As the weather gets colder and as the winter months close in (for those of you in the northern hemisphere at least), we thought we would take a closer look at one of Paul Cézanne’s most famous landscape paintings, L’Estaque, Melting Snow. The oil on canvas work is one of only two winter scenes that Cézanne painted during the course of his career, and the painting’s theme, content and execution have been described as being representational of Cézanne’s feelings and political views at the time. In order to properly understand how those feelings and views are manifest on the canvas, it is important to understand the circumstances that surrounded the painting’s creation.

When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in July of 1870, Cézanne fled from Paris with his then mistress Marie-Hortense Fiquet - they had first travelled to Aix-en-Provence before eventually settling in the fishing village of L’Estaque to the west of Marseille. The village of L’Estaque eventually became popularised amongst artists by the Impressionist Movement and the village, the surrounding fields, the road leading to the village as well as the coastal bay can all be seen in works by various Impressionist painters. Cézanne would go on to work in L’Estaque extensively, painting it in different light conditions and in different seasons, but the reason that he was there in 1871 when L’Estaque, Melting Snow was created was because he was trying to avoid getting drafted into the French military service. Although he was publicly declared a draft dodger in January of 1871, the war was already finished by February 1871, and when he eventually returned to Paris in the summer of that year, no one really seemed to care.

So what does the canvas tell us about the mindset of Cézanne the draft dodger? The scene is of a steep hillside at L’Estaque, covered in a drift of melting snow and beneath the shadow of a foreboding overcast sky - it’s dark, it’s oppressive and it is emotionally evocative. Some have said that the work is simply an artistic reflection of Cézanne’s emotions and thoughts from the time, but others like Polish-American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka contend that it is a statement by Cézanne about the socio-political condition of Europe at the time. As she said, “What is our response to those red-roofed houses which are held, as if in a vice, between a leaden sky and sliding block of snow?”

Cézanne used thick layers of paint and short, quick brush strokes to create a sense of energy and turbulence in the painting’s atmosphere, and the carefully placed colours and the work’s deliberate composition only add to this. Save the red of the rooftops and the green of the trees in the foreground, the colours used throughout the landscape are dull and muted, adding to the sense of anxiety and gloom. The snow-covered slope transects the canvas along the diagonal axis, and along with the slumping snowdrift and twisted tree trunks, it creates a sense of motion in the work from left to right.

Cézanne completed the work in a single session and its emotive nature has been compared on many occasions to the work that Vincent Van Gogh would produce a decade later. However, whether the painting was specifically intended as a metaphor for the being caught between the inevitable and oppressive forces of conflict that dominated France at the time, or whether the work was simply the product of a mind that was in a state of unease, is open to debate.