23 November 2013

Cezanne and Zola's favourite brasserie ...in Aix

Aix-en-Provence is a French university town that dates its first royal char­t­er back to 1409. The new town is interesting but it is the old town, with its narrow windy streets and its noble homes dating from the 16th, 17th and C18th, that tourists love. The most impressive part of town was and is Cours Mirabeau, a wide elegant boulevard bordered with my favourite trees, plane-trees. I liked the writer who said Cours Mirabeau cuts a very classy dash of Parisian Left Bank chic and intellectual sophistication, under the sun of Provence. That is true, at least partially because of the mansions, bookshops and fountains. This avenue, which is lined on one side with cafés and eateries, has a special place in the heart of art historians, as we shall see.

Aix’s most famous resident was painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) who was born and died in the city. Much of his art featured the countryside around Aix and it is said that art-minded tourists can see the mountain depicted in Le Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings from the city itself. Appropriately Cézanne has been remembered by a statue by La Rotonde. And his studios at Lauves workshop have now been turned into a museum in Cezanne’s honour.

Les Deux Garcons, outside terrace

Cezanne was not always in his home town. In 1861 he arrived in Paris, failed the entrance examination to the Ecole des Beaux Arts and returned home, tail between his legs, to get a “proper job”. Although his father had distrusted art as a stable career, he did finally agree to provide Paul with some financial support. So as a young artist, Cézanne had to spend most of his time between Paris and Aix.

Emile Zola (1840-1902) was not a local. He was born in Paris and was quite young when his parents settled in Aix for work. Cezanne and Zola became close friends at school. In 1858 Zola left Aix to join his mother in Paris, but wrote frequently to his old pal and caught up with the friendship every summer holiday. Apparently Cezanne and Zola used to while away the summer early evenings before dinner alon­g Cours Mirabeau, enjoying a drink or three at Les Deux Garcons.

The Deux Garçons is Aix’s pride and joy. A Monsieur Guion purchased the building in the mid C18th and sought to create a meeting place for the aristocrats of Aix-en-Provence, one modelled after the Eng­lish clubs that were popular in France back then. He transformed the ground floor into this club and it soon saw conflict between supporters of the old regime and local revolutionaries. So the club was quickly closed in 1790. In 1792, as you can see from the shade cloth, it was re-opened as a café called Café Julien; in 1840, when two waiters purchased it, the café was re-christened Les Deux Garçons. This brasserie still has its gold and dark green Empire style interior.

Les Deux Garcons, dining room

Paul Cézanne died in 1906, a few years after his old schoolmate Zola. So in 2006 the city of Aix-en-Provence organised Cézanne-in-Provence exhibition and celebrations at Cezanne’s old home, school and art studio. I sin­cerely hope the city fathers also included Cezanne’s main drinkery. Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse certainly did! Both artists were both heavily influen­ced by Cezanne and both of them spent their last years in the area. In 1958, Picasso bought a château on the edge of Aix next to Mont Sainte-Victoire, the exact mountain made famous by his hero Cézanne.

This is legitimate history, by the way. I have already looked at the connection between bars and artistic creativity in this blog a number of times. Three examples will make it clear. The Bar Marsella is the oldest bar in Barcelona, opening for business in 1820. It was where Ernest Hemingway could be found, drinking his absinthe, during his period in Barcelona. And the Barcelona restaurant Els Quatre Gats opened in 1897. This was where young Pablo Picasso held his first-ever art exhibition and where he was a regular drinking partner of the artist Juan Gris. In Paris Café Guerbois on Avenue de Clichy was where Manet invited the Impressionist artists to plan, share art advice and drink from 1862 on. They met every week in a type of art salon.

Location of Aix in the south of France


We Travel said...

The food is expensive now. So I imagine the young men spent hours outside, just drinking and soaking up the atmosphere.

Kirk Dale said...

An interesting piece of history. I enjoy reading of such things - the links between people and places.
We are going to be lucky enough to visit Aix in April and so I shall pay a visit to 'Les Deux Garçons' and let you know what it is like.
Bye for now,

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, One wonders to what degree creative artists and writers made these cafes their hangouts and to what extent the owners fostered the creative atmosphere, in a way similar to those who sponsored artistic salons. Probably one aspect reinforced the other.

Your posts also bring up the question of what places have a similar influence today, or whether today's artists get their relaxation and inspiration differently.

Hels said...

Cezanne lived off his father's allowance and could not have had spare money in the early years. So I think you are right - he picked the most attractive and central spot in town to socialise in, cheaply.

Hels said...


I wish I was going *envious sigh*. If you are interested in the Cezanne trail, follow the metal shoe marks in the Aix footpaths. And raise a glass of wine in Les Deux Garcons to our 19th century hero.

Hels said...


At first I thought artists and writers hung out in cafes, in order to have free heating in Paris winters. Many of them lived in La Ruche in Montparnasse, where they were cold and underfed.

But at least in Cafe Guerbois the gathering was organised, supportive and much more salon-like. I don't think it is possible for us moderns to understand how important the gatherings were for young artists....young artists who had families often living far far away.

umashankar said...

That was an absorbing piece of time documented vividly. Cézanne, Zola and even a dash of Hemingway... Thanks for sharing.

Hels said...


cafe society in France 's Belle Epoque is always exciting to me, both in lectures at work and more recently in the blog. And in all the excitement, cafe society in the arts world is even more exciting.

Where did writers socialise?
How did young, impoverished painters sustain each other, early in their careers?
What happened to all those cultural figures who arrived in France from Spain, Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe, Australia etc?