The Jas de Bouffan is the intensely atmospheric mansion where Paul Cézanne worked, on and off, for 40 years and produced some of his greatest art.
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First the good news: this beautiful house, currently still in a state of disrepair, is getting a full facelift. The bad news is that it is closed from 1 January 2017 during the building work for at least a year.
This is a very big project. The ground floor will be restored to recreate the house as it was when Cézanne lived there, the first floor (previously closed to the public) will be set up to host exhibitions and the gardens around the Jas will be cleaned up too. We'll be reporting more on the progress as further details emerge.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
What's in the name? A jas is a sheepfold (the final 's' is pronounced in provençal French) and in the 17th century one of these, belonging to a certain Monsieur Bouffan, stood on this site (by some other accounts, the name refers to bouffées, or gusts, of wind).
Because of its plentiful water supply, it was a stopping off point on the transhumance, the route taken by sheep flocks from their summer to their winter pastures.
The current house was built in the 18th century and Cézanne's father, Louis-Auguste, bought it as a summer retreat in 1859, while retaining the family's main residence in the city.
At that time, Aix had become such a provincial backwater that it was known as La Belle Endormie (the Sleeping Beauty).
The Jas de Bouffan originally sat in the middle of open countryside with 15 hectares / 37 acres of land. Only four hectares / 9.8 acres remain today and the environs have been transformed. Today it's in an unremarkable modern suburb surrounded by petrol stations and modern residential estates. It would be easy to drive right past it.
But behind the gates, a grand approach lined by towering plane trees leads you to the Jas which, despite all the modernisation, remains intact. The ghosts of Cézanne and his work are all around.
THE GUIDED TOUR
The property was taken over by the City of Aix in 2002 but has been only open to the public - after a long period of restoration - since 2006, the anniversary of Cézanne's death. It remains in a poor state of repair and the only room you could enter, when we visited in 2011, was the dilapidated salon (there are plans to restore more of the Jas in the medium-term future).
Because of this, you are not allowed to wander round on your own but must go on a guided visit, most of which takes place in the gardens.
While the house and grounds are lovely, in a spectacularly decaying way, this is not a tour of grand sights, but one in which much is left to your imagination.
Our sample trip was enriched with a huge amount of fascinating, extremely informed detail about the artist, his life and his work. The quality of your individual experience will depend, as usual, entirely on the knowledge and personality of your own guide.
When the Cézanne family bought the Jas in 1859, Paul was half-heartedly studying law while taking lessons in art, his true passion. He was allowed to use the salon - then already in bad condition - as a studio and a sort of bachelor pad.
Here he painted one of his earliest efforts, the allegorical murals known as the Four Seasons. These were detached from the walls long ago and mounted on canvas (they are now on display in the Petit Palais museum in Paris).
But a son et lumière slide show, lasting about 15 minutes, allows them magically to rematerialise on the walls before your eyes, along with other of the works he created here. Click here to read about Gianfranco Iannuzzi's son et lumière shows at the Jas de Bouffan and Cézanne's studio at Les Lauves.
After watching the show in the salon, you're escorted outside to various spots where Cézanne set up his easel. He painted here between the ages of 20 and 60 and only left when forced to move out.
During this time he produced 36 oil paintings and 18 watercolours here of the Jas and its grounds (excluding the Card Players and Mont Sainte Victoire cycles).
It's a period during which his art evolved radically. In his youth Cézanne was influenced by his fellow-painter Camille Pisarro, whom he met in Paris and who was one of the first to encourage his art.
At first Cézanne moved briefly towards Impressionism. At the Jas he produced some of the few examples of Impressionist paintings of Provence.
Then he began his own unique experiments with form and structure, producing work of a solidity that was quite unlike their shimmering, evanescent vision: he single-handedly invented a new way of seeing.
A laminated sheet of reproductions allows you to compare Cézanne's paintings with the way the estate looks now.
The alleys of plane trees (in front of the house) and chestnuts (behind it) are still very much as he might have viewed them. Two images above show the chestnuts pictured by the artist in 1885-6 and photographed as they are today.
The large pool, surrounded by sculptures, (pictured) enabled him to experiment with reflections. The Mont Sainte Victoire is obscured now by new housing, but Cézanne would have been able to see it from the garden.
You note how the land is very flat, and how he stylised it into planes to give depth to his compositions.
Nearby - hidden by trees - is the small farm where Cézanne painted the card players and peasants who worked on the estate. Today it's privately owned and closed to visitors.
After his father died in 1886, he continued to work intermittently at the Jas until 1897, when his mother died too.
Following differences over the inheritance with his sisters and brothers-in-law, the house was sold the following year and the artist moved on to the Bibémus Quarries, and to his studio at Les Lauves.
Opening hours: The three essential Cézanne sites in Aix are the Jas de Bouffan, the Bibémus Quarries and the studio at Les Lauves (which is by a very long way the most popular attraction with tourists). They should be seen in this sequence if you want to experience them in the order they assumed in the artist's own life.
In summer, it's possible to visit all three venues on the same day. But in winter, when the opening hours are more restricted, you would probably need to allow three half days in order to see them all, as they are on different sides of the city.
The Jas de Bouffan tour lasts between 45 minutes and one hour. Times vary according to the season (it's open all year round). There is usually a tour in English, though at the moment the son et lumière show exists in French only.
If time is tight and you can't manage any of these three guided sites, you can get a taste of Cézanne by taking a self-guided walking tour of the places in central Aix that marked the artist's life.
Or, if you would like to venture further afield in Cézanne's footsteps, click here to read our guide to a drive or ride along the route Cézanne around the Mont Sainte Victoire.
And click here to read about the programme of gastronomic and cultural events in the gardens at the Jas de Bouffan and Cézanne's studio at Les Lauves during the summer.
Where: Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, 17 route de Galice, 13090 Aix en Provence.
How to get there: If driving, the Jas de Bouffan is well signposted. Note, however, that this entire district of Aix is known as the Jas de Bouffan, so any road signs are likely to be pointing there rather than specifically towards Cézanne's house!
But there is no designated car-park. Parking is likely to be a severe problem, if not impossible, in the summer.
By bus, take bus no.8 at La Rotonde and alight at Corsy.
You can easily walk there from the city centre. It's just over a kilometre (about 0.7 miles). And art-lovers could combine the Jas de Bouffan with a visit to the nearby Fondation Vasarely, which is a short drive or a 15 minute walk from the Jas.
Find further reading on Amazon:
On Site with P. Cézanne in Provence Published by the Paul Cézanne society, this superbly illustrated book is essential for anyone seriously following the master's trail, and a beautiful souvenir if you're visiting the sites. Art experts discuss Cézanne's work in L'Estaque, Bibémus, the Jas de Bouffan and the Lauves studio, analysing the paintings and comparing them with photographs of the locations.
Cézanne: A Biography The German-American art historian John Rewald is regarded as a leading expert on Cézanne - he is even buried next to his mentor in Aix en Provence. His authoritative biography includes letters, photographs and a catalogue raisonné.
Cézanne: A Life is the first major new biography of the artist for many decades. The author, Alex Danchev, is not a traditional art historian and comes at his subject from an unusual angle. His biography has received rave reviews in The Sunday Times, The Spectator and elsewhere as a revealing and sympathetic portrait of a man always previously been regarded as prickly, physically awkward and aloof.