I spent my first morning in Aix-en-Provence the way any tourist does – by strolling along the Cours Mirabeau, the Champs-Elysées of Aix. Shaded by the canopy of trees that line the boulevard, I soaked in my surroundings. The scent of the gleaming berries in the open-air market and the aroma of freshly-baked bread in the boulangeries. The wind rippling through the trees and the buzz of chatter in the cafés. The sun warming the cobble-stone streets and the light reflecting off the fountain in myriads of directions. And at the end of the road, an artist capturing the scene with quick strokes in his sketchbook, absorbed in rather than distracted by his surroundings.
It is so easy to imagine Paul Cézanne, the Post-Impressionist painter born and raised in Aix, sitting in the same spot as this artist, capturing the dazzling effects of the “lumière d’or” (light of gold) in his own sketchbook. A visit to the Atelier Cézanne, the studio in which Cézanne painted from 1902 until his death in 1906, only reinforces this image. Everything in the studio is preserved to seem frozen in place, from the bowl of fruits on the table to the glass next to the opened bottle of wine. When I entered the studio, this lived-in atmosphere made me feel like Cézanne had just left to run an errand and would be back anytime.
Another highlight of the Atelier was its small collection of Cézanne’s watercolor sketches. Arranged in salon-style around a small room, these rough drafts (below) capture a sense of the light and the thoughts of Cézanne in a way that his finished paintings do not. The informal arrangement of the watercolors makes it seem as though they have just been hung to dry, fresh from Cézanne’s sketchbook. Further, the ability to go up-close and observe their tactile quality was very different to the relatively removed characteristic of museum pieces, where the viewer is always aware of the distance that needs to be maintained between themselves and the artwork.
After exploring the Atelier, my friend and I hiked (read: walked uphill for 15 excruciating minutes) to the Terrain des Peintres, the site that offers the best views of the Sainte-Victoire mountain, one of Cézanne’s favorite subjects to paint. It was here that he painted his famous Mont Saint-Victoire series (44 oil paintings and 43 watercolors), of which Mont Sainte-Victoire (1904-1906) lies in the Princeton University Art Museum’s current collection.
Facing the Mont Sainte-Victoire, it really hit me that the view I was looking at is also hanging on the walls of the Princeton University Art Museum. And it’s not just this mountain painted through the eyes of Cézanne, but London through the eyes of Turner, Jaipur through the eyes of Indian miniature painters, and countless other views from countless different perspectives. Traversing the museum is like journeying across the globe, and the transformative power of art has never struck me more than it did today. I know that even if I can’t visit every atelier or see every artist’s inspiration with my own eyes, at least I can always take a study break and sail across the world by entering the doors of the Princeton University Art Museum.