Conventionally, it is told that since Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) was the painter who loves nature, he escaped from a noisy, modern Paris that developed rapidly and painted instead amid the pure nature of Aix-en-Provence, his country hometown. Although this discourse is true to an extent, it has failed to capture Cézanne’s entire essence; if his life and works are correctly investigated without prejudice, it becomes clear that Cézanne is “a painter of modern life” as well as “a painter who loves nature.”
Actually, it is important to note that, while he lived in Aix, Cézanne drew modern railway subjects in various ways. First, Cézanne sketched the railway cutting on the Aix-Rognac line as visible from his house garden about 100 meters away to create The Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Railway Cutting (c. 1870) (Fig. 1). Second, in his preceding works, he painted not only the railway cutting but also the railway signal on the same line: The Railway Cutting (1867–1868) (Fig. 2) and The Railway Cutting (1867–1870) (Fig. 3). Third, The Railway Cutting (1867–1870) (Fig. 4) depicts the railroad as well as the railway cutting. These paintings show his enthusiasm as he tried to topicalize the steam railway in his early years in Aix.
Fig. 1 Paul Cézanne The Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Railway Cutting (c. 1870)
Fig. 2 Paul Cézanne The Railway Cutting (1867–1868)
Fig. 3 Paul Cézanne The Railway Cutting (1867–1870)
Fig. 4 Paul Cézanne The Railway Cutting (1867–1870)
In addition, Cézanne depicted the railway bridge on the Aix-Marseille line. In fact, he sketched the railway bridge that spans across the Arc River and the valley in a suburb of Aix, as shown in The Pine before the Arc Valley (1883–1885) (Fig. 5), The Viaduct of the Arc Valley (1883–1885) (Fig. 6), The Mont Sainte-Victoire (1892–1895) (Fig. 7), and many other paintings.
Cézanne also painted a steam locomotive on the Aix-Marseille line. Actually, he depicted the train passing through the railway bridge at Arc valley, as shown in The Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bellevue (1882–1885) (Fig. 8), The Mont Sainte-Victoire and Large Pine (1886–1887) (Fig. 9), and The Arc Valley (c. 1885) (Fig. 10).
Fig. 5 Paul Cézanne The Pine before the Arc Valley (1883–1885)
Fig. 6 Paul Cézanne The Viaduct of the Arc Valley (1883–1885)
Fig. 7 Paul Cézanne The Mont Sainte-Victoire (1892–1895)
Fig. 8 Paul Cézanne The Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bellevue (1882–1885)
Fig. 9 Paul Cézanne The Mont Sainte-Victoire and Large Pine (1886–1887)
Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) was the first painter to topicalize the steam railway among impressionist painters.
In the France of the 1870s, it was not conventional to paint the steam locomotive because it was considered an ugly monster that would advance forward at an extraordinary speed with roaring sounds. Railroads were also considered intruders in the natural landscapes. Therefore, painters avoided painting sceneries in which the steam railway would be prominent. If a train had to be depicted, it was usually drawn small and from a distant view and was never the main player but a by-player. Even in such cases, the work was usually a drawing or a print and never an oil painting.
Thus, members of the impressionist group lead by Claude Monet (1840–1926) were considered innovators in the sense that they were the first painters in France to topicalize the steam railway through oil paintings in the 1870s. It has been said that Monet’s A Train in the Country (1870) (Fig. 1) is the earliest impressionist railway painting. (Nevertheless, I would like to point out that, in A Train in the Country (Fig. 1), the steam locomotive was kept hidden behind trees.)
Fig. 2 Paul Cézanne The Ferry at Bonnières (summer of 1866)
Interestingly, Cézanne topicalized the steam railway about four years before Monet did. In fact, Cézanne painted The Ferry at Bonnières (Fig. 2) in the summer of 1866. If one actually stands at the spot from which the scene is viewed, one will notice that the Bonnières station on the Paris to Le Havre line is near the telegraph pole, which is to the left, and the train passes from the right to the left (Fig. 3). Cézanne who took this spot to sketch must have recognized this specific scene.
Fig. 3 A train passing through Bonnières station (filmed by the author on August 28, 2006)
Moreover, according to Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1977), in the nineteenth century, the telegraph network developed along with the railway network to facilitate the smooth operation of the train system. When the Bonnières station was established on May 9, 1843, the telegraph pole and electric wires, which Cezanne depicts, were a definite part of the railway system; Cézanne painted two railway subjects: “a station” and “a telegraph pole and electric wires” in The Ferry at Bonnières (Fig. 2).
What did Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) try to “realize” in his paintings? The above question has many possible answers. However, one perspective that has not yet been pointed out is the transformation of visual perception caused by the introduction of the steam railway in the nineteenth century.
Actually, in a letter to Émile Zola, written on April 14, 1878, Cézanne praised the scenery seen through the window of a moving train:
When I went to Marseille I was in the company of Monsieur Gibert. These people see correctly, but they have the eyes of Professors. Where the train passes close to Alexis’s country house, a stunning motif appears on the East side: Sainte-Victoire and the rocks that dominate Beaurecueil. I said: “What a beautiful motif”...
A few minutes from the railway station in Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne’s hometown, the view from the train going from Aix to Marseille is similar to the one described by him (Fig. 1). More precisely, what Cézanne admires here as a “beautiful motif” is the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which can be seen from the train when it runs through the railway bridge at the Arc valley (Fig. 2), painted in the center on the right side of his painting (Fig. 3).
Fig. 1 The Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from the train while passing through the railway bridge at the Arc valley (filmed by the author on August 26, 2006)
Fig. 2 The Mont Sainte-Victoire seen over the railway bridge at the Arc valley (filmed by the author on August 25, 2006)
Fig. 3 Paul Cézanne The Mont Sainte-Victoire and Large Pine (c. 1887)
It is noteworthy that this letter was written only half a year after the opening of the railway line from Aix to Marseille, including this railway bridge, on October 15, 1877. Moreover, Cézanne began painting the series of the Mont Sainte-Victoire around 1878. In short, Cezanne gradually wanted to realize the transformation of visual perception induced by the steam railway as one of his famous “sensations.” Indeed, in many of Cézanne’s paintings, his strokes are repeated in the transverse direction, while the ridgelines are emphasized in a horizontal direction, and the images of things that are nearer appear rougher.