The Montagne Sainte-Victoire, c.1887
Oil on canvas
Samuel Courtauld Trust: Courtauld Gift, 1934
Montagne Sainte-Victoire, c.1887, The Courtauld Gallery, London
The Montagne Sainte-Victoire is situated to the east of Cézanne's birthplace, Aix-en-Provence, and its broken silhouette dominates the town. Cézanne painted it throughout his career, and it was a subject to which he attributed great significance. Here, it is seen from a point to the west of Aix, near Cézanne's family home, the Jas de Bouffan, with the valley of the river Arc in the foreground.
In reality, the mountain peak lies about 8 miles (13 km) away, but here Cézanne, by focusing on a comparatively small part of the scene in front of him, gave the mountain the dominant role in the composition. We now tend to see this scene as unspoiled and even timeless, but the presence of the prominent railway viaduct at the far right would have been a strongly contemporary reference for the picture's original viewers.
When this painting was shown at the exhibition of the Société des Amis des Arts at Aix (a society of amateur artists) in 1895, it attracted the admiration of the young poet, Joachim Gasquet, son of a childhood friend of Cézanne. When Cézanne realised that Gasquet's praise was sincere, he signed the picture and presented it to him. This landscape is thus one of the very few paintings dating from after 1880 to which Cézanne added his signature.
Detail of Montagne Sainte-Victoire showing the artist's signature The picture shows a simplification of Cézanne's technique. Traces of the system of parallel brush-strokes that he had used c.1880 remain, but most of the paint areas are flatter and less variegated, with soft nuances of colour introduced to suggest surface texture and the play of light.
In places the cream priming of the canvas is left bare, and its luminosity contributes to the overall tonality of the picture. Traces of the initial underdrawing, in Prussian blue paint, remain visible in the final state of the painting.
Recession into distance is suggested by colour and line. There is a gradual transition from the foreground's clearer greens and orange-yellows to the softer blues and pinks of the mountain, but even the foreground foliage is tinged with blues; pinks and reds – notably on the branch silhouetted against the sky – serve to knit the foreground forms to the near mountain.
Alongside this, a network of quite linear contours, suggesting fences, walls and the edges of fields, leads the eye into the distance. The placing of the overhanging branches, carefully framing the contour of the mountain, enhances this surface coherence. The treatment of the picture as a whole transforms the natural subject into a composition of great order and monumentality.
More about this painting:
See it in the gallery
The Courtauld Cézannes: the 2008 exhibition
VIDEO: Professor John House looks at Montagne Sainte-Victoire in detail
VIDEO: Research Fellow Elisabeth Reissner describes Cézanne's techniques
Buy a print
License the image
Michael Morpurgo reads from Meeting Cézanne, a short story set in the Provence countryside (The Guardian)
See what others have to say (Artfinder)
Find out more about this painting (Wikipedia)
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