Exhibition | Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906), Montagne Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bibémus, 1895–1900. Oil on canvas. The Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, MarylandIt is rare for art historians or curators to be able to see the actual subjects of paintings made in the past; however, a number of Paul Cézanne’s landscapes continue to have a strong enough resemblance to his canvases to do so. In the course of organizing Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings, I was able to visit two of these sites, both close to the artist’s home in Aix-en-Provence. This proved to be more revealing of his work than I had anticipated. The Bibémus Quarry, originally worked in Roman times, sits on a high plateau nearly four kilometers east of Aix. Following the path down into it, one passes first the hard, blueish limestone that confronted the Roman quarrymen so many centuries ago, then softer red limestone marked by the removal of building material in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—to arrive at the quarry floor. Despite the growth of bushes and trees, and the paths that have been opened at the site, the quarry remains basically as it was when Cézanne was there in the 1890s.

But the walls of the quarry reveal another history, one running in the opposite direction to that of the working of the quarry, for the deeper the quarry was mined, the older the rocks the quarrymen reached. When he set his easel there, Cézanne, with his knowledge of geology and his love of seclusion in his later years, may well have imagined himself having traveled down into a distant past: he worked there in deep silence, except for the buzzing of cicadas and some echoing distant sounds.

Paul Cézanne, Cistern in the Grounds of Château Noir, ca. 1900. Oil on canvas. The Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, on loan since 1976 to the Princeton University Art MuseumNot far from Bibémus is a still-private estate around a manor house known as the Château Noir. Cézanne painted there mainly on hilly terrain, climbing its steep, twenty-meter-high slopes among trees that grew beside huge boulders, some taller than he was. These were part of, or had rolled down from, the Barre des Rochers, a massive rocky barrier at the top of the estate. Here, as at Bibémus, one is made aware of the meeting of present and past, as the young trees appear to sway and bend, not only in response to the high winds in this exposed site but also “in a struggle for existence”—Charles Darwin’s phrase had become famous in Cézanne’s time—to find space among the crowded, unyielding, ancient rocks. To follow Cézanne’s tracks here is a bodily as well as a visual experience, of what is under your feet as well as in front of your eyes. The terrain is difficult, requiring clambering over clumps of grass and patches of clay, between mounds and hollows, around trees and through packed bushes: I am not surprised that Cézanne is said to have gone on hands and knees for parts of it. When he reached the very top, he would have seen Montagne Sainte-Victoire on the skyline across the valley. It was owing to the generosity of colleagues in Aix-en-Provence, who made this adventure possible, that I did so, too.

John Elderfield

Inaugural Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator and Lecturer
Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York

For those who wish to visit the Bibémus Quarry or Cézanne’s final studio in Aix, contact booking.aixenprovencetourism.com or cezanne-en-provence.com.

Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings is made possible by lead support from the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Curatorial Leadership Fund. Generous support is also provided by Barbara and Gerald Essig; the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation; the Judith and Anthony B. Evnin, Class of 1962, Exhibitions Fund; and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Additional supporters include the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Partners of the Princeton University Art Museum. The accompanying publication is made possible in part by support from the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University; Annette Merle-Smith; and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fund.