Artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) will forever be associated with Aix-en-Provence, a charming university town of 145,000 people, 20 miles north of Marseille.
The renowned post-impressionist painter was born and raised in Aix. Following a period of young adulthood in Paris, he returned to live out his life in the shadow of Mont Ste-Victoire, long a favorite subject of his works.
Cezanne’s work is said to have provided a bridge between the eras of impressionism and cubism. Indeed, both Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso called Cezanne “the father of us all.” Picasso so admired the artist that he himself was buried on the northern slope of Ste-Victoire.
Aix-en-Provence, founded by the Romans in the 2nd Century B.C., was the medieval capital of the state of Provence. Since 1409, it has been home to the Université de Provence Aix-Marseille. The city’s name is most commonly pronounced “Ex,” like the letter.
As passengers aboard Windstar Cruises’ Wind Surf, we explored the city on a five-hour excursion. We toured the broad main avenue, Cours Mirabeau, along with its magnificent cathedral and historic Mazarin district, its fountains and street markets. And we spent a good hour with Cezanne himself.
The artist’s studio
Aix marks the spot of L’Atelier de Paul Cézanne, the artist’s studio during the final four years of his life.
An information center and gift shop are on the ground floor of the red-shuttered, 19th-century country home, half enveloped in grape vines and surrounded by linden trees.
If you’ve arrived without a reservation, you’ll wait either here or outside, in the shade, until you’re called with a handful of other art lovers to climb the narrow staircase to the atelier.
The second-floor workroom has been preserved as if Cezanne himself might stroll back in at any moment. Benches stained with paint stand beside easels of works in progress, and his smocks still hang from pegs on the wall.
We found the most fascinating items to be some of those Cezanne used in his paintings — plates of apples and onions (hopefully replaced since 1906), a candlestick, a trio of human skulls (models for his renowned “Pyramid of Skulls”) that stare from atop a workbench beneath the artist’s hanging cane.
A slide show of numerous other Cezanne paintings provides a backdrop to the props, works like “The Card Players,” “Still Life with a Teapot,” “Jas de Boufan” and “The Lady in Blue.”
The old town center
Our best memories of Aix were of the historic town center. Our tour began on Cours Mirabeau, a broad boulevard bordered by banks and elegant mansions, planted with double rows of ancient plane trees (sycamores). A social hub for the French elite in the 1650s, it divided the “old town” from the new.
Among a row of brasserie-cafes, most famous is Les Deux Garçons (The Two Waiters), built in 1792 and frequented by Cézanne, his university friend Émile Zola and, later, author Ernest Hemingway.
A series of fountains (Aix has been called “The City of 1,000 Fountains”) occupy the center of the avenue, including one (from the 1800s) that depicts a Provençal king holding a bunch of Muscat grapes, and a natural, moss-covered hot spring dating from the Roman era. It was the thermal waters, containing lime and carbonic acid, that first drew the Romans to Aix. Ongoing archeological excavations have uncovered an ancient amphitheater near the remains of the town’s early Roman baths.
Around the corner from this historic café, at the foot of a 16th-century clock tower, is Aix’s colorful Marche des Fleurs (flower market) and the public market. It was the first week of summer, and nowhere have I seen such healthy mounds of robust fruits (including cherries and cantaloupe) and vegetables — courgettes (zucchini), haricots verts (green beans), capsicums (bell peppers), carrots, tomatoes, sweet potatoes — as I did here.
Just past the circa-1650 Hôtel de Ville is the impressive Cathédral de St-Sauveur (Cathedral of the Holy Savior), an imposing Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque structure built on the footprint of an ancient Roman forum and basilica. We were greeted at its richly adorned walnut doors by a young choirgirl as midday chants echoed through the building’s cavernous nave. A domed, 5th-century baptistery held our attention, along with 16th-century tapestries and other Renaissance art.
The gentrified, four-story residence blocks of the historic Quartier Mazarin were built in the late 17th century by the archibishop of Aix. At its heart is the Fountain of the Four Dolphins (1667), the most famous work of sculptor Jean-Claude Rambot. Also in the Quartier Mazarin is the Musée Granet, with an outstanding collection of painting, sculpture and local archeology. Within are more than 300 works by Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and other famous European painters.
Nearby, the 1745 Plâce d’Albertas is surrounded by mansions whose large windows and freely interpreted Baroque features are adorned with wrought-iron balconies. Look carefully, and you may notice penis motifs. Local lore has it that when owner Jean-Baptiste d’Albertas purchased his mansion, he hadn’t recognized that the ironwork doubled as a discreet sales pitch for a former brothel business. A naïve man of aesthetics, he directed his architect to copy the second-story balconies in his new home.