A drawing found when a watercolour by the artist was removed from its backing, and how it might help to solve the mystery of the work that concealed it
In preparation for Christie’s sale of Impressionist and Modern Art in November 2015, conservation was undertaken to remove Arbres au bord d’une route, a watercolour by Paul Cézanne, from an old backing. This led to a thrilling discovery: revealed on the sheet’s reverse was a complex Cézanne drawing hitherto unknown and unrecorded.
‘The discovery of the drawing, hidden from the eyes of scholars and art lovers for many generations, was a thrilling moment,’ says Conor Jordan, Deputy chairman of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s New York. ‘This is the sort of moment that doesn’t come along very often, but when it does it makes working at Christie’s so rewarding.’
The work on the verso depicts three rounded tree trunks in the foreground, with foliage and architectural elements beyond. This motif, with its bold emphasis on the screen of trees, echoes that of the front of the sheet.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Arbres au bord d’une route, circa 1884-1885. Watercolour and pencil on paper. 18 ⅜ x 12 ⅝ in (46.6 x 32.1 cm). This work was offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale on 12 November 2015 at Christie’s New York and sold for $365,000
However, the verso is even more formally related to Marronniers et ferme au Jas de Bouffan, a canvas housed today in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena depicting the alley of chestnut trees at the artist’s family home, with the estate’s farm buildings visible in the distance. As proposed by the acclaimed Cézanne scholar John Rewald, the Norton Simon painting was very possibly executed in the spring of 1884, thus suggesting a similar execution date for the rediscovered drawing.
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), Farmhouse and Chestnut Tress at Jas de Bouffan (Marronniers et ferme au Jas de Bouffan), 1884-85. Oil on canvas, 36 ⅛ x 28 ⅝ in (91.8 x 72.9 cm). © Norton Simon Art Foundation
Until today scholarship had been uncertain on the exact location and dating of Arbres au bord d’une route. Rewald dated the watercolour circa 1885, a period of great emotional turbulence for the artist.
Cézanne spent the mid-1880s in near-total seclusion in the south of France, venturing only intermittently to Paris. From May 1883 until February 1884 (and possibly longer), the artist stayed in a rented cottage at L’Estaque, a fishing port on the bay of Marseille, and he was back there again in March 1885. His oils and watercolors from L’Estaque, though, nearly all show the sea, and it is highly unlikely that the coastal enclave provided the motif for Arbres au bord d’une route.
Between these two sojourns, Cézanne lived and worked at the Jas de Bouffan, his family’s country estate near Aix, installing his mistress Hortense and their son Paul elsewhere to keep them a secret from his father.
Cézanne’s two favourite motifs to paint at the Jas in the mid-1880s were the long avenue of chestnuts leading to the manor house and the tall trees on the fringe of the property. Although the present watercolour does not depict either of these landscape features, it is closely related to them in its sensitive opposition of a screen of tall trees and the low, anchoring horizontal of a path or enclosure wall.
A long avenue of chestnut trees
One possibility, therefore, was that Arbres au bord d’une route depicts a tree-lined road just beyond the borders of the Jas, leading to and from the estate, similar to the one depicted in the oil Environs du Jas de Bouffan, 1885-1887, held by the Guggenheim in New York.
Following his return from L’Estaque to Aix in the spring of 1885, Cézanne had a brief, passionate liaison with an unidentified woman in town, which plunged him into a state of distress and left him barely able to work throughout the summer. In June, he collected Hortense and Paul from Paris, and they travelled en famille to visit Renoir at La Roche-Guyon. Soon after their arrival, however, Cézanne fled in a state of agitation, first settling at an inn at Vernon and finally taking refuge at Zola’s house at Médan, after repeatedly beseeching his childhood friend to receive him.
The affair evidently came to nothing, and by August, Cézanne’s agony had subsided and he could resume painting. Shaken by the entire experience and perhaps seeking to make amends to Hortense, the artist rented a house for her and Paul in Gardanne, some seven miles south of Aix, and enrolled the boy, aged 13, in the village school.
One explanation put forward was that the curved path in ‘Arbres au bord d’une route’ evoked the experience of Cézanne rounding the bend toward an uncertain future
In addition to painting three views of Gardanne proper, Cézanne discovered numerous appealing motifs on his daily walks to and from the village, along the Meyreuil and La Barque roads. One possible explanation put forward was that Arbres au bord d’une route depicts a spot on the artist’s route back home to the Jas, its curved path evoking the experience of Cézanne rounding the bend toward an uncertain future.
The discovery of the unrecorded drawing on the verso, however, and its close relation to the Norton Simon painting with its likely date of 1884, would suggest a similar dating for both sides of the sheet — one that pre-dates Cézanne’s brief affair and the emotional torment it caused.
It also reveals another fascinating insight: it carries twice the inscription ‘Voll’, which probably indicates that this sheet was among those selected by the dealer Ambroise Vollard when he divided a large group of drawings with the dealership Bernheim-Jeune in 1907 shortly after the artist’s death.
Vollard was to remain the greatest promoter of Cézanne’s art over subsequent decades, and it was to his gallery that the greatest collectors of the early 20th century — among them Sergei Shchukin, Albert Barnes, and Samuel Courtauld — beat a path in search of the best Cézannes.
‘It is like the uncovering of a lost musical miniature by a great composer,’ states Conor Jordan of the find. ‘Every stroke of Cézanne’s pencil and brush is loaded with his striving to unlock the truth of the world around us, its volumes and its rhythms, its essence.’
For more features, interviews and videos, visit Christie’s Daily