A beautiful, sunny morning at Cezanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France – I’ve been gently poking fun at this town for its fascination with Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, noting how there’s a Cezanne Theatre and a Lycee Cezanne and a bunch of Cezanne homes you can visit and fountains he either used or were somehow connected with him.
I was hoping a visit to his studio in the hills above town, known as Atelier Cezanne, would put more of a human face to this Aix legend. And it did.
Cezanne, like many artists in the area, built a huge “window wall” on the north side of his studio to take advantage of diffused light. He also had two smaller windows built on the south side, which was a tad unusual, Moreau told me.
She pointed out the studio walls, which originally were white but interfered with the light, causing Cezanne to mix enough colours so that he came up with the perfect shade of deep grey. He also had wooden floors but left them unpolished so they wouldn’t reflect the sunlight.
All interesting, but what was best was seeing many of the items the artist used in his everyday work; his easel, a row of skulls, a small table, an overcoat (still spotted with paint) and, best of all, a crockery jar used in a couple of his paintings and a creamy white bowl that he often used to hold the fruit he loved to paint.
There were brushes and wine bottles he used, as well as other items from his painting life, as well as numerous photos.
Cezanne loved to paint fruit, especially apples. I was told it was partly because his childhood friend, Emile Zola, once gave him a present of apples as thanks for Cezanne keeping bullies away from Zola at the school they attended together. A nice story.
On the other hand, it seems Zola later wrote a book about a failed painter called “The Masterpiece.” Cezanne apparently thought it was modeled after him and was angry at his childhood friend for a number of years. Zola died a few years prior to Cezanne, who is said to have hidden himself in his atelier all day and cried over the loss of his former pal.
Good stuff, and there’s a nice gift shop (naturally) and a pretty garden (see photo at right, near the front entrance) if the kids get restless.
I had a chance to wander back into the old part of Aix for a while before popping into a place called Bistrot des Philosophes for lunch. It was a treat for the eyes, with old, wooden tables of different styles and mismatched wooden chairs, as well as a patchwork layout with stone steps and tiny, hidden rooms. They keep the cutlery and serviettes in a green file cabinet, which is a fun touch.
More important than funky décor, however, is some serious Provencal food. I tasted a superb local fish topped with stewed tomatoes and a side dish of thinly sliced zucchini on top of more tomatoes, plus a wonderful ravioli dish with mushrooms and a champagne crème sauce that was good enough to lick the bowl.
They both were beautifully prepared, with just the right angles and arrangements and tiny drabs of thick, rich balsamic vinegar lined up along the sides of the plate. Even an appetizer serving of Serrano ham from Spain was lovingly folded with a sprig of fresh herbs and accompanied by a small salad in a tiny, clear mason jar; a very cool effect.
They also serve tiny sticks of spaghetti or linguine that have been cooked in olive oil until golden brown. They taste delicious and snap like a razor-thin breadstick; a nice crunch after a few bites of green salad with a mustard vinaigrette.
I still haven’t managed time to wolf down a Croque Monsier, which I never quite understood the meaning of until the other day, when I spotted a translation at the Aix-en-Provence TGV train station that called it “Crunch Mister” in English. I guess that’s correct. On the other hand, they also offered up a “salted tart of the day” and translated flan patissier as “blank pastrycook,” which is hilarious.