Going to l’Estaque

I’m up early, driving to l’Estaque. Heavy traffic along the Autoroute to Marseille, but not nearly what it will be during rush hour. I arrive around 7:45, with the sun just above the horizon.

I head first to Corbières at the eastern edge of the village. Cézanne explored and painted along the coast here, which in his day must have been almost completely undeveloped. A primitive road, footpaths, scattered houses, perhaps, but not much more.

It’s cold and shockingly clear. The mistral is kicking in, scouring the Gulf of Marseille and making exceptional views down the coast to the center of the city. In the deep background, the Chaine de Marseille is brightly etched on the horizon, as are the islands off the coast.

The towering limestone forms that tumble down to the water at Corbières — the seaward faces of La Chaine de la Nerthe — are steep and imposing. From a distance, they look smooth and consistent. Up close, they look like hastily poured concrete, a heavy, dense aggregate of white and beige stones of all dimensions and hues nestled down in a hardened white paste. It’s hard to believe that anything could grow from these rocky surfaces. But the Aleppo pines do, in fantastic, contorted forms. Their green bright green fronds are stunning against the brilliant beige and white stone. Smaller plants of the garrigue thrive here as well, nestled down in the stingy niches of the rock. The recent rains have made all these living things brilliantly green.

Railroad viaducts supporting the tracks and trains heading west and north to Fos-Martigues, Istre, and Salon-de-Provence, and south to downtown Marseille, cut across the steep cliffs, appearing and then disappearing into the tunnels bored into the rocky faces. Their arching, horizontal forms create a stunning contrast to the vertical fall and sharpness of the cliffs. No wonder Cézanne and Braque were inspired to paint them. They are nearly sculptural, as if the railroad architects and artisans were making art on a geologic scale.

I walk down to the beach and for a brief stretch along the water. It’s a stunning spot, with sweeping, unobstructed views of the sea and south to Marseille. I return by a different path, walking up to the Monticelli Museum (now closed, alas). Monticelli and Cézanne shared a love of this place and landscape.

I return to the car and drive back to l’Estaque center, parking at the bottom of the Val de Riaux, where I hope to find the motif for “Maisons en Provence,” one of Cézanne’s best and most revolutionary paintings from l’Estaque (or anywhere). I park the car at the very bottom of the neighborhood and head directly up the Montee Antoine Castejon. The street climbs gently up through the valley, then veers to the right to ascend the steep bank of the Val, passing beneath the railroad viaduct. Looking down and across the ravine, I suddenly recognize the motif. Much has changed of course, but the shape of the houses, and especially the limestone outcroppings just below, are unmistakable. I walk back down to the bottom of the ravine to get a closer view. I encounter a woman there, walking her dog, and we speak a little. I show her a picture of Cézanne’s painting and point to the houses above. She is friendly and encouraging, if a little skeptical. I ask her if she lives in the neighborhood, and she tells me that she’s lived here her entire life. “Has it changed?” I ask. “Ah, oui,” she replies. “For the better?” “Ah, oui.” She seems unaware of Cézanne, but she likes the picture.

Maisons en Provence, 1879–80

I walk up the other side of the ravine, beneath the motif, and eventually above it, where the Val opens out onto a broad flat spot, which feels and looks like the remnants of a quarry. I look again at the book I’m carrying and realize I am standing in the motif that Renoir painted while visiting Cézanne in 1882. Up and across to the right, I also recognize the motifs for Cézanne’s “Au fin du ravin” and “Le viaduct.” All in the Val de Riaux. I have a new sense of the intimacy of Cézanne’s visual world here. Except for the late “Rochers a L’Estaque,” made at the very top of the hills high above the village, and some of the views from Corbières, all the motifs in l’Estaque are close to one another and within easy walking distance of the village center.

Looking back down on the Val de Riaux neighborhood from above, I also have a strong sensation of its densely layered natural and human history. There is the rock, of course, always in view. The old neighborhood that sits on top is a complex warren of small houses of every shape and description, arrayed chaotically along the narrow, twisting streets. In another layer, l’Estaque’s industrial history intrudes everywhere — the railroad viaduct, still supporting trains from Marseille to points west and north; the remnants of the Khulman chemical factory just above and a bit west of the ravine; the deserted quarry; the tangle of streets and retaining walls, some ruined and collapsed, that climb the steep hillside toward the cement factory to the north and east, still operating, still making discernible groans and tumbling sounds on this cloudless, windy day. On the viaduct above, the trains go rolling past, and above them, the jets arriving and departing Marseille’s airport at Marignane make their contributions to the sonic overlay. It’s a living document of early industrial growth and damage and post-industrial decay, but still fascinating, beautiful, compelling. Poor, too. Life in the Val de Riaux feels tenuous and hard.

I think of Merleau-Ponty’s notion of sedimentation, the layering of nature and culture over time that creates places and a sense of place. L’Estaque — especially this part of l’Estaque — is a remarkable demonstration of this kind of accumulation; primordial deposits of algae and mollusks become limestone; ancient and then medieval settlements followed by fishing village turned industrial juggernaut turned industrial junkyard. And then there is the considerable record of painting — Cézanne, Renoir, Braque, Derain, Dufy. More layers.

From the Val de Riaux, I walk uphill to the upper reaches of Chemin de la Nerthe, toward the Chapelle de la Notre Dame de la Galline, looking down now on the Val de Riaux. The sounds of the cement factory — grinding, tumbling, groaning — are even more pronounced here. Along the way, I notice efforts to renovate the old, abandoned concrete buildings that line the upper reaches of the Chemin de la Nerthe. It will take enormous effort to make this part of the village feel residential again. The view down to the harbor and the Gulf of Marseille beyond is dominated today by an enormous cruise ship parked at the docks at St. Henri, the former site of l’Estaque’s 19th-century tile factories. The chimneys from those factories populate Cézanne’s paintings of the village made from above.

La mer à l’Estaque, 1878–79

I walk back down toward the village center, stopping briefly for a coffee at the Bar George. The bar is nearly empty. A middle-aged woman is clearly in charge, and three men in their thirties talk earnestly around a laptop computer that lies open on the bar. The coffee, served in a shot glass, costs one euro.

I make my way back down to the main street along the port and walk through the commercial center of l’Estaque. It remains remarkably compact, not more than two hundred meters from the building that once housed the Hotel Mistral to the other side of the commercial district. Along the way are the standard requirements of French village life: épiceries, boulangeries, and boucheries; two or three bars; a wine cave; several restaurants, and the Pole des Arts Visuels, a small gallery that shows local artists. I look in briefly and feel tempted by a painting of one of the viaducts above, “Viaduct d’aupres Braque.” More layers.

George Braque, Le viaduct à l’Estaque, 1907

L’Estaque is now part of the 16th arrondissement of Marseille, but in the old center, especially along and below the Chemin de la Nerthe, and in the commercial corridor along the port, it still feels a bit like a village, a place apart. That is certainly an element of its scrappy, edgy charm, and one of the reasons tourists come up from Marseille for a part of the day, especially during the summer. But on this blustery November day, there are no tourists, and the restaurants are empty. I enter one called Le Francais and take a table facing the main street and the yacht harbor, with the jetty and the open sea beyond. I order moulles frites and a glass of wine. Happiness descends.

Sitting at the table and looking out at the street and harbor scene beyond, I think about Merleau-Ponty’s irrepressible fascination with depth perception and the miraculous, instantaneous givenness of depth in vision. I am sitting at a table in a restaurant looking out the window at the expansive view beyond. The table is immediately before me, all of its things within my reach. Beyond my reach, in successive planes, the window, the now-empty terrace just beyond, the sidewalk and the walkers, the street with its busy traffic. And still further out, just beyond the seawall, the yacht harbor, a tangle of masts, hulls, and hatches, all arranged in complex relations of depth — ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ — which my eyes sort out instantly and surely. And then still further out, the jetty and the water, stretching vaguely toward the horizon, punctuated briefly by the boats making their way to and from Marseille, the islands, and the water’s hard and distant edge, so distinct on this brilliant day.

I perceive these relations of depth instantly and confidently. But how? Why not a flat surface with different forms and colors? Or better said, how do these many shapes and colors become depth? How is it that their relationships are instantly available to me, without my having to question, even for a moment, whether the cars are in front of the boats and the boats in front of the jetty or the jetty in front of the open sea, the islands, the horizon? Depth is so constant and fundamental that I cannot imagine what a world without it would be. It would not be a world, or the world.

For the painter, the canvas is without depth from the beginning. If there is to be depth in a painting, the painter must make it. That is, the painter must give to the eye of the viewer the things that convey depth on a surface that has none. The painter learns to make the depth perceived through her own eyes a depth that lives on the canvas, a depth for the seer.

“I believe Cézanne was seeking depth all his life, says Giacometti.” It’s clear to me that his search moved dramatically forward here, in l’Estaque. His early paintings of the village were made along the water’s edge, studies of the rocks and the edges of things. As time went by, he moved away from and above the water, looking down on the houses, the sea, and the distant shapes of the coast beyond, studying and mastering depth in the long view. The interventions of Pissarro and his time in Auvers and Pointoise were part of this movement and his exploration and mastery of depth, of the long view.

After lunch, I go around the corner to the Bar Albert for a coffee. The Albert is clearly the local hangout. In this after-lunch moment, a group of men and women stand at the bar drinking coffee and pastis. I am tempted by the pastis but decide I need to have my wits about me.

I walk up the hillside once more, toward the neighborhood of La Gare de L’Estaque, where Cézanne and his partner, Hortense, and their son, Paul, stayed in their later visits in the 1870s and 1880s. The gare is boarded up now, though the commuter trains maintain a busy schedule for travelers to Marseille and west to Martigues. There’s a sign in front of the station noting Cézanne’s presence in the neighborhood. Like the station itself, it’s in bad repair and nearly illegible. But the views in all directions are magnificent, and one can see why Cézanne liked it up here.

Le Golfe de Marseille vu de l’Estaque, 1878–79

I head back toward the center of town and then turn uphill once again along the Chemin du Marinier, which passes beneath one of the viaducts that Braque so admired. The street heads steadily up toward the highest ridges above the village, where Cezanne made a remarkable picture — “Rochers a L’Estaque” — in 1883. The road ends abruptly in one of the ravines that pour down the ridge, and a footpath continues toward the ridgetop. The terrain suddenly feels very wild, save for the strange humming sound coming from the power lines that soar overhead. It’s all and only garigue and rock and a few Aleppo pines now. No abandoned buildings or limestone kilns or rubble. As I climb, I can feel the motif coming into view, and I recognize the rocks that caught Cézanne’s eye. Near the top of the ridge, I turn around and see it — the cliffs, the ocean, the Chaine de Marseille. Nothing about this view has changed in the 136 years since Cézanne painted it, and I have a strange sensation of sharing this place with a ghost.

Rochers a l’Estaque, 1884–85

It’s a long way up and down, and I realize that I’m done for the day: 28,000 steps and 11.3 miles, my Fitbit tells me. I wonder how far Cézanne walked on his more ambitious days.

I make my way back to the northwestern side of the village and look one last time at the views over the Val de Riaux and the sea. Here it’s harder to be sure exactly where Cézanne stood when he made several exceptional pictures of l’Estaque from above in the late 1870s and early1880s, so vastly has this part of the urban landscape changed. But I’m confident it was nearby. It’s late afternoon and the light is falling, but the lines of the motif — the horizon, the rooftops, the edges of the buildings — are shockingly clear. I lament — again — that I cannot paint.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” The Primacy of Perception, James M. Edie, ed. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 179.

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2014–2017.