“I was thinking of you while I stood in Cézanne’s studio, looking at all the little things on his shelf that appeared in his still life paintings… it felt kind of spiritual being there. Thank you for encouraging me to do this journey,” I wrote to my artist friend, who helped me decide what cities to visit. She has since been lost to me through Alzheimer’s.
After volunteering at a week-long English language immersion retreat in Spain, and planning a week in Prague to visit a Czech friend on the other end of my journey, I embarked on a week or so in-between of hops around France to explore towns that inspired Impressionist painters. It was a pilgrimage that filled my eyes and soul with the beauty that moved those revered artists and told their stories. For me as an art student, their movement was the period that made art history come alive.
My hotel in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France was a second-floor walk-up off one of the main circles. I had to weave through one of the outdoor cafes to get to the front door; three turns of a skeleton key seemed to be the magic combination. A Cézanne print hung on my wall; nearby cafés bore variations of his name. I could hear the beat of music from a nearby café, but soon the rain started, a new beat, unpredictable and more soothing, and lulled me to sleep.
One of the earliest painters to adopt a style that used brushstrokes of color to capture the light outdoors and craft vibrant still life tableaus, Paul Cézanne was an inspiration to a generation of Impressionist artists to come, a movement that influenced the direction of fine arts into a new century. Pablo Picasso called him “the father of us all!” At the time, however, like most of the Impressionists, his work was criticized and ridiculed.
I found a walking tour map highlighting places in his life and followed that route, for the most part. As I paused to wander down a quiet lane, a pigeon landed on top of an arched wooden door, a black cat gingerly tiptoed across the street, a couple hugged by a door, ivy climbed walls. I imagined each scene one that the artist might have noticed. Leaning in to hear a French tour guide briefly, I overheard, “Zola and Cézanne were friends in school until after, in 1870, Zola wrote a story about a miserable painter and Cézanne recognized himself, so of course, they were no longer friends.”
Atelier de Cézanne, Cézanne’s studio, was well-preserved. Standing in the space where he painted was humbling. One wall of tall paned windows opened onto forest and perhaps, at one time, gardens. A high shelf contained items that appeared in his still life paintings—a few small sculptures, cups, bowls, painted many times full of fruit and draped with cloth bunched up on the wooden table. There were women yelling up and down the stairs in French, seemingly totally disorganized; too many people waiting on a curved stairway since the number of visitors in the studio room was carefully limited. Cézanne’s living rooms on the entry level were converted to office and shop.
A few more sights around town:
The day before I left Aix, I asked at the Office du Tourisme how to get to the train station in Marseille. I even showed the young lady my reservation form for tickets, so she could see the date and time. She advised that it would be faster to take the bus rather than the train. But the next day, it became apparent, after standing at the bus stop for twenty minutes, that the bus wasn’t running on this holiday, May first, May Day, labor day in Europe. A man also standing there decided we had better take the train and I followed him to the station, hauling my backpack and camera/laptop bag.
“A quelle heure part le train pour Paris?” I asked at the ticket window, what time does the train leave for Paris? A long-lost line from my high school French! I could still recall that question from a dialogue that I performed in class with a friend. I was so pleased to ask it that I had to say Pardon?, paying attention to the response the second time.
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