Mont Sainte-Victoire near Paul Cézanne’s home in Aix-en-Provence was one of his favorite subjects. It was in painting this mountain that he developed the spatial effect (sometimes called flat-depth) that became the bridge between Impressionism and Cubism. Mont Sainte-Victoire is, therefore, not just a plein air motif but an icon in the development of modern painting.
Cézanne was born and raised in Aix-en-Provence. As young men will, he went to Paris for nine years but otherwise he was rooted in his home soil for his entire life. Mont Sainte-Victoire was profoundly familiar to him. It only gradually emerged as a theme in his painting, but when it did, it took center stage. He painted it more than 60 times.
Cézanne knew the countryside around Aix intimately, having wandered it with his childhood chums and hiked it as an artist. He climbed Mont Sainte-Victoire as late as 1895, when he was in his late fifties.
“His color is as severe as the character of Middle Easterners; a man of the South, he spends whole days on mountain tops, reading Virgil and looking at the sky,” wrote Paul Gauguin of Cézanne. “As a result, his horizons are high, his blues are intense, and in his work red is astonishingly vibrant.”
In 1901, Cézanne purchased an acre of land on a hill called Les Lauves, just north of Aix. Here he built a studio. He would walk uphill to a spot which offered an open view of Mont Sainte-Victoire to paint. His focus narrowed further. His paintings were not only of this particular mountain, but of the side of the mountain he could see from Les Lauves.
Compare this to that aging enfant terrible of the Young British Artist scene, Tracey Emin. She recently announced that she married a rock in her garden in France, an event which has unleashed gouts of soulful analysis from the kind of people who like that sort of thing. Never mind that this fetish of marrying inanimate objects is so last decade; the cynic in me imagines she just did it for the attention.
Emin can afford a garden in France because of a 1998 work entitled My Bed, which was shortlisted in 1999 for the Turner Prize. (To clear up any confusion, this is not a photo of her bed, it is literally her bed, plunked down in all its frowzy glory.) Featuring yellow stains on the bedsheets, rolled-up tights, condoms, empty cigarette packets, and a pair of panties with menstrual stains, she explained that it represented a time in her life when she felt depressed over relationship difficulties. My Bed was purchased by Charles Saatchi for a cool £150,000 and established Emin as a force in the British art world.
My Bed realized £2.5 million at auction in 2014. Compare that to the price of Cézanne’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If, which sold for £13,522,500 in 2015. I have fairly eclectic taste in art, but there’s no way I think Emin’s marriage to a rock or her unmade bed are worth even a tiny fraction of a Cézanne landscape.