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Aix-en-Provence has a famous native son: Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). In fact, it has two famous sons: Cézanne and Emile Zola (1840-1902). They met in high school where they discovered in each other a kindred spirit drawn to the arts – Cézanne to painting and Zola to writing. Their close friendship was to last for many years, until Zola published “l’Oeuvre” in 1886, a novel about a doomed artist which Cézanne considered to be an unflattering portrait of himself. Cézanne never forgave Zola and the two parted ways.
Each achieved fame in his field; Zola rather quickly, Cézanne only after years of struggle.
Cézanne’s father, who was a hat manufacturer and later a banker in Aix-en-Provence, wanted his son to join the ranks of the bourgeoisie he had himself recently penetrated and insisted that Paul become a lawyer. Against his natural inclination to paint and to go to art school, Paul obeyed his father and finished law school. He worked briefly for his father’s bank but showed no aptitude for business and was finally allowed to go to art school in Paris, where he met Pissaro, Renoir, and Degas. He learned to paint in the style of his day, copied masterworks in the Louvre and began submitting paintings to the Salon, where year after year his work would be refused. He never had a picture accepted by the Salon and finally, with a few artist friends, broke away from the main movements and joined the Salon des Refusés where the rejected works could be shown.
He returned from Paris to settle in Provence, bringing his model Hortense Fiquet with him who three years later bore him a son. Cézanne hid this relationship from his father who was still supporting him, and it was not until seventeen years later—just months before his father’s death—that Paul Cézanne married his mistress and Cézanne père discovered that he had a grandson. A generous inheritance finally allowed Cézanne to provide comfort to his wife and son and some time later to buy a plot of land on the hilly outskirts of Aix-en-Provence where he built a studio.
During his years in Aix, Cézanne had the bad luck to have a falling-out with the director of the local museum who blocked his path at every turn and will forever be remembered for having declared: “As long as I am the director here there will never be a painting of yours in this museum.” To this day, the Musée Granet does not own a single major work by its world-famous citizen.
Fortunately, the rest of the art world saw things differently, notably some American collectors such as Dr. Albert Barnes (Barnes Foundation in Merion, PA) and museums in Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, the Hermitage Palace in Saint Petersburg, and many others.
Over the years Cézanne developed an obsession with the Montagne Sainte Victoire, a 3000-ft table-shaped mountain just outside Aix, which he painted close to 100 times from various observation points and in different lights. [An aside: When Picasso, who admired Cézanne, left his Riviera residence for the village of Vauvenargues near Aix to be closer to his beloved bullfights in the Roman arenas of Arles and Nîmes, he bought the Château de Vauvenargues located at the foot of the Montagne Sainte Victoire. In an enthusiastic note to Louis Kahnweiler, his Paris dealer, he wrote: “I bought Cézanne’s Montagne Sainte Victoire” and when Kahnweiler asked “Which one?” Picasso answered “The real one!” Indeed, the château came with a good number of acres on the north face of the mountain. Today, both Picasso and his widow Jacqueline are buried on the grounds of the Château in the shadow of the Montagne Sainte Victoire.]
Once he had built his studio, which lay within walking distance from some of his favorite sites, Cézanne would set out in the morning and spend all day painting outdoors, until one day in the fall of 1906 a sudden rain shower soaked him, he caught pneumonia and died days later. The studio was locked up and abandoned. That would have been the end of the Atelier Cézanne if John Rewald, noted Cézanne scholar, had not saved it for posterity.
John Gustave Rewald (1912-1994) was a German-born American art historian and recognized authority on Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. After studies at several German universities he moved to France in 1939 where he wrote his dissertation at the Sorbonne on the friendship between Cézanne and Zola. Because of his Jewish background he emigrated to the United States in 1941. There, he consulted for the NY Museum of Modern Art, organized exhibitions for it and other museums and wrote The History of Impressionism, which was published in 1946 to universal acclaim. Other books followed, among them The History of Post-Impressionism, which were widely admired not only for their solid scholarship but also for the quality of their prose. He was a visiting professor at Princeton, joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, and in 1974 was appointed as “distinguished professor of art history” at the City University of New York (CUNY). In 1977 he organized a major exhibition at MOMA: “Cézanne: The Late Work”.
Helped by his eminent standing in the international art world, Rewald was instrumental in creating a foundation to save Cézanne’s studio and turn it into a museum. Today, the Atelier Cézanne looks just like it did when Cézanne walked out of it that fatal day in October 1906, and it has become one of the most popular tourist stops in Aix-en-Provence. The city of Aix rewarded Rewald by naming a street after him.
Although Rewald died in New York City he is buried at Saint Pierre cemetery in Aix-en-Provence, across the path from Cézanne. It seems appropriate that he joined in death the man he had spent so much of his life studying and bringing to the attention of the world – in the place that Cézanne himself never managed to extricate himself from.
Anne-Marie Simons has worked as a translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races) and director of corporate communications. Today happily retired, she lives and writes in Provence.