In 1996, I spent two hours immersed in a special Paul Cézanne exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: 100 oil paintings, 35 watercolors, and 35 drawings from public and private collections. Twenty years later, I was immersed again.
I wanted to visit Provence, and, among all the lovely options, Aix-en-Provence offered exactly the right combination of culture, history, beauty, and size for a quick three day trip. Most important, it also offered Cézanne.
Aix, as it’s called, has a population of a little more than 140,000. With an average of 300 sunny days a year and temperatures that typically range from the low of 41°F/5°C in January to the high of 74°F/23°C in July, it’s mild and delightful. Unfortunately, there was a heat wave going on during my visit, but that didn’t hamper my explorations or pleasure.
Cézanne grew up in Aix and after various stints away, settled back into the city. A fun and informative guided walking tour took me to some of the schools, churches, homes, and other places connected to his life. The city also offers an extensive self-guided walking tour marked by a “C” sign on the sidewalks with 32 stops in the city center and a great brochure providing highlights of each stop.
Separately, I walked up Lauves Hill to the Terrain des Peintres—a vantage point on the hillside where Cézanne painted one of his favorite subjects: Mont Sainte-Victoire. Reproductions of his paintings line the terrace, creating an outdoor museum with views of the famous mountain. The walk was definitely worth it. It was amazing to stand where Cézanne himself gazed, sat, and painted. With at least 87 known oil and watercolor paintings of the mountain, he surely spent a lot of time there.
On my return toward the town center, a little lower on the hill, I stopped at his studio—Atelier de Cézanne. The second-floor, one-room studio is bright, with a glorious window that welcomes the light.
The studio is filled with original objects—items from his still lifes, work equipment, outer wear, and furniture. Print and digital pictures of his paintings show how the various objects are represented in his paintings. After the guide’s brief talk, there was time to explore on our own. My favorite items were the three real skulls. Utilitarian yet haunting. I could imagine Cézanne holding each one, staring into the face and caressing the smooth, curved top.
My visit was the last tour of the day, so as the group thinned, I enjoyed more space and tranquility. I tried to absorb and channel any creative energy emanating from the surrounds. I also tried to visualize Cézanne in his studio. Thinking. Organizing. Painting. I could picture him engrossed in his craft, with rays of sun warming his back and illuminating the blossoming genius on the canvas.
By the end of my visit, I had achieved something unexpected. I felt like I understood more about Cézanne the person. His intensity. Focus. Drive. Dedication. All that being even more impressive upon learning that his art wasn’t appreciated during his lifetime. Still, he stayed true to himself and the Post-Impressionist style he created. I appreciate that almost as much as I do his art.
There is something to be said about experiencing someone’s environment in order to understand that person better. (That’s a lesson we could use in today’s world.) And so, I highly recommend immersing yourself in Cézanne’s world—his artwork and Aix-en-Provence. You won’t be disappointed.