Cezanne’s role as the pivot between Impressionism and the early modern French painters stems from a technical weakness: unlike Degas or Toulouse-Lautrec, he was no great shakes as a draughtsman. The human figures he set himself to draw tend to be lumpy and inelegant. This shortcoming persisted into his later maturity, but, by then, it had somehow become a virtue. He himself is famous for saying that an artist should “treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, with everything put in perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed toward a central point”.

This remark, difficult to interpret in practical terms, has been cited by later writers as though it were an unassailable truth that somehow cancels out all previous ways of seeing. It was applied with almost obsessive literalness by Picasso and the Cubists, who produced innumerable demonstrations of their loyalty to the principle, which are mostly pictures about a particular way of seeing, rather than about their ostensible subject matter.  

How refreshing to return to Cezanne’s picture themselves, where cylinders, spheres and cones have their uses in underpinning forms and even spaces, but do not become a dominant theory that drowns out the keen observation that is the foundation of his vision.

But it is true that there is thus in his pictures a schematic gradation of forms in space that depends not on their definition by the light that falls on them, so much a feature of the Impressionist approach, but on their placing in front of the eye. Hence this view near Cezanne’s home at Aix en Provence describes not so much the valley of the river Arc but a series of intersecting verticals and horizontals: the emphasis adopted by legions of later artists in their attempts to grasp the structure of space. And it’s worth noting how that space – the volumes defined by the trees and hills in the landscape – is most importantly calculated in relation to uprights and horizontals supplied by the picture frame itself. We become aware of the crucial relationship between the central pine tree and the line of the bright, white viaduct that intersects it near the centre of the composition, without taking account of the great distance between the two objects. 

And so the vast expanse of country that Cezanne chooses to present to us in this picture becomes a geometrical grid, onto which our imagination maps what our experience tells us must be the reality of a place he knew well. The Bellevue of the title was in fact a farm owned by his sister Rose and brother-in-law, Maxime Conil, and the picture is less the reassuring image of a familiar scene, rather an aesthetic experiment in which personal reference is eliminated in favour of a suggestive balance between the flat surface of the canvas and the geometrical structure of the natural elements the artist perceives in the view.

It was this way of making his picture a crisp analysis of an infinitely complex visual experience that spoke so strongly to the next generation of artists who were searching for new ways of describing and interpreting the world around them, and in particular of advertising their need to announce their complete honesty in the construction of a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional reality. 

Cezanne returned to this view of the Arc valley in the first decade of the new century, and the pictures he produced then seem to build on the experiments of this first campaign, as though it had indeed been an exercise in the clarification and refinement of his visual vocabulary for future use. Identifiable details of the panorama are now eliminated, even the traditional landscape structure is abandoned, and the main features of the scene exist on their own in a minimal network of structural lines, or even just loosely indicative marks. Cezanne seems to be redefining a place intimately familiar to him in terms of its salient characteristics alone, not only its solid forms but also its colour. Blue, green and buff are no longer tied to the objects they describe: they are parts of a jigsaw of elements that we, the viewers, must piece together and reassemble into our own reality. From that perspective, it’s reassuring to be able to return to the clear structures of this picture from the 1880s and remind ourselves that Cezanne had abstracted his later interpretations from a sternly analysed template of sharp observation. 

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