Artists Inspired by ProvenceInspireWilliam Adams

My Visit to Paul Cézanne’s l’Estaque in Marseille

I’m up early, driving to l’Estaque. Heavy traffic along the Autoroute to Marseille, but not nearly what it will be during rush hour. I arrive around 7:45, with the sun just above the horizon.

Visiting Cézanne’s L’Estaque

I head first to Corbières at the eastern edge of the village. Cézanne explored and painted along the coast here, which in his day must have been almost completely undeveloped. A primitive road, footpaths, scattered houses, perhaps, but not much more.

It’s cold and shockingly clear. The mistral is kicking in, scouring the Gulf of Marseille and making exceptional views down the coast to the centre of the city. In the deep background, the Chaine de Marseille is brightly etched on the horizon, as are the islands off the coast.

The towering limestone forms that tumble down to the water at Corbières — the seaward faces of La Chaine de la Nerthe — are steep and imposing. From a distance, they look smooth and consistent. But, up close, they look like hastily poured concrete, a heavy, dense aggregate of white and beige stones of all dimensions and hues nestled down in a hardened white paste. It’s hard to believe that anything could grow from these rocky surfaces. But the Aleppo pines do, in fantastic, contorted forms. Their green, bright green fronds are stunning against the brilliant beige and white stone. Smaller plants of the garrigue thrive here as well, nestled down in the stingy niches of the rock. The recent rains have made all these living things brilliantly green.

Railroad viaducts supporting the tracks and trains heading west and north to Fos-Martigues, Istre, and Salon-de-Provence, and south to downtown Marseille, cut across the steep cliffs, appearing and then disappearing into the tunnels bored into the rocky faces. Their arching, horizontal forms create a stunning contrast to the vertical fall and sharpness of the cliffs. No wonder Cézanne and Braque were inspired to paint them. They are nearly sculptural as if the railroad architects and artisans were making art on a geologic scale.

Continue reading here for the original blog post “Going to l’Estaque” by Bro Adams.

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William Adams

William Adams

William D. Adams served as the 10th Chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities from 2014-2017. Upon leaving NEH, Adams was named a Senior Fellow at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in New York, where he continued his national advocacy on behalf of the humanities. Prior to NEH, Adams served as President of Colby College from 2000-2014 and as President of Bucknell University from 1995-2000. He and his wife, Lauren Sterling, have a house in Puyloubier, France, where he is working on a book about the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the painter Paul Cézanne.

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