In this post I take a closer look at the Mont Sainte-Victoire series by Paul Cézanne. Mont Sainte-Victoire is a mountain in France which overlooks Aix-en-Provence (the town where Cézanne was born). Cézanne painted it on numerous occasions during his career. The series not only provides an interesting take on landscape painting, but it also documents Cézanne's development as an artist during his lifetime.
“Cézanne was my one and only master... He was like the father of us all.” Pablo Picasso
Key Facts About the Mont Sainte-Victoire Series
- The series was painted between 1882 and 1906 and features various perspectives of Mont Sainte-Victoire.
- It is considered part of Post-Impressionism.
- In a letter to Émile Zola dated 14 April 1878, Cézanne described the mountain as “beau motif (beautiful motif)”, after viewing it from the train which runs through the Arc River Valley. You can see the train line in some of the paintings in the series (like the one at the start of this post).
- The series was painted after Cézanne had become frustrated with Impressionism and sought "to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of museums."
- Cézanne featured Mont Sainte-Victoire in a less important background role in an earlier work, Bathers at Rest, 1977.
- Below is a photo of the real Mont Sainte-Victoire, along with one of Cézanne's paintings for comparison.
- Here is a photo by Ker-Xavier Roussel of Cézanne in front of his easel (most likely) painting the mountain.
Color and Light
As Cézanne painted this series over many years, the colors he used changed with the different conditions. In the painting below, he made use of ochres and dull greens to paint what appears to be a dry landscape. In many of his other paintings in the series he used richer greens and blues.
In the painting below, there is a pleasant contrast in color temperature between the warm foreground and the cool mountain and sky in the distance. This helps to create a sense of atmospheric perspective. Also, notice the use of common colors between the mountain and sky. If it were not for the outline of the mountain, it would be difficult to tell where the mountain stops and where the sky starts.
Below is one of Cézanne's later paintings in the series. Richer and darker colors were used in this dramatic version. The yellow building is the Château Noir, a place where Cézanne frequently painted as it provided him with a clear view of the mountain.
Use of Geometric Forms to Paint the Landscape
Many of the paintings in the series feature an interesting use of geometric forms to depict the organic landscape, particularly the later paintings in the series. The painting below is a great example of this. This emphasis on geometric forms paved the way for Cubism.
Watercolor Paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire
Most of the paintings in the series were created using oils, but Cézanne also painted some looser and almost unfinished versions using watercolors. I always find it interesting how much an artist's style can change simply with a change of medium. This is because different mediums tend to favor different aspects of painting. Oils are slow-drying and malleable; whereas watercolors are untamed and delicate.
The painting below has a very ethereal feel to it, with the transparent greens and blues. The blues in particular are quite stunning. As with most of his paintings, Cézanne used colorful blues and greens as his darks rather than resorting to browns and blacks.
A Development in Style
In my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of this series is how it shows Cézanne's development in his artistic style. Here is one of his earlier paintings in the series created in 1885. It was painted in a more reserved style with relatively soft strokes, smooth gradations and accurate detail.
Cézanne painted the following in 1902. As you can see, the colors are richer and the forms are slightly distorted. But the mountain appears grander and more imposing (which may be closer to Cézanne's idea and vision).
By the end of this series, Cézanne painted the landscape with a strong emphasis on geometric forms and bold colors; far from the more reserved paintings he started the series with. Less realistic but perhaps closer to how Cézanne viewed the mountain and landscape.
Here is what appears to be an unfinished painting in the series. It gives you an idea of how Cézanne went about painting the landscape. It seems he started by painting in the darks and midtones using geometric shapes.
Key Takeaways from the Mont Sainte-Victoire Series
Here are some of the key takeaways from the Mont Sainte-Victoire series which you could incorporate into your own paintings:
- Painting the same subject over and over again allows you to explore the way color and light work in different conditions. It also allows you to really dive deep into a certain subject. Claude Monet also did this on many occasions, like with his series on water lilies, haystacks and the Rouen Cathedral.
- Try not to trap yourself into a particular style. Always feel free to make adjustments and push the boundaries.
- Using geometric forms to paint the organic landscape can produce some very interesting results.
- Different mediums allow you to capture different aspects of a subject. If you painted a subject using oils, then also try painting it in watercolors as Cézanne did in this series.
(I go into much more detail on the fundamentals in my Painting Academy course.)