Arts Abroad: On the Trail of Cezanne in Provence

June 23, 2011

One in a series of dispatches from SVA’s 2011 Arts Abroad programs.

The Art History in Southern France program is based in the lively cultural hub of Avignon, a town on the lush shores of the Rhone River famous for its medieval walls. Avignon is also the ideal jumping off point to explore Provence’s cultural landmarks, so on a day when much of Avignon observed a long weekend for the Christian holiday of Pentecost (a reminder to visitors of the succession of popes who took up residence here in the 14th century), the students struck out for Aix-en-Provence.

It was in Aix – so named for the waters of the many underground springs that supply numerous Roman fountains in the city’s historic center – that legendary painter Paul Cézanne was born, and his traces are everywhere. Led by guide Laurence Minard-Amalou and instructor Tom Huhn (chair, BFA Visual and Critical Studies Department), the group visited the elegant Musée Granet, which holds 9 of the artist’s paintings. It was at the museum that Cézanne got his start, copying paintings from the collection. Next stop: the site of the former hat shop owned by his father, and a fountain which served the town’s residents before indoor plumbing arrived in the 19th century, featuring a bronze portrait of Cézanne by fellow artist Jean Renoir. The group took in Aix’s cathedral, whose construction spanned a millennium following the 5th century, located not far from the university where Cézanne had once studied law.

The last stop of the day was the artist’s studio, which narrowly escaped the wrecking ball in the 1950s but today remains largely intact as Cézanne left it when he died in 1906. The light-filled work space on the top floor contains his pewter pots, local earthenware and other props seen in the still lifes – along with a special cutout in the wall for getting oversized canvases in and out. From there it’s a short (but steep) walk to the hillside where the artist often painted the Mont Sainte Victoire, the rocky plateau that juts out from the otherwise hilly landscape. Many of the students were struck by the fact that the artist had died on this same trail. Others just enjoyed the view of the mountain that he made so famous.

Images: (top) a street marker in Aix-en-Provence; (middle); Cézanne’s studio, now off limits to photography; (bottom) taking in the artist’s favorite views of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

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