Aix-en-Provence is a charming city, with an evocative old medieval centre, wide nineteenth century promenades, and chic new shops. Moreover, it’s set in attractive countryside near the mountains called Les Apilles (‘the Little Alps”). What more could you want? Nothing, according to its most famous son, the painter Paul Cézanne, who was born in Aix, lived, married and died there. He left occasionally, but always missed the place and soon came back.
Aix is full of Cézanne sites and references. The city has built a “trail” you are supposed to be able to follow – a map is provided, and brass discs are set in the sidewalks to guide you. However, these give out rather often, and several of the most interesting sites are out of the old town, so you’ll need a bit of enthusiasm for the impressionist to make the most of the “trail.”
By far the most interesting site to visit is Cézanne’s atelier, or studio, on a hillside about 20 minutes walk from the old centre. Inside, you can’t take photographs, but you can stand in the room where he painted, his easel still erect, his painter’s smock and old hat hanging on the rack, items you might recognise from his still life arrangements set upon the shelves. Cézanne had the studio built to his specifications. The north wall is almost wholly glazed, flooding the space with light; while to the south several windows give on to a view of a pleasant overgrown garden, and Aix below. Interestingly, there’s also a narrow slot let into the north wall, which open to ground level, intended to allow really large canvasses to be taken in and out (avoiding the staircase). He thought of everything.
Cézanne’s family home, Jas de Bouffan, also stand a little way out of the old town, and can be visited. Then there are trails into the countryside, where the painter worked – the Sainte-Victoire mountain, the stone quarries, the riverbanks, fields and villages, u tyou’ll need to be driving to explore them all.
“I go to the country every day, the motifs are beautiful and so my day is spent more pleasantly here than anywhere else”.
Letter from Paul Cézanne to his son. Aix en Provence, 22 September 1906.
Back in the city, there’s a bronze statue of the painter near the Rotonde fountain – if it’s life-sized, he was rather short. It’s a recent commemoration, and shows the artist as an elderly painter carrying his paraphernalia. You can also find his grave, if you walk for 15 or 20 minutes to Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Here’s a hint: it’s in Allée 6, near the top of the rise. Look for the Cézanne family plot. Check this helpful blog post.
But his paintings? – I hear you ask. Aix has about ten small canvasses, and they’re in the Granet Museum, which also happens to be housed in a building that was once an art school, where Cézanne took drawing lessons. The Granet also has some other interesting art, including Inges and Picasso, which makes it worth a visit. They’re quite excited at the moment, because they’ve just acquired a Cézanne portrait of the writer Emile Zola, that other famous son of Aix.