Joy Journal #19: June 25, 2022
For Paul Cézanne, there would have been no great painting, perhaps no painting at all, without the landscape of Provence. Cézanne has come to represent many things in art history — harbinger of modernism, proto-cubist, terminator of classical styles and preoccupations; but he was first and foremost a painter of several hundred hectares of rugged, sun-drenched earth in and around Aix-en-Provence.
In the early 1890s, after years of moving back and forth between Provence and areas in and around Paris, Cézanne began spending more and more time in Aix and environs, rediscovering his most important and reliable sources of inspiration. Around the middle of that decade, he launched what his biographer Alex Danchev describes as “the greatest period of late painting since Rembrandt.” He spent much of that time painting in Le Tholonet.
A persistent object of his attention was the ancient quarry at Bibémus, located a kilometre or so northwest of the village centre. Quarrying began there in Roman times and continued until 1885, roughly ten years before Cézanne started painting at the site. The relative isolation and solitude of Bibémus were undoubtedly attractive to him, as were the stunning rock formations, products of ancient geological forces and more recent centuries of excavation and cutting. But it was especially the colours in the quarry — complicated shades of ochre in the rock and the greens of the quarry’s trees and shrubs — that captured his imagination.
One warm summer evening in June, I spent several hours exploring this exquisite area, retracing the steps of the painter with a small group of hikers. Starting at Le Tholonet, we entered the Parc Départemental de Roques–Hautes, and walked until we came upon the Bibémus plateau. With a panoramic view of the limestone ridge of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the air was fragrant with thyme, rosemary, lavender, pine and mint; and we were surrounded by the chirping of cicadas.
As we eventually descended into the village, dusk fell upon the valley, and pink and purples hues filled the sky. Live music rose from the festival stage on the pétanque court below, beckoning us closer. Darkness fell upon the valley, and we joined the crowd gathered under the broad plane trees and bright stars, soaking up the beautiful evening together. #JoyBlogging