Paul Cézanne's landscape paintings are often centered on houses, virtually all empty, abandoned, or ruined. But with the irony common in Cézanne's oeuvre, these dwellings provide a stable center to the landscapes in which they are placed, almost as if they will be re-populated later. Cézanne's "romance" with empty houses began in 1873-1874, when he painted the famous "House of the Hanged Man" (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), which was among his submissions to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. The rugged canvas represents an inaccessible house, its door closed, its windows shuttered. Cézanne's title for the painting tells us this is the empty house of a suicide victim, whose death-in-sin forever haunts the house and Cézanne's painting of it.
Although it lacks a narrative title, the Reves "Abandoned House near Aix-en-Provence" has all the mystery of "House of the Hanged Man." No curtains, no shutters, no doorknob, no houseplants give life to this abandoned house, and its central position in a landscape with no additional architecture makes it seem all the emptier. Its isolation is further enforced by Cézanne's decision to deny the viewer any access. The blank doorway is blocked by a stone wall and a large earthen mound, and no pathway is visible. The area surrounding the house is neglected and overgrown.
The dwelling Cézanne depicted in this painting is called a "mas" in the Provençal language. With its roots in Roman architecture, "mas" abound in Provence and provide a link between the contemporary countryside of the region and the remote ancient civilization that left such an enduring mark on it. Traditional "mas" are cubic masses of stone with low-pitched gabled roofs covered with half-cylindrical tiles. The structures' openings are small and tend not to be placed on the north side. This one seems to be represented from its south façade, on which the doorway and the largest window were customarily placed. A "mas" is at once contemporary and timeless, and in painting it, Cézanne removed all traces of human life to suggest a kind of rural time that the French traditionally call "la longue durée."
"Abandoned House near Aix-en-Provence" is among the most carefully composed paintings Cézanne made in the mid-1880s, when he combed the countryside near his hometown of Aix-en-Provence for rural motifs. In painting it, Cézanne borrowed from his teacher Pissarro a standard compositional device, the simple division of the canvas by thirds and halves, both vertically and horizontally. The south façade of the house fills the central third of the canvas and serves as the visual analogue of the canvas. Cézanne used brushwork called the "constructive stroke" to build his composition; these vertical and diagonal strokes were applied in groups, as if they were pictorial "bricks." In this way, both the subject of the painting and its pictorial language relate to architecture.
This painting was in the collection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes, the eccentric Philadelphia collector whose group of nearly 100 works by Cézanne is the most important ever formed in this country. Although the painting was featured prominently in his book "The Art of Cézanne" (Barnes 1939, 224, as "The Yellow House"), it was sold by the Barnes Foundation in 1950 and acquired by Emery Reves in 1956 from the Swiss dealer Siegfried Rosengart. Close analysis of the painting suggests that a good deal of the sky, particularly above the house, was painted over, probably by a dealer early in the century, to minimize the "unfinished" quality of the picture. This unfortunate overpainting cannot be removed without risking damage to the original surface. If one mentally removes the heavy overpainting, the sky has a lightness and transparency that contrasts even more strongly with the massive architecture of the house and the disciplines constructive strokes of the surrounding vegetation.
"Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection," pages 90-91