Paul Cézanne, Superstar

Matisse called him "the father of us all." He helped catapult Picasso into Cubism. And nearly every artist working today owes a huge debt to the man who finally kicked over the traces of traditional art—Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Aix-en-Provence's most famous native son. His images of Mont Ste-Victoire and his timeless still lifes are the founding icons of 20th-century painting. With them, he not only invented a new pictorial language but immortalized his Provençal homeland.

Great Cézannes may hang in museums, but you can't really understand the artist without experiencing his Provence firsthand. As it turns out, he is everywhere: Aix even has a Cézanne Trail ( The route through the town is marked with copper "C" studs.

The two most moving locales, however, are just outside the city. Jas de Bouffan, Cézanne's cherished family home, signaled his father's rise to prominence from hat maker to banker and was a lifetime source of inspiration for the artist, who moved there at the age of 20. Four large decorative panels painted directly on the walls bear the ironic signature "Ingres"—the young artist's rebellious jab at his father, who preferred a more prosaic career for his son. Cézanne remained here until his mother's death, in 1897, left him too brokenhearted to remain and the house was sold. One mile north of Aix's center is "Les Lauves," the studio the artist built in 1901, set in a magically overgrown olive grove. The high point here lies a mile along the Chemin de la Marguerite: the belvedere spot from which the artist painted his last views of Mont Ste-Victoire (indeed, he died shortly after being caught in a storm here).

Born out of wedlock (Cézanne's father had an "affair" with Cézanne's mother, siring the child before they were married), he wound up having a 17-year-long affair with Hortense Piquet; and he hid his own illegitimate son from his father to inherit the family fortune. Indeed, this "painter of peasants" never worked a day in his life. Unless, that is, you consider revolutionizing the art of painting "work."

When he abandoned Aix's art academy for the dramatic landscapes of the surrounding hills, he became smitten with the stark, high-noon light of Provence, rejecting the sugar-almond hues of Impressionism. Instead of mixing colors to create shadows like Monet, he simply used black. Instead of using translucent haze to create an effect of distance, he focused on ruler-straight Provençal streets (laid out by ancient Romans) to hurtle the eye from foreground to background.

In the end, Cézanne wanted to impose himself on the landscape, not vice versa. So why not do the same? With brochures from the Aix tourist office, head out into Cézanne Country—the roads leading to Le Tholonet and Mont Ste-Victoire. Walk these shady trails and you'll learn just how Cézanne became the trailblazer of modern art.

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