St Paul-de-Vence

Leger mosaic at Colombe d’Or

I’m still gallivanting around the south of France and a couple of days ago, en route to Nice, we stopped at Vence and St-Paul-de-Vence. These two small towns possess an incredible art history that I was keen to drag my family through. So thankfully the first history lesson came dressed as lunch…

Colombe d’Or in St-Paul-de-Vence is an unassuming but nonetheless rather lovely hotel with a lovely terraced garden where you can sit and have lunch with the ghosts of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse et Georges Braque, et al. The hotel wasn’t always so fancy but an advantageous location and a rather nice view meant that for a number of years the likes of Picasso and his pals would come to Colombe d’Or to eat and stay. In exchange for board and lodging they would pay with a work of art – a casual sketch, a small sculpture - so that today, the walls of Colombe d’Or drip with minor works by major 20th century artists. The terrace comes with its own Ferdinand Leger mosaic…

A small Tinguely

Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France.

And after a pretty spectacular lunch and a bottle of local rosé (when in the south of France…) we made the short drive to Vence to visit the Chapelle du Rosaire. This iconic piece of architecture was designed and decorated by Matisse during the last years of his life as a thank you present to the Dominican nuns who had cared for him while he underwent treatment for cancer. 

It’s a modest, modern building and the stained glass windows and wall paintings are pure Matisse in their bold lines and striking colour. There’s a distinct lack of heavy-handed, sombre, visual religiosity that brings a lightness to the encounter, both intellectually and visually. It’s a calm, contemplative space and sitting there, it’s impossible not to think about Matisse reflecting on his own mortality as he went about realising his vision. It was a brief, poignant visit before heading on to the gelaterias of Nice. But honestly, there is something so dazzling about living and travelling in Europe that affords you these almost insouciant encounters with major moments in (art) history. God I love it.



A visit to Paul Cezanne's studio

Entrance to Paul Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence

I’m on holidays in the south of France and yesterday we drove to Aix-en-Provence to visit to Cezanne’s studio. Cezanne was one of several major 20th century artists (Picasso, Matisse, Van Gogh...) who invested considerable time in this beautiful part of the world and when he died in 1906 the studio of this Aix native was closed shut with everything left as it was. In 1925 it was bought by Marcel Provence to protect its historical value and in 1954, under the then-ownership of Aix-en-Provence University it was opened to the public, and it’s now managed by the city of Aix and being in this part of the world.

My earliest, most distinct encounter with Cezanne and his evocative bowls of fruit, was as one of a bunch of postcards my Mum brought me back from a visit to the Louvre when I was a teenager. Even then its quiet beauty struck me, for reasons I still can’t articulate, so to snoop around his studio, to get the opportunity to experience what was a very personal, creative space for someone with considerable art history heft, was incredible. 

One of the guidebooks I read mused that Cezanne would probably be horrified at the thought of all these people trampling through his private studio and well that’s probably true but it didn’t stop us.

For me there’s something so intrinsically special about getting to see where an artist works and, particularly when considering the work of older or more historical painters, to break down the experience of looking at their work to imagine them in that space; against that particular moment in broader history, putting brush to canvas. Sometimes, looking at really dull works by, I don’t know, Velazquez (sorry Velazquez fans…) it’s often only the dexterity of the paint stroke that fascinates me. That and picturing whoever painted it wearing velveteen pantaloons while they did.

Thankfully velveteen pantaloons were long gone by the time Cezanne came to be painting his still lifes and portraits of card players and geometric plein air landscapes that would go on to shape and inform the development of Cubism.

Paul Cezanne,  Mont Saint-Victoire,  1904, oil on canvas

Paul Cezanne, Mont Saint-Victoire, 1904, oil on canvas

We weren’t at the studio for terribly long - it’s not a huge space - but Aix itself is very pretty; a classic, buzzy university town with excellent people watching, great food and lovely squares and narrow streets to wander. Despite the torrential downpour that engulfed us as we left, the visit to Cezanne’s studio will be a highlight of this trip for some time to come.