The 'Jas de Bouffan', a country property dating from the eighteenth century on the outskirts of Aix-en-Provence, had been in the possession of Cézanne's family since 1859. He liked to stay in the region, working in a studio he had established there, and later in the region surrounding Montagne Sainte-Victoire. From the mid-1860s on he depicted the country house and garden in his paintings, drawings and watercolours. The avenue of chestnut trees provided him with a striking, inherently symmetrical subject. In his composition he takes up the strict arrangement of parallel rows of trees and uses the characteristic possibilities of watercolour painting to make the familiar scene appear both classical and contemporary. It is a work that links an intensive perception of nature with the simultaneous ability to subject it to the pictorial laws of area and space, line and colour.
Cézanne describes the architectural-looking row of tree trunks, painted in stone grey, from a slightly raised viewpoint above a fountain, only part of which is shown. The view follows the avenue of trees and continues beyond the end, which is marked by shallow fountain basin. With the view shifted slightly away from the central axis, the lofty tree trunks on the left form a close formation, whereas we can see gaps between those on the right and sunlight falling through them. Above this harmonious, geometrical arrangement of vertical and horizontal forces the artist uses his colours to spread out the tree tops, thereby determining the true pictorial space.
Cézanne cuts off the tops of the mighty trees, giving the foliage a heightened validity. He achieves this by juxtaposing a rich spectrum of short, transparent patches of colour which shimmer between green and blue and transition from light to dark in the upper half of his drawing. The resulting diagonal arrangement of a rhythmic application of paint, which allows the paper to shine through everywhere, suggests the volume of the trees and attempts to provide a valid description of their nature.
The rigorous execution of this composition - which incorporates all three-dimensional values in a system that is both spatially and planimetrically coherent - may recall Poussin, whose art Cézanne knew and esteemed. The artistic idea Cézanne translated in his 'Avenue of Chestnut Trees' fulfils a comment of his which has been passed down: "Poussin (...), but reworked entirely after nature, that is the Classicism that I mean".
In 1976 the Deutsche Bank handed over this valuable watercolour to the Collection of Prints and Drawings at the Städel Museum in honour of the banker Hermann Josef Abs in order to mark the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday. At that time Abs had been the chairman of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut's administration for six years - a position he would fulfil with great commitment until 1994. During the 1960s Abs held posts on the supervisory boards of numerous companies and was a key figure in German industry, as well as one of the most influential bankers in Germany. After leaving the board of Deutsche Bank he was elected chairman of its supervisory board in 1967, and remained honorary chairman of the Deutsche Bank until his death.