If you feel like you need a dose of spring and color, drop whatever you are doing and go see the “C?zanne in Provence” exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. The day I went was one of those February days where the sun never seems to emerge from behind the gray rain clouds. Yet when I walked into the first room, I was overwhelmed with the explosion of bright colors and vibrant brushstrokes. I forgot all about my soaked shoes, dripping umbrella and crowds of people, and basked in the glow of the Mediterranean light.
You can’t help but be drawn to the first painting of the show, “The House of the Jas de Bouffan,” from 1847; the lush foliage of the trees framing the composition is complemented perfectly by the warm oranges, reds and yellows that bathe the house evenly in light. This piece sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit: beautiful, multifaceted landscapes and portraits rendered by classic C?zannian patches of layered color.
The entire show divides C?zanne’s career by geographic location. We follow the artist, a native of Aix-en-Provence, to Paris and back to the South of France on a tour between L’Estaque, Gardanne, Bellevue, Bibemus Quarry, Montagne Sainte-Victoire and Les Lauves.
This is an excellent way to fully appreciate C?zanne’s development as an artist, because one is able to see the same subject rendered at different times and in different ways as his signature style matured. Look closely at “Montagne Sainte-Victoire” from 1897 and the painting of the same name, next to it, from 1904. It is most noticeable in this pair that in those seven years C?zanne has moved from building his patches out of many smaller brushstrokes to using one broad, flat brushstroke. He is visibly shifting away from rendering realistic subject matter towards painting the light and color that defines that subject matter.
This development is largely influenced by C?zanne’s revolutionary idea of painting en plein air, or outside and from direct observation. Working in these conditions C?zanne learned to paint quickly, due to constantly altering light throughout the day, which often left his paintings appearing unfinished and more like an abstract pattern than a landscape.
The main attraction is “The Large Bathers,” appropriately placed at the end of the gallery rooms on its own freestanding wall. C?zanne treats the bodies of these bathers just as he does the surrounding landscape: in a pattern of colored shapes. The only distinguishing character of the female forms from the environment is the blue outline that defines the body contours. Completed in 1905, this painting was a shock to contemporary viewers because it is simultaneously vulgar in its subject matter and peaceful in its color scheme and flattened surface. Because of this dichotomy, the painting cannot and should not be missed.
To fully appreciate this collection of C?zanne’s masterpieces, I recommend going on a gray and depressing weekday, simply to avoid the crowds. Skip the audio guide and disregard the prosaic quotes painted on the walls – let the art itself absorb you into the warmth and beauty of the Proven?al light.
“C?zanne in Provence” will be at the National Gallery until May 7.