Throughout his life, Paul Cézanne painted more then 200 landscapes. One of his favorite subjects was the limestone peak of Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence in southern France. The artist had a special connection to the landscape, as Mont Sainte-Victoire was located near his hometown, Aix-en-Provence. Cézanne spent significant portions of his adult life in Aix-en-Provence, and he painted the local landscape at different stages of his career. In 1897, he settled permanently in Aix-en-Provence and lived there until he died in 1906. In his landscapes, Cézanne aimed to reveal the inner geometry of nature, saying he wanted “to make of Impressionism something solid and durable, like the art of museums”.
Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (1882-1885) is an early example of the Mont Sainte-Victoire series, which shows the mountain rising above the Arc River Valley. The scene was likely painted from his sister’s property at the top of the hill behind her house. Cézanne included details of the property, as well as the walls, fields, and neighboring farmhouses. Another important element is the railroad viaduct with a moving train on the bridge. Cutting through the landscape, the railroad viaduct resembles a Roman aqueduct and recalls the paintings of Nicolas Poussin, like The Finding of Moses (1638). In a letter, Cézanne wrote to a friend and writer Émile Zola, dated April 14, 1878, he described the train passing through the railway bridge at Arc River Valley as a “beautiful motif”. He included architectural elements to enhance the landscape and to contrast between the natural landscape and the manmade environment.
In early paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, elements like trees and foliage were used to frame or break up the composition. In Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley, the trees in the center interrupt the composition, while in Mont Sainte-Victoire with Large Pine (c. 1887) the tree on the left frames the composition. Creating the contrast between the mountain and the trees in the foreground, Cézanne explored different ways of making Mont Sainte-Victoire the focal point of the composition. In later paintings, Cézanne removed these elements, and in Mont Sainte-Victoire (c.1902-1906) and Mont Sainte-Victoire (c.1904-1906) the mountain dominates the landscape. The later paintings also had a limited palette of green, blue, grey, and cream, that emphasized the grandeur of the landscape.
Cézanne’s landscapes were also influenced by Japanese art, and there are certain parallels between his Mont Sainte-Victoire series and the landscapes of Mount Fuji by artists Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. The composition of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley resembles Hokusai’s Lake Suwa in Shinano Province (c.1829-1833) that depicts trees in the center with Mount Fiji in the distance.
Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley was owned by American industrialist Henry Osborne Havemeyer and his wife Louisine Havemeyer. The couple were avid art patrons and collectors and were among the first to bring Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art to America. After Henry Osborne Havemeyer died in 1907, the painting was passed on to his wife, who donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after her death in 1929.