In 1895, when the shrewd young dealer Ambroise Vollard mounted the first solo exhibition of Cézanne’s work, catapulting the fifty-six year old artist out of relative obscurity with a single stroke, few visitors were as pleased as Cézanne’s old Impressionist mentor Pissarro, who had been instrumental in persuading Vollard to proceed with the show. “What is curious in that Cézanne exhibition at Vollard’s,” Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien, “is that you can see the kinship there between some works he did at Auvers or Pontoise, and mine. What do you expect! We were always together!” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2005, p. 113).
The present landscape, which Cézanne painted during a visit with Pissarro at Pontoise, very likely in 1877, bears witness to the extraordinary creative partnership that the older artist nostalgically recalled some two decades later. Pissarro produced a view of the identical motif in that year as well, the two artists very possibly setting up their easels side-by-side (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 488; National Gallery, London). The paintings both depict a cluster of red- and blue-roofed houses on the rue Vieille-de-l’Hermitage, just a short walk from Pissarro’s home. The two artists selected an elevated vantage point on the hillside above the houses, alternately known as the Côte Saint-Denis or the Côte des Boeufs, looking down through a dense stand of poplar trees. They both worked on upright canvases, the vertical format–atypical for a landscape–heightening the effect of the screen of trees and creating a forcefully compressed space.
Equally significant, however, are the differences between the two artists’ interpretations of their shared motif. While Pissarro continued to work squarely within the Impressionist idiom, Cézanne had already begun to experiment with an increasingly abstract construction of the landscape, transmuting the vagaries of the natural world into the forms of an ideal order. His tree trunks, which are starker and more rigorously vertical than Pissarro’s, are juxtaposed against the horizontal rooftops and diagonal branches in a regular, lattice-like pattern. In place of the rapid, delicate touch that Pissarro used to signify a fleeting moment en plein air, Cézanne has laid down pigment with a palette knife in roughly square patches, the rectilinear edges of which reinforce the geometry of the composition and largely block the sky. Finally, while the foreground path in Pissarro’s painting offers a point of entry into the landscape, with two tiny figures gazing out at the bottom left, Cézanne has placed a large tree at this juncture instead, barring the viewer’s access into depth and thus flattening the spatial aspect of the pictorial vista.
“In his composition, Pissarro applied layer after layer of paint to the canvas with a dry brush, building up a rich and intricate network of granular brushstrokes that corresponds to the contours of the land,” Jennifer Field has written. “Cézanne, on the other hand, carved his landscape out of thick swathes of paint with a palette knife and highlighted the natural boundaries of the trees using strong, dark contours. He emphasized the inherent structure of the landscape, applying a kind of geometric formula to the natural world” (ibid., p. 163). This boldly inventive canvas represents one of Cézanne’s earliest thorough-going efforts to forge a new pictorial language that would “make of Impressionism”–so he later explained–“something solid and enduring like the art in museums” (quoted in P.M. Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, Berkeley, 2001, p. 169).
Although Cézanne and Pissarro met in 1861 at the Académie Suisse in Paris, their immensely fruitful, decade-long artistic dialogue began only in the summer of 1872, when Cézanne came to the Oise valley–some twenty-five miles northwest of Paris–to work from nature alongside his friend, who had recently moved there from Louveciennes. Together with his mistress Hortense Fiquet and their infant son Paul, born that January, Cézanne settled in the rural hamlet of Auvers-sur-Oise, walking an hour to Pontoise most days to meet Pissarro. Under the tutelage of the senior member of the Impressionist group, Cézanne abandoned the moody tonalities and rough, impetuous handling of his youthful work, adopting instead the light, varied palette and nimble touch of his mentor. “Our Cézanne gives us hope,” Pissarro wrote proudly to the painter Antoine Guillemet. “If, as I hope, he stays some time in Auvers, he will astonish quite a few artists who were all too quick to condemn him” (quoted in B.E. White, op. cit., 1996, p. 117).
By early 1874, though, Cézanne yearned for the landscape of his native Provence, as well as for an escape from domestic life. He installed Hortense and Paul–whose existence he anxiously kept secret from his domineering father–in Paris and returned to the haven of the Jas de Bouffan, his parents’ estate near Aix. Over the next three years, he found respite from his personal ordeals in plein-air painting, making his first exploratory moves toward a more structured, synthetic treatment of the landscape. When the separation from his son and the strain of hiding his liaison grew too painful, he ventured north to stay with them; when his craving for solitude and the familiar landscape motifs of the Jas gained the upper hand, he returned south once again. It was not until late 1876 that he returned to Paris for an extended period, remaining with Hortense and Paul at 67, rue de l’Ouest for well over a year.
Back in the Île-de-France, Cézanne lost no time in re-kindling his working relationship with Pissarro, making several trips to Pontoise during 1877. In addition to painting side-by-side on the Côte Saint-Denis, the two artists set up their easels together at the Jardin de Maubisson, a cluster of kitchen gardens that lay just behind Pissarro’s home (Pissarro and Durand-Ruel Snollaerts, no. 494, and Rewald, no. 311). Whereas Pissarro focused on the burgeoning natural forms of the flowering trees in the foreground, Cézanne–as he did in present canvas–abstracted the landscape into a series of strict horizontals and verticals, which repeat the architectonic forms of the houses on the hillside. “At the beginning, the sage Pissarro endeavored to calm the ferocious young Cézanne,” Joseph Rishel has written, “but, as time passed, the pupil progressively found himself in the lead, encouraging the older artist to follow his example in testing the limits of Impressionist landscape painting” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1995, p. 229).
Along with Pissarro, another key figure in Cézanne’s small circle of intimates during the later 1870s was the now-legendary collector Victor Chocquet, the first owner of the present canvas. A customs clerk with modest means but an abiding passion for art, Chocquet had collected the work of Delacroix for nearly two decades by the time that the Impressionists burst onto the Parisian stage. He discovered their work in March 1875–a year after the controversial First Impressionist Exhibition, which well-meaning friends dissuaded him from attending–and never looked back, quickly becoming an irrepressible champion of the New Painting. He purchased his first Cézanne from père Tanguy that autumn and finagled an introduction to the reticent artist soon after. “For the Impressionists, Chocquet appeared on the scene at a highly critical moment,” John Rewald has written, “when their pockets were empty and the outlook seemed particularly grim” (op. cit., 1996, p. 195).
By early 1877, Cézanne and Chocquet had grown close enough for the artist to enlist his friend’s assistance in selecting his contributions for the Third Impressionist Exhibition, to open on April 4th. It is difficult to determine exactly which paintings they chose, as the titles in exhibition catalogue are very general. Several scholars have suggested that the present canvas may have been included in the exhibition, which definitely featured Pissarro’s view of the same motif (see especially R. Brettell, op. cit., 1984, p. 196, and J. Pissarro, op. cit., 2006, p. 163). “Pissarro and Cézanne, who have supporters, together form a school apart, and even two schools within one,” noted one contemporary reviewer (quoted in B.E. White, op. cit., 1996, p. 132). Rewald and Feilchenfeldt et al., however, disagree that the present painting was exhibited on this occasion, since it does not bear a red signature like many of Cézanne’s submissions to the 1877 show. The trees in the painting are shown in full leaf, suggesting that it may not have been complete yet in March, when Cézanne would have had to make his selections.
Having resigned his customs post earlier in the year, Chocquet spent long hours at the Third Impressionist Exhibition, challenging anyone–and there were many–who derided the work on view, including his own portrait by Cézanne (Rewald, no. 292). “He was something to see, standing up to hostile crowds at the exhibition during the first years of Impressionism,” the critic Georges Rivière later recalled, “leading a reluctant connoisseur, almost by force, up to canvases by Renoir, Monet, or Cézanne, doing his utmost to make the man share his admiration for these reviled artists” (quoted in A. Distel, Impressionism: The First Collectors, New York, 1990, p. 137).
Chocquet remained one of Cézanne’s principal buyers, as well as a close friend and frequent correspondent, throughout the ensuing decade. He died in 1891, just a year after commissioning the artist to paint a group of decorative panels for his new home (Rewald, nos. 643-644). When his widow passed away eight years later, Chocquet’s collection was put on the block at Galerie Georges Petit. “Great artistic event in view,” Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien. “Père Chocquet as well as his wife having died, his collection is going to be sold at auction. There are thirty-two first-rate Cézannes, which will sell for high prices” (ibid., p. 128). As Pissarro had predicted, the sale was a stellar success, with spirited bidding spurring record results. Durand-Ruel acquired La côte Saint-Denis for 1450 francs and later sold it to Hunt Henderson, who thus became only the second private owner of this canvas in its long history.