Walking in the steps of Cezanne and other places our feet have taken us this week in Provence

This part of France is so lovely..

Arriving in Aix-en-Provence

We arrived in Aix-en-Provence early on Sunday afternoon.  This charming French town is a favorite of mine. I first visited here, briefly, around 20 years ago and was lucky enough to return in 2011 with my son, Chris, at the end of a study abroad semester for my daughter, Mary. It’s John’s first time here.

Our terrace in Aix

We rented a lovely Airbnb in the old part of town, with a charming terrace.  The terrace sold me on the apartment, but the clothes washer was what we had on our minds when we arrived.  Climbing the narrow and winding two flights of stairs, luggage in hand, backpack on my back, we were reminded of how important it is to travel light.  Most of the great places in the older neighborhoods do not have elevators and the stairs are typically narrow and winding. Bulky luggage would have made the ascent up the stairs treacherous.

Our apartment is ideally located: no more than a ten-minute walk to most places we want to go, an outdoor market a four-minute walk away, and several excellent restaurants just a few doors down the street. 

Monday: Walking in the steps of Paul Cezanne

If you’ve ever been to Aix-en-Provence, you know that references to Paul Cezanne, the famous painter who lived and worked in Aix from the mid-1860s until his death in 1906, are everywhere.  So many things are named after him.  On our first full day here (Monday) we decided to take the self-guided Paul Cezanne walk.  It was a beautiful day and, we figured, this way a great way to get to know the old town and its favorite son.

There are brass markers on the path, like so many touristic bread crumbs, showing the way, in addition to a free pamphlet from the Tourist Information Office which identifies the various Cezanne sites.  The walk took us to places where Cezanne had lived and places his family and friends lived, schools that he attended, churches and cemeteries where family and friends, and Cezanne, himself, are buried.  Following the Paul Cezanne walk, we took a tour of the Atelier (studio) of Paul Cezanne, which is nowhere near the walk.  Cezanne had bought the property for the Atelier, near the edge of town, close to the end of his life.

Cezanne’s studio

Neither John nor I are very educated in art, so this was a fun experience that taught us a lot. Here is some of what we learned.  Cezanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839.  He studied art as a young man and eventually decided to become an artist, however, he was considered by many in Aix to be a second-rate painter.  Aix is, after all a city that has a long history of producing famous artists. He wanted to go to Paris to study art but lacked the funds.  His father, who started out as a hat maker, but later bought a bank (it’s not clear how that happened) sent Paul to Paris to study art and ended up supporting his son financially for the rest of his life.

Cezanne was, as our guide in the Atelier tour explained it, a “slow” painter, meaning that he only made a few brush strokes per hour. Yes, a few brush strokes per hour!  Most of his paintings took him 150 hours or more.  Among his subjects were his mom, a model named Hortense, (who later became his wife) and his gardener.  He created fourteen paintings of his gardener, which I find amazing. When did the man ever get a chance to do the gardening?  At fourteen times of painting the gardener at 150 hours per painting equals 2100 hours, or more than a year of time that the gardener could have spent gardening full time, but instead spent just sitting to be painted.  There are no paintings of Cezanne’s garden, and you can imagine why.  It must have totally gone to seed while the gardener was sitting for paintings. It also explains why he had to get his mom and his girlfriend/wife to sit for him. Who else would do that at 150 hours per painting?  When people saw Cezanne walking through the streets of Aix, they must have run in the other direction! He eventually resorted to self-portraits and he painted 26 of those.  My favorite is this one of him wearing a turban. 

The Gardener Vallier, one of fourteen portraits of him
Self portrait in a turban

So, what do you do when everyone in your life is too busy organizing their sock drawer to sit for you to paint them and you are so bored yourself that you resort to self-portraits wearing silly hats?  Here’s what you do:  paint that mountain just outside the city.  It will stay put no matter how long it takes for you to paint it.  And that’s what Paul Cezanne did and those are the paintings he is most famous for – the series of paintings of Mount Saint-Victoire.

Sallie and John steps for the day: 16,008

One of Cezanne’s paintings of Mount Saint-Victoire

Tuesday: The Zola dam and Mount Saint-Victoire

Delving more deeply into Paul Cezanne’s life and work, and also itching for a good hike, we decided to visit Mount Saint-Victoire on Tuesday.  Figuring out the bus ride was quite the kerfuffle. It wasn’t the last time this week that two reasonably intelligent people, in this case John and I, were flummoxed by the local bus system.  After some deliberation, we chose to take the local bus 13 to Le Tholonet, a 20-minute bus ride from the center of Aix, and we had a nice day.  We brought a picnic and started out at the Cezanne windmill.  I understand that Cezanne painted this windmill, although I have not seen this painting.  Nevertheless, there are a couple of picnic tables near the windmill and a good view of the mountain, so it served its purpose for us nicely.

Picnic lunch
Cezanne windmill

Next, we began the hike, going to see the Zola dam, which was designed by Francois Zola, father of novelist, Emile Zola, who happened to be Paul Cezanne’s best pal. There are also Roman aqueducts in the area in addition to more modern aqueducts. There are some great views from varying perspectives of the mountain and it was a good hike.  There are many other hikes near Mount Saint-Victoire, some technical and difficult, and there is much more to see, including a little artist’s hut that Paul Cezanne used.  We, however, just finished our hike and then stopped briefly in one of the cafés in Le Tholonet, before taking the bus back to Aix and then spending some time on our terrace.  We ended the day by cooking a simple and delightful meal of fresh sea bass, and a lettuce salad with garlic and cheese, accompanied by a good, local red wine.  Perfect day!

View of Mount St-Victoire from the Zola dam

Sallie and John steps for the day:  23,159 and 50 floors

Wednesday: Quiet day and Musee Granet

We opted for a quieter day on Wednesday after our big hiking day.  We walked to the market in the morning and bought food for dinner, then spent some quiet time in our apartment.  This type of travel requires downtime, so we try to be aware and respectful of this. 

Portrait of Francois Marius Granet

In the afternoon, we visited the Musee Granet, which is really the city museum of Aix-en-Provence.  I had been forewarned that this museum didn’t have many Cezanne paintings, which seemed a little disappointing until I got to the museum and realized that there has been a lot going on in this town for a long time, in fact, since 123 B.C.  There is also a very strong art culture here, extending for long before the time of Cezanne, notably, with Francois Marius Granet, who was a noted early 19th century painter. There is also a sculpture gallery, which is, among other things, a pantheon in homage to early leaders of Aix-en-Provence.  There were other regional notables in addition which, all in all, created a nice experience, deepening our knowledge of the city.

John and Sallie steps for the day: 11,610

Thursday:  Day trip to Arles

The trip to Arles today featured unsurprising confusion with the local public bus system.  The good news is that we made it to Arles and made it back to Aix.  It did take some effort and required us to ask lots of questions.

At the arena

Arles is a lovely town that is all about antiquities.  Among the highlights of the day was Alyscamps, a large, Roman necropolis (cemetery) that was rendered in paintings by both van Gogh and Gauguin, impressive catacombs under the town hall, and a Roman-era outdoor theatre and arena.  We also visited a very nice city museum on the banks of the Rhone, the Musee Reattu, named for an Arles-born painter.

At the end of the day, we made a quick decision to visit the Vincent van Gogh Foundation which, in my mind, turned out to be the highlight of the day.  This foundation has a lovely, small museum that has only a few van Gogh paintings.  Their mission is to identify artists who, in some way, have had parallel lives or careers to van Gogh’s and to exhibit those painters’ works along with the van Gogh works.

Fountain in front of van Gogh Foundations, Arles
Pirosmani’s giraffe – he painted it without ever seeing a real giraffe

On exhibit today was the work of Nikos Pirosmani from Georgia (Russia).  Pirosmani led a hard life.  Born in 1862, he was orphaned at a young age and from the time he was a young man, he moved from one tavern to the next, paying for his meals and lodging with his paintings. He is a self-taught artist yet, unlike most folk artists who create art from their own experience, Pirosmani painted what he didn’t know and hadn’t seen, quite often exotic and wild animals who always seemed to carry the gentle facial expressions of a pet.  One work is of a giraffe that is way out of proportion and painted white with black spots.  For someone such as he to conjure up these images was the touchingly confident and hopeful work of a man who longed to see and know a world beyond his own.  And don’t we all travel to see and understand the world beyond our own?

In a story parallel to van Gogh’s, Pirosmani died tragically and at an early age.  Also like van Gogh, he left a glorious legacy of his very personal art.

Sallie and John steps for the day:  15,356

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