He painted what he knew best

Paul Cézanne specialized in paintings of his birthplace, Provence - but his colorful canvases were far from provincial.

Provence created Cézanne. This sunny, rocky, and pine-laden region of southern France became motif and inspiration to the French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne, the landscape that forged his identity into the artist the world knows as the father of modern painting.

If the best writers follow the famous counsel, "Write what you know," so Cézanne painted what he knew best: his homeland. Born in the town of Aix-en-Provence, France, in 1839, he did not stray far from home for his subjects - finding most of them within about 20 miles from Aix.

"There are treasures to be taken away from this country which has not yet found an interpreter worthy of the riches it offers," Cézanne wrote of Provence.

Cézanne found his universe of artistic ideas to be close to home: his banker father's estate, Jas de Bouffan, just outside Aix, where Cézanne tentatively began to paint. The nearby seaside village of L'Estaque, where he first allowed the sunlight of the Mediterranean onto his canvases. And, ultimately, to the discovery of his supreme subject, the mountain Sainte-Victoire (visible from Aix).

Marking the centenary of Cézanne's death, a major new exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington explores this symbiotic relationship between Cézanne and the landscape of his homeland, surprisingly the first to focus on the role of Provence in the artist's life. "Cézanne in Provence" includes about 117 oil paintings and watercolors of Provençal scenes, portraits of Provençal people, and still lifes.

But the notion that Cézanne's life was entirely provincial - circumscribed within the boundaries of Provence - does not tell the whole story. Cézanne's desire to follow a career in painting was met by family resistance. In order to develop his technique, he was forced to spend time intermittently in Paris in the company of other artists - most important, the Impressionist Camille Pissaro.

Under Pissaro's guidance, Cézanne began to develop his own style. He started to work outdoors in sight of his subjects, adopt a lighter approach to applying paint to the canvas, and use brighter colors. It was as a result of Pissaro's tutelage that Cézanne decided: "To paint is to record one's sensations of color."

Pissaro convinced him to break up forms on the canvas into slanting patches (les tâches) of color, enabling Cézanne to arrive at his characteristic brush stroke. However, Cézanne differentiated himself from the Impressionists by using colors of greater contrast and rendering objects in a more solidified manner. His stated goal: to "make of Impressionism something solid and enduring."

His oil painting "Houses in Provence: The Riaux Valley near L'Estaque" is an example of the artist's architectonic understanding of form. In the 1920s, Picasso and Braque would take this approach further into total abstraction in their development of Cubism. "Cézanne is the father of us all," Picasso said, speaking of modern painters.

For several years after 1869, Cézanne based himself in L'Estaque, where he experienced the turning point of his career, acquiring "the altered gaze" that enabled him to become an artist who would ultimately, in his own words, "render the truth in painting." Subsequently, he moved to other locations in the region where he could pursue this artistic quest.

In a sense, the passage of time was defined by place in his life. Thus the National Gallery has organized this exhibition in rooms devoted to the different locales Cézanne frequented in order to pursue the motifs that absorbed him. The work of painting had become his raison d'être.

From L'Estaque, the course of the artist's life took a rather twisting path through various Provençal villages; then to the Bibémus quarry, where he focused on geometrical rock formations; on to the Château Noir, a manor house almost obscured by Aleppo pines; and finally to the Atelier des Lauves near Aix, the studio where Cézanne could further his quest to capture his most famous motif: Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

It was this one Provençal scene that, from about 1885, began to interest him above all others: the 3,600-foot mountain visible from Aix. Cézanne painted this subject some 25 times, making it one of the most scrutinized sites in the history of art. "Not since Moses has anyone seen a mountain so greatly," commented the poet Rainer Maria Rilke on Cézanne's involvement with Sainte-Victoire.

In the painting "Montagne Sainte-Victoire Above the Route du Tholonet," the mountain seems to emerge organically from the countryside. In other paintings by Cézanne, Sainte-Victoire appears more remote and crystalline.

Cézanne viewed these paintings as more attempts to capture this elusive subject. In 1903, three years before his death, he wrote: "I am working obstinately; I am beginning to see the promised land." Through the artistic genius of Cézanne in these canvases, we may be beginning to see it, too.

'Cézanne in Provence' is at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, until May 7. It will be at the Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, from June 9 to Sept.17.

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