The Ghost of Aix

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire vue des Lauves, 1904-06

It’s 8:30 am and I’m walking west on the Cours Mirabeau toward the Fontaine de la Rotonde. The Cours is temporarily lined with wooden stalls for vendors working the holiday market — santoniers with their clay nativity figures, clothiers, toymakers, specialty food vendors, artists. The stalls are beginning to open, but the street is otherwise almost empty on this cold November morning.

I stop at the Café Le Grillon, one of the many that line the Cours. It’s warm and quiet inside. I head to the polished wooden bar and order an espresso. Next to me on the bar is a plate of buttered baguettes and a bowl of freshly baked croissants. Down the bar, well-dressed men drink coffee, read newspapers, share observations. A local group, it seems, engaged in a morning ritual.

The interior of the Grillon is intimate and handsome. Wooden tables and chairs, the polished wooden bar, dark green banquettes, black and white tiled floor, polished wood wainscoting, ochre plaster walls with mirrors, and an ornate gold crown molding and border festooned with ceramic cicadas. One of the walls holds a large portrait of the linguist and poet, Fréderic Mistral. The wait staff wear black pants, white shirts, and white aprons. To the left and behind the bar, a narrow wooden stairway climbs steeply to the second floor where I find an even more ornate belle epoque dining room and the toilet.

Refueled and relieved, I leave the Grillon and continue down the Cours to the Office de Tourisme. It’s open but still empty, save for the agents waiting patiently at their windows for the morning press of tourists seeking advice and tickets. A carefully curated museum-style exhibit features items salvaged from decades of infrastructure projects in the streets and public buildings of Aix.

I grab a copy of Sur Les Pas de Cezanne, the popular guide to the many sites in Aix associated with the life and work of Paul Cézanne. The guide proposes a walking tour, with brief descriptions of stops along the way. It begins with Gabriel Sterk’s larger-than-life bronze sculpture of the painter located at the head of the Cours.

I leave the Office de Tourisme and make the short walk to the sculpture. It’s a nice piece, modeled after the well-known photograph of Cézanne heading off to paint with his friend and mentor, Camille Pissarro, easel and paints packed carefully on his back and walking stick in hand. The high symbolism of its placement is hard to ignore. The figure stares straight ahead at the Fontaine de la Rotonde and, beyond it, down the entire length of the Cours, the commercial heart of Aix. Largely ignored (at best) while he was alive, the Cézanne of myth and memory is now in charge.

I turn and head off toward the first stops on the circuit on the Rue Cardinal. Along the way, I pass by the Apple Store, all glass and steel and glowing computer screens, now beginning to fill with customers. A different kind of symbolism and a different kind of visual universe. I wonder briefly what Cézanne would have made of the digital visible.

Across the Avenue Victor Hugo, I head into the upscale Mazarin residential neighborhood of Aix, walking past the Cinema Cézanne, now featuring “Cry Macho,” “No Time to Die,” and “Dune.” A few blocks later, I arrive at the Collège Mignet, where Cézanne was enrolled between 1852 and 1856, and where he first met his close friends Émile Zola and Jean-Baptistin Baille — les inseparables, as they called themselves. The school is a handsome but simple early 17th-century two-story structure, with classical façade and pediment and a fine wooden door. A small marble plaque to the right of the door commemorates Cézanne’s and Zola’s attendance; another to the left notes Marcel Pagnol’s service as a repetiteur in the 1930s. Heroes of Provence. The building suddenly erupts with noise as classes break and students flood the inner courtyard, which I can now see through the open door.

From Mignet I follow the route around the corner to 8 Rue Fréderic Mistral, where Cezanne’s sister Marie lived during the 1890s. Just across the street is the apartment that Cézanne rented for his wife, Hortense, and their young son, Paul, in 1891. It’s a sturdy, three-story 18th-century building, not grand but certainly comfortable. The local office of Sotheby’s is just across the street. In its windows, photos of houses and apartments in Aix from 500,000 to 9 million euros.

I return to the Avenue Cardinale and follow it a few more blocks to the Église Saint Jean de Malte. The funeral services for Cézanne’s mother were held here in 1897. I go inside. The recently restored interior is surprisingly bright, with beautiful windows and impressive 17th-century religious paintings by Fisson, Martin, Serre, and Boisson. It occurs to me that Cézanne must have seen these paintings many times as a boy, and similar works at the nearby Église de la Madeleine and the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur, the other major churches in Aix. Just next door, in the former priory of the church, is the Musée Granet, where Cézanne learned to draw and paint. Like the Collège Mignet, the Granet is a carefully composed two-story building with a simple, classically inspired façade. In Cézanne’s time, it already held a small but good collection of sculpture and painting. More art.

I follow the path toward the house at 28 Rue de l’Opera where Cézanne was born in 1839. Along the way, I stop briefly to admire several beautifully restored 17th-century hotels particuliers, once the private homes of the wealthiest Aixois. The historic marker in front of the Hotel d’Antoine informs me that the writer Louise Colet was born here in 1810. It also notes that the giraffe given by the Ottoman governor of Egypt to King Charles X spent the night here on its journey from Marseille to Paris in 1827.

The stone facing on the Antoine catches my eye. It’s made of the same sandstone — molasse — that adorns most of the grand buildings in Aix, much of it cut from the rocks of the Bibémus quarry in nearby Le Tholonet. The color is hard to name. In the ochre family, certainly, but trending strongly to yellow and gold. From a distance, the stone looks hard and smooth. Up close I see that it is worn and deeply pitted in a weird and intricate way, more like coral than rock, almost alive.

Close up of stone facing on the Hotel Antoine, Aix-en-Provence
Stone in the Bibémus quarry

Just across the street from the Antoine is the Théatre du Jeu de Paume, formerly the Théatre Municipal, which currently serves as one of the principal venues for Aix’s summer music festival. The historical marker in front informs me that theater has been produced on this site since 1756, when a local architect, Joseph Routier, acquired a ruined tennis court and converted it to a theater. More art.

Cézanne’s birthplace is a few doors further on, at the corner of the Rue de l’Opera and the Rue Pavillon. It’s a narrow, four-story building, finished in the same yellow-gold stone as the Antoine. At the second story, the decorative quoin features a niche sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Another niche adorns the wall above the entrance. The building is nowhere near as grand as the Antoine, certainly, but it’s handsome. Sturdy, respectable, bourgeois.

The circuit continues, past the home of the sculptor Phillippe Solari, one of Cézanne’s boyhood friends; past the house occupied by the painter Émile Bernard when he visited Cézanne in 1904; past the house where Cézanne’s mother and sister lived between 1878–1881; past the home of Cézanne’s friend and painter, Achille l’Empraire. All of this within a matter of 15 minutes of slow walking and note-taking. I begin to appreciate the physical intimacy of Cézanne’s universe in Aix.

I come back around to the western end of the Cours Mirabeau. The large and imperious statue of Roi René, the last great king of independent Provence, dominates this end of the Cours, mirroring the figure of Cézanne on the eastern end. More symbolism. And more irony. In between, the impressive expanse of the Cours, with its broad and recently car-free boulevard, ample sidewalks, plane trees, grand hotels particuliers, fountains, and cafes and restaurants. The sun has come out and the sidewalk tables are filling. Just beneath Roi René, a small carnival ride transports small children while their parents break from holiday shopping. Just to the right, at number 55, is the building that housed Cézanne’s father’s hat-making business, now a paper store. The Café des Deux Garcons, where Cézanne sometimes dined, is a bit further down the Coors, and just across the street, his mother’s final residence. The guide tells me that Cézanne met her there for dinner every evening in the final years of her life.

I leave the Cours and head north to the recently renovated square in front of the Palais de Justice, where remnants of the ancient Roman settlement at Aix are now visible through heavy glass panes inserted in the recently renovated hardscape. Nearby at the Place des Precheurs, the city’s open-air market is in full swing, with dazzling arrays of cheese and cured meats, vegetables and fruit, olives, and spices piled high in myriad reds and yellows and ochres, colors like the stones of Aix, like the dirt of Provence. Across the Place is the baroque Église de la Madeleine, where Cézanne and his sister were baptized, and where his father, Louis Auguste, and his mother, Elisabeth Aubert, were married some five years after their son’s birth. I read that the Madeleine, too, holds important pieces of 15th century religious art by van Loo, Serre, Boeyermans, Mignard, and Barthélemy d’Eyck. But the church is closed for renovations, so I push on, deeper into the northern hemisphere of old Aix. The shopping scene becomes distinctly high-end: art galleries, boutique clothing stores, jewelry stores, specialty home furnishings, kitchen stores. Scattered throughout, still more sites Cézanniens: the Fontaine de la Rue des Bagniers, constructed in honor of Cézanne in 1926 and featuring a medallion designed by Renoir and given to Aix by Cézanne’s dealer, Ambroise Vollard; the family residence at 14 Rue Matterhorn; Cézanne’s primary school on the Rue des Épinaux. Just next door to the former school is a residential building with a sign commemorating the arrest and execution of four members of the French resistance by the Gestapo on August 10, 1944.

I turn north again and head for the Rue Boulegon and the house where Cézanne spent the last six years of his life and where he died in 1906. Like his birthplace, it’s an attractive but plain four-story stone building with an impressive wooden door and stone frame and headpiece. To the right of the door is a small marble plaque with the simple inscription: “In this house, Paul Cézanne died on October 23, 1906.” The first floor is faced with the ubiquitous yellow-ochre molasse from Le Tholonet, eroded and pocked like the buildings along the Rue de l’Opera. No wonder, I think, that Cézanne was so interested in the stone in the quarry at Bibémus. It was everywhere around him in Aix, embedded in his visual world.

Bibémus quarry
Bibémus quarry

Just up the street at 13 Rue Boulegon is the storefront where Louis Auguste Cézanne opened his banking business in 1856, and where his son was briefly pressed into employment before quitting Aix for Paris and painting. Given this bit of history, and the fraught relationship between father and son, I am surprised that Cézanne chose to live so close to his father’s place of work.

It’s now well after noon and I’m hungry. I follow the Rue Boulegon to the Place de l’Hotel de Ville and find an outdoor table at the Brasserie de la Mairie, facing the square. It’s still cool, but the sun is out and I’m warm enough. I order a sandwich and a draft beer — Paix Dieu, the peace of God. The beer comes quickly. It’s a strong and rich Belgian triple. I feel young and French drinking beer outdoors on a cool November day.

As the peace of God descends, I survey the Place de la Mairie. Even for Aix, a city of wonderful public spaces, it is exceptional. Roughly trapezoidal, with longer, divergent sides roughly twice the length of its shorter ends. Directly across from me, perhaps 100 yards away, and occupying the shorter, southern end, is the old grain exchange, now the post office and public library. It’s a three-story neoclassical building with an elaborate sculptural pediment. Occupying the entirety of the western side is the three-story city hall, older and more elaborate than the exchange. On its northern corner is a fabulous clock tower, with multiple sculptural elements and an intricate, wrought iron campanile. Along the eastern side, a row of handsome four-story residences, framed by plane trees, now losing their leaves. In the center, the requisite fountain, this one featuring cherubs and a Roman column.

Jean Pancrace-Chastel, Pediment on the Halle aux Grains, 1761

I am struck by the scale of the Place de la Mairie. Spacious but not grand; open but still intimate. And the buildings, too. Impressive but not overwhelming. Accessible. There is a kind of equilibrium and balance to the space. Was it accidental, I wonder? Or the effect of a plan, of someone’s design? I try to imagine Cézanne wandering through this space, and others like it, as a boy, and seeing the art and architecture I’ve encountered today — at the Granet, the Église Saint Jean de Malte, the Eglise de la Madeleine; the impressive hotels particuliers, the beautiful wooden doors and building niches, the restrained elegance of the Cours Mirabeau. All of this surely affected him, influenced his eye, provided visual models of shape, structure, and proportion, an aesthetic habitus. In Paris, Cézanne sometimes played the country bumpkin. But mid-19th century Aix was no backwater.

After lunch, I head north again along the Rue Gaston Saporta. It’s just a few hundred meters to the Institut des Études Politiques, or Sciences-Po Aix, formerly the law school, where Cézanne spent a miserable year before heading off to Paris. It follows the architectural pattern I’ve observed all day; an elegant, 18th-century two-story hotel particulier with yellow molasse, a fine sculptural pediment, and a beautiful wooden door framed by Roman columns and a decorative headpiece. A stone in the pavement commemorates Cézanne’s brief, unhappy stay. The small square just in front is now busy with students — eating lunch, talking, reading. As it might have been in 1858.

Immediately across the street is the Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur, the city’s most important religious edifice, and where Cézanne attended Sunday mass in the final years of his life. It, too, is impressive in a restrained way. Modest gothic, approachable gothic. I join the steady stream of visitors entering the front door. Like Aix, like Provence, the interior is a layered fusion of eras and influences — a 6th-century baptistry built on the foundations of a Roman temple; the central Romanesque nave remade as a gothic nave; two smaller gothic naves and transept wings; baroque flourishes. It’s hodgepodge but striking. Nicely restored and well-tended, too.

I’m eager to see the famous triptych by Nicolas Froment that hangs in the cathedral, and that the painter Émile Bernard mentions in his account of attending church with Cézanne in 1904. I find an exceedingly polite and well-informed docent who leads me to the painting. It’s extraordinary. Two outer panels depict Roi Rene and his wife, Jeanne de Laval, contemplating the central panel, where Moses observes the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus nested in a grove of small trees. The colors of the painting are ravishing — deep, deep reds and greens, velvety black, and mauve— and the clarity and precision of the figuration are stunning. Bernard commented on the “strange resemblance” between the figure of Moses and Cézanne. Apart from the beard, I am less certain of the resemblance, but I am intrigued and moved by the possibility that Cézanne and Bernard stood in this very spot, contemplating the painting together.

Nicolas Froment, Triptych of the Burning Bush, 1475

It’s not on the circuit, but I decide to finish the day by making the walk from Cézanne's final residence at 23 Rue Boulegon to his studio at Les Lauves in the hills just north of the old city. I backtrack to the Rue Boulegon and then follow the route Cézanne would most likely have taken — from the Rue Boulegon to the Place de la Maire, turning right on Rue Gaston de Saporta, and then leaving the old city at the Boulevard Jean Jaures. I head straight on to Avenue Pasteur, then turn slightly right at the Avenue Paul Cézanne. The street begins to climb. As it does, the urban landscape is abruptly transformed. Old Aix gives way to the new — parking structures, the Aix hospital complex, retirement communities, apartment buildings, some gated and quite posh. At the Auriol bus stop, I find a plaque with an old photograph of the studio, which is just ahead but obscured by trees. The photograph shows the two-story building shortly after its construction. It stands alone and exposed on the hillside, surrounded by scrubby vegetation. The street on which I’m walking was then a rutted dirt and stone path, more ‘way’ than road. I look at my watch; twenty minutes from 23 Rue Boulegon, most of it uphill.

I cross the street and walk to the entrance of the garden that adjoins the studio. I am disappointed, but not surprised, to find that it is closed because of the pandemic. I decide to continue walking up the hill to the Chemin des Peintres, where Cézanne’s made his last images of Mont Sainte-Victoire. The road is steeper now, and I notice my breathing. I pass the Maison de Retrait Paul Cézanne on the right, as the road continues to climb. After twenty minutes, I finally arrive at the entrance to the Chemin, glad that I am not making the walk in the heat of summer, which Cézanne must have done many times. Forty minutes from the Rue Boulegon.

The Chemin is an enclosed garden that climbs a sinuous path through flowering shrubs and olive and cypress trees. At the top of the hill, there is a semicircular clearing that contains reproductions of the dozen or so images of Mont Sainte-Victoire that Cézanne made here. I turn to face the motif. I am startled for a moment by how imposing the mountain looks today, much larger and closer than I remember. A bank of clouds crawls up and over the mountain’s northern back, slicing off a part of the summit and accentuating the sharp angularity of its nearly vertical southern face. Rays of sunlight suddenly appear, making brilliant white stripes on the vast reaches of exposed limestone.

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire vue des Lauves, 1904–06

I close my eyes and notice that the heavy, foreground noise of Aix has disappeared. In the background, I hear the drone of a jet heading to Marignane, a helicopter, hedge clippers, two women talking softly in an adjoining yard. Apart from these small intrusions, the site is surprisingly quiet. How much quieter it must have been when Cézanne was coming here to paint in the last years of his life. No airplanes, no hedge clippers, no cars, no neighbors. Just the easel, the mountain, the rocks, and trees.

I look at the reproductions of the paintings and then again at the mountain. By line of sight, the high edge of Sainte-Victoire and the ridge that falls away to the Plateau du Cengle are at least six or seven miles away. Closer to me — perhaps halfway? — is the long, nearly horizontal edge of the Bibémus plateau. Still closer, near the bottom of the visual field, is the valley of the small stream, La Torse, now a park, and still green and open at its center, but surrounded by the streets and buildings of new Aix.

I decide to sketch the view in my notebook. Questions immediately arise. How big is the mountain? And where is it, exactly? And how much closer is the ridge? And how is this “closer” conveyed? I make three sets of lines and marks approximating the forms and relationships I see, but they look like lines, merely. The things themselves — the mountain, the ridges, the valleys — are not so much lines or edges as precincts in my field of vision. And these precincts are themselves not separate entities but interrelated parts of a spectacle that I see all at once, in an immediate, undivided way. Easy to see, hard to draw.

Ker-Xavier Roussel, Cezanne at the Chemin des Peintres, 1906 (?)

A few yards from where I’m sitting are reproductions of the photographs of Cézanne taken by the painter Ker-Xavier Roussel. Cézanne stands before his easel, leaning in a bit, palette in his left hand and brush in his right, staring at the mountain. His gaze is intent, focused, studious; his hand is extended, aiming the brush at the canvas. The tension in his hand and arm is clearly visible: he’s about to move, about to make one small, colored mark on the canvas. Many marks will follow — hundreds, perhaps thousands of touches. Gradually, mark by mark, touch by touch, the mountain, the ridgeline, the valley will emerge, become visible.

“It is the mountain itself… that he interrogates with his gaze. What exactly does he ask of it? To unveil the means, visible and not otherwise, by which it makes itself a mountain before our eyes. Light, lighting, shadows, reflections, colors, all the objects of his quest are not altogether real objects; like ghosts, they have only visual existence. In fact, they exist only at the threshold of profane vision; they are not seen by everyone. The painter’s gaze asks them what they do to suddenly cause something to be and to be this thing, what they do to become this worldly talisman and to make us see the visible.”

It’s not quite 4 pm, but already the daylight is dwindling. I head back down the Chemin des Peintres to the road and start walking back to old Aix, passing the shuttered studio at Les Lauves along the way. At the bottom of the hill, the Boulevard Jean Jaures is now charged with cars making their way around and out of Aix. I follow the Rue Gaston Saporta back to the Rue Boulegon. At number 23 I stop and stare at the door, imagining Cézanne arriving home, having dinner, going to bed. Alone. Tomorrow, yet another walk to Les Lauves and the Chemin des Peintres. More interrogation of the mountain; more painting. Perhaps a canvas. Repeat.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” The Primacy of Perception, James M. Edie, ed. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 166.

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William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.

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Bro Adams

Bro Adams

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.

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