La Montagne Saint-Victoire, by Paul Cezanne
Paul Cézanne painted the scene of Mont Saint-Victoire several times, as it was the view he saw from his home near Aix-en-Provence. The painting discussed here is the one on display at London’s Courtauld Gallery.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) is often counted among the Impressionists but he rebelled against certain aspects of the Impressionist aesthetic and is therefore regarded as one of the fathers of Post-Impressionism. In particular, he placed emphasis on the unity of colour and form, which he regarded as having been neglected by the Impressionists.
By exploring the possibilities of representing Nature according to its underlying shapes, which he believed to be the sphere, the cylinder and the cone, he laid the foundations for Cubism which would later be built on by artists including Braque and Picasso.
Cézanne spent much of his later life in the south of France, where he was born, and where he inherited his father’s estate near Aix-en-Provence in 1886. From the house he had a clear view of Mont Saint-Victoire, which he had already painted several times in the past, but it now became a regular subject for his landscape painting. There are therefore many paintings by Cézanne, in art galleries around the world, with a similar title. Because Cézanne rarely dated his works it has become a puzzle for art historians to place them in order, but the marked developments in Cézanne’s painting style towards the end of life have made this task easier.
The painting currently housed in the Courtauld Institute Gallery in London is one of the earlier views of the mountain, having been dated variously between 1882 and 1887. It is an excellent example of how Cézanne applied his theory of landscape, with colour and form being used together to create structure.
The view is of the rocky mountain in the distance and fields and farm buildings in the foreground and middle distance. The branches of two pine trees fill much of the area of sky and provide a framework for the slopes and summit of the mountain.
The fields are painted in greens and terracottas which fade into the pinks and pale blues of the mountain slopes. Each individual area consists of a separate geometric slab of colour, the slabs being carefully worked together to create the whole landscape.
The eye is led by a line of trees in the middle distance towards a Roman aqueduct on the right edge and from there, via the lower slopes of the mountain and its foothills, to the summit. The line of the rise to the summit is paralleled on the left of the painting by a roadway and field boundary, in a continuous line with a lower branch of the tree on the left, the trunk of which rises vertically at first and then bends away into the top left-hand corner, thus “opening the door” to the view of the mountain.
Cubist principles at work
The painting is all about balance, both in terms of colour and shape. The horizontal lines of the aqueduct and the margin between the fields and the mountain are balanced by the vertical lines of the tree and a tower that can be seen below the tree’s lowest branch. The lines of the field boundaries across the centre of the canvas are angled like the spokes of a wheel between the vertical and horizontal, such that the whole painting draws the eye around the scene, again taking the viewer up the mountain.
All this drawing of the eye happens subconsciously, so that although the painting is based on geometrical principles, the viewer is scarcely aware of the trick that is being played on him or her. The whole experience of looking at the painting comes across as being entirely natural, but is in fact nothing of the sort. Cézanne is in charge of the viewer, telling him or her exactly what to look at. It is a very clever kidnap of the viewer, and it all based, in this instance, on the cylinder (the tree trunk) and the cone (the “spokes of a wheel” effect noted above).
Needless to say, this subtle application of Cubist principles would not always be followed by Cézanne’s followers, or even by Cézanne himself in later views of the same scene. However, it is from this painting, and others like it, that the Cubist movement started, and from there to more general abstraction. Later artists would look back to Cézanne as being a pioneer of certain trends in 20th century art, and they were quite correct so to do.