarro. But he always felt most inspired in Provence and returned to Aix permanently in 1886. ‘When one is born there [Aix], ’wrote Cézanne, ‘that’s it, nothing else appeals’.
Despite his early association with the Impressionists Cézanne’s art is considered ‘Post-Impressionist,’ – by the 1880s he and contemporaries like van Gogh and Gauguin had moved beyond the Impressionist’s aims of representing modern life, to look for deeper, more personal meaning. This search took on several forms but for Cézanne it was an all-absorbing study of nature. He spent most of his days painting out in the countryside around Aix, attempting to capture what he saw and felt. ‘To paint from nature is not to paint the subject,’ he wrote, ‘but to realise sensations’. Yet Cézanne approached these ‘sensations’ analytically on canvas – he once instructed another painter to ‘treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone’ – an approach that foreshadowed and greatly influenced early 20th-century Cubist and Abstract Art.
Cézanne would occasionally rent rooms at the Château Noir, a 19th-century Neo-gothic estate five kilometres east of Aix-en-Provence on the rue du Tholonet, where he based himself while he painted the surrounding countryside. He also painted the château itself many times from the 1880s, including numerous watercolours and four paintings.
In these pictures, he attempted to work out various pictorial problems, such as creating depth and using colour to create form. Here, the foreground is filled with green wind swept pines set before the ochre-coloured château (made of stone from the nearby Bibémus quarry, which Cézanne also painted), an unsettled cerulean sky and limestone hills. Uninterested in the laws of classical perspective, Cézanne presented each thing independently within the pictorial space, emphasising each object’s relations to another, rather than adhering to one-point perspective. He also experimented with subtly gradated tones to create dimension in his objects, painted with what he called ‘constructive brushstrokes,’ Cézanne wrote: ‘Shadow is a colour just like light, but less brilliant; light and shadow are nothing but the relationship of two tones.’ The result of all this technical experimentation is a shimmering, evocative and startlingly modern vision of the warm light and colour of Provence.
By the time of this painting, 64-year-old Cézanne was finally gaining some recognition in the art world. However, fame, he claimed, was not his goal: ‘All my life I have worked to be able to earn my living, but I thought that one could do good painting without attracting attention to one’s private life. Certainly, an artist wishes to raise himself intellectually as much as possible, but the man must remain obscure. The pleasure must be found in the work.’
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