R442 – Rochers à l’Estaque, vers 1883 (FWN153)
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A most fortunate coupling of unsullied motif and finished canvas can be seen in Rochers à l’Estaque, a superb example of the style of the early 1880s. The motif is so well preserved in my 1977 photograph that almost nothing need be excused or explained away apart from the shadows, which are shorter in the mid-summer photograph than in the autumnal painting.
The canvas evokes as much of a response by its sensuality as by its organization. Its hues are gently expanded variants of the simple local ones: the greys of the central rock are translated into grey-violets, grey-browns, and grey-greens, and the blue of the sky varies from pink through ultramarine to greenish cobalt.
It is perhaps the interplay between Cézanne’s close attention to the motif and his power of synthesis that strikes the deepest chord. The structure of the solid forms is defined by the motif, while the surfaces are shaped and integrated by Cézanne’s parallel touch. Cézanne apparently felt (surely when he was still on the site) the need to correct the composition for rightward tilt, and must have made two adjustments on the spot: he reduced the size of the rocks in the upper right corner and tilted the horizon to the left. He emphasized the correspondence between the distant horizon and the line of hills just below, and even reversed the direction of light on the solitary house so that we might see it better and note its relation to the rock above. But above all, he painted the sloping hillside, which seems to run unchecked toward the lower right, with parallel touches oriented at right angles to the slope, in this way slowing down the recession and providing a counterbalancing diagonal movement.
The shrinking of the rock outcropping and the tilting of the water surface are exceptional transformations, rare in Cézanne’s work, but felt to be necessary here. The site for Rochers, however, must have possessed some decorative attraction which outweighed its inherent imbalance; certainly the site is reached only with difficulty and is splendidly quiet and isolated. Cézanne did once write to Zola, …”climbing the hills as the sun goes down one has a beautiful panorama of Marseille and the islands in the background, the whole enveloped towards evening in a very decorative manner.” To the painter, no effort made to integrate this motif would have been too much.
Adapted from Pavel Machotka, Cézanne: Landscape into Art (enlarged edition), Prague: Arbor Vitae, 2014