The House with Cracked Walls
Oil on canvas
25 5/8 x 21 1/4 in
The Annenberg Collection
Text from "Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Annenberg Collection", by Joseph Rishel:
"FEW OTHER LANDSCAPE images in Cézanne's career solicit such emotional response as The House with the Cracked Walls. An ocher-walled farmhouse sits at the top of a steep, rocky hill; a huge shelf of rock emerges on the right, while at the left, the earth seems terraced and is covered with only sporadic vegetation. The house itself has a sharply extended eave on one side, a profile similar to others in Cézanne's landscapes, ... with the same slightly askew, off-center single window. The site seems abandoned and the building disintegrating, with tiles falling from the roof (two have fallen against the rocks and one on the roof of the small structure on the right), while the shutters and window mullions have long since been salvaged or simply rotted away, leaving a dark, skull-like aperture. The large fissure that rends the upper part of the house and continues below into the attached, projecting outbuilding declares a slow but persistent collapse of the entire structure. It is indeed a haunting image made even more so by the exposure of the locale, the bleaching light on the facade and the rock, and above all, the completely airless quality created by the unrelieved density of the confining ink-blue sky. ...
"Cézanne was often drawn to isolated and uninhabited sites, perhaps as much by his desire to work in complete privacy as by the attraction of such places in themselves. During the 1890s he sought out such sites to the east of Aix, toward the foothills of Mont Sainte-Victoire, rather than the more populated regions where he had gone more regularly before. The road to Le Tholonet, passing through a sparsely wooded, rocky landscape, had particular appeal and just off it was the abandoned quarry of Bibemus, where he kept a small hut for his equipment within the high red walls of the artificial canyon. He was attracted to the seldom-used house, Chateau Noir, just above this road, belonging to an absentee chemical engineer. Despite its local name, its walls were actually stained a deep red, not unlike the color of the boulders in the quarry at Bibemus. It was a sinister place with half-finished structures and pointed gothic windows that held great appeal for Cézanne, who attempted to buy it, unsuccessfullv, although he continued to paint there throughout the l890s. It is tempting to draw parallels between the Chateau Noir with its enclosed and mysteriously distanced quality and local notoriety (it was sometimes called the Maison du Diable) and the present picture; however, a better comparison in the sense of evocative landscape motifs to which he may have been drawn would be the abandoned mill just below the Chateau Noir, whose blocks were slowly being reconsumed into the natural setting through the unhusbanded undergrowth.
"Unlike these sites, which may well have been quite near the cracked house and which recur in paintings and watercolors throughout Cézanne's later years, the cracked house is a unique image. It is a work of remarkable absence of atmosphere and perspectival calculation. Except for the wedge of shadow under the eaves and the view through the top of the window into the pitch-black interior, no perspectival devices were used. The trapezoidal silhouettes of the house and its two appendages are in a subtle repetition with the flattened outline of the right-angled projection of the rocks. The trees stand in complete profile, and the white shelf of rock on the right, despite the tremendously controlled suggestion of recession through the coloristic modulation of its surface, is only one step away from a complete identification with the picture plane, nearly exactly like the large repoussoir that fills the similarly claustrophobic and dense view of the Bibemus quarry, The Red Rock. All surfaces are handled with equal deliberation, both in terms of density of paint and degree of painterly animation within any given passage: the directional strokes of the terraced bank are paralleled in equal alignment to the side of the house, the leaves, or the sky itself. The drawing of the tree trunks aligns in a nonspatial manner, the left limb of the double-branched tree, third from the left, overlaying exactly the trunk of the tree behind it, while the etched line that describes the edge of the large white rocks does as much to hold its projection to the picture's surface as to create the crevice into which the house sinks. The most dramatic passage of the painting--the frayed outline of the cracks themselves--is the one element that departs from the measured application of all other areas."