Paul Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley in oil on canvas between 1882 and 1885. This painting is part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
What is depicted in the Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley?
In the foreground of the painting are several very tall trees surrounded by lush vegetation. The second plan is dominated by the viaduct, while the mountain itself is asymmetrically positioned in the third plan.
Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley – Analysis
The motif of Mont Sainte-Victoire is continuously present in Cézanne’s work. Considering that Cézanne spent most of his life in Aix-en-Provence, it is not surprising that this motif is so prominently established in his work. In interpreting this Mediterranean landscape, Cézanne experimented with a new form of landscape that would later be so significant. This new form was reflected in the rejection of the principle of believability and idealization of scenes. By excluding illusionism, Cézanne opened up space for a new relationship to the motif through the exploration of the dynamics of vision in relation to proximity or distance, breaking contours and insisting on the flatness of the image.
Mount Sainte-Victoire is a very important topos in the culture of Provence. Sainte-Victoire is a limestone mountain ridge that extends between Aix-en-Provence and Pourrières. The name of this mountain is associated with an important moment in Roman history. Namely, the Battle of Aquae Sextiae took place here in 102 BC. In that battle Roman consul and general Gaius Marius defeated the Teutons. During the Middle Ages and later, Mount Sainte-Victoire was a place of pilgrimage. On the mountain, there is a monumental cross that was built four years after the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The cross overlooks the chapel of Notre Dame de la Victoire. In the corpus of Mediterranean culture, Provence has an important place and this mountain, as a symbol of the Mediterranean heritage in French culture, was an inspiration for many artists. Before Cézanne, Jean Antoine Constantin, Prosper Grésy, and François Marius Granet included the motif of Mount Sainte-Victoire in their paintings.
Industrial and rural landscape
Cézanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire in watercolor and oil on canvas techniques. During the 1870s, under the strong influence of the impressionists, especially Pissarro, Cézanne began to paint plein air. In his further development of landscape painting, a parallel flow can be seen that rests on the antipodes in the vision of the landscape – industrialized and rural landscape. As an important port city, Marseille was at the forefront of the process of industrialization and the architectural and urban transformation that it brought with it. In the mid-1880s, Cézanne painted both motifs from Marseille and those from nearby L’Estaque. In his work on these landscapes, Cézanne developed a kind of structure of a landscape within a landscape. That double landscape was based on harmonizing the elements of industrial architecture, above all the chimneys, and treating them as a micro-landscape in a wider presented natural framework. Cézanne used different techniques by blending the chimney with the surrounding vegetation, or pine branches. Researchers agree that Cézanne was ambivalent towards the changes that industrialization brought and that he perceived them as a new visual element that needed to find a role in a harmonious scene.
On the other side, the still untouched rural oasis of Provence is Mont Sainte-Victoire. When painting Mont Sainte-Victoire, as well as in the landscapes from Marseilles and L’Estaque, Cézanne excludes the presence of the figure without exception. Regardless of the frequent displays of architecture, any human activity or even hinted action does not exist.
Meyer Schapiro writes about the painting Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley in Cézanne: Admirable is the thought of opposing to the distant landscape the tall tree in the foreground, a form through which the near and far, the left and right, become more sharply defined, each with its own mood and dominant. Breadth, height, and depth are almost equally developed; the balance of these dimensions is one of the sources of the fullness and calm of the painting. We experience the vastness of the space in the broad valley with the viaduct; we feel the equivalent depth in the long, endless passage from the house in the foreground to the mountaintop; but we also measure the great height of the space in the central tree which spans the entire vertical dimension, crossing every zone of the landscape and reaching from the lower to the upper edge of the canvas.
In this composition, Cézanne moved the center of dynamics from the mountain and its valley to the trees in the foreground and the monumental viaduct that dominates the landscape in the background. With this structure, Cézanne achieved the effect of the juxtaposition of horizontal and vertical forms that form a kind of network through which the observer searches for the mountain in the distance. Schapiro in the same book further states: With so many diagonals, there are none that converge in depth in the usual perspective foreshortening. On the ground plane of the landscape, Cézanne selects diagonals that diverge from the spectator towards the sides of the canvas and thus overcomes the tension of a vanishing point, with its strong solicitation of the eye. In the roof in the foreground, he has run together the gable and ridge as a single slope, parallel to the diagonal paths, in defiance of perspective rules. The depth is built up by the overlapping of things and through broad horizontal bands set one above the other and crossed by the vertical tree and the long diagonals. The play of color contrasts is also a delicate means of evoking depth. The same deep green in the foreground plane of the tree is contrasted with a strong ocher below and the light vaporous blue of the sky above. Reddish tones on the upper tree trunk pick up the rose of the mountain peak but are set against a darker blue tone than the sky. The cont growth of warm and cool shifts gradually from the foreground couplings of green and yellow to distant couplings of blue and rose.
In terms of composition, very similar to the painting Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley is the painting Montagne Sainte-Victoire with a Large Pine from 1887. That painting is part of the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.