Painters and the South of France

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Painters and the South of France

Vive le soleil qui donne une si belle lumière.
-Paul Cézanne

The following is by no means an exhaustive list of painters associated with or inspired by the landscapes and sunny skies of the South of France (cf. also Renoir in Cagnes, Paul Signac in St.-Tropez, Dufy in Nice, Modigliani, Léger, and Bonnard, Kandinsky in La Napoule, and Braque for example). However, these are the ones whose names are most likely to come up on your travels.

Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) He was the son of a wealthy banker from Aix. He went to school in Aix and then moved to Paris to study painting. He left Paris in 1870, settling in L'Estaque, a small seaside village near Marseilles. From 1882 he lived mostly in Aix again, inheriting from his father a comfortable inheritance and a large secluded house. He is often called one of the fathers of modern painting because of his profound influence on C20 art. He was himself strongly influenced by Impressionist colour theory, but was determined to penetrate the surface appearance of things through careful geometrical analysis, going further than the Impressionists ever did. He believed that all nature could be reduced to the forms of the cone, the sphere and the cylinder. These ideas of the geometry underlying the surface were later to form the basis of the Cubist movement of Braque, Léger, Picasso. (The other great trend of early C20 painting, abstraction, is probably more traceable in its influences to Gauguin, Bonnard and the "Nabis" though Cézanne's influential presence is never far away.) As you leave Aix on the way to the Riviera you will be following for quite a distance the constantly varying, always familiar, outlines of the Montagne Ste.-Victoire which Cézanne painted again and again in his later years.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) He was born in Holland, the son of a pastor. After teaching in England, he studied to be a missionary in Belgium. He didn't become an artist until he fell into poverty after being dismissed from the mission in 1880. In 1886 he started working in Paris, encouraged by his brother Theo who was an art dealer. Two years later he went to Arles, attracted by the quality of light and the thought of escaping from the claustrophobic nature of the capital city. He was briefly joined there by Gauguin. From this time until his death he suffered intermittent attacks of mental trouble, and famously went so far as to cut off his ear on one desperate occasion when Gauguin left Arles to return to Paris. Van Gogh was largely shunned by Arles' society. He continued to paint while in the asylums at Arles and St.-Rémy. When he was moved to Auvers-sur-Oise in the north of France he shot himself, dying at the age of 37. His landscapes and portraits were powerfully expressionist, more and more so as he found himself under increasing mental torture: heightened in colour, often unimaginable in their choice of colours with bright red skies and fields of blue, violently distorted, writhing shapes. In his lifetime he sold only one painting. In the last 15 years he has become the most successful artist ever on the international auction scene. You should look out for the fields of sunflowers when you are in the vicinity of Arles.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Picasso is probably the outstanding figure in C20 painting and sculpture. He was born in Málaga and moved to Paris in his early twenties. This was his famous and formative "Blue Period," followed by his equally famous "Rose Period." From there he went on to straddle almost the entire evolution of modern art, through eg. Cubism ("les Demoiselles d'Avignon"), Surrealism, abstraction, expressionism ("Guernica") and collage. After WW II he moved to the South of France and the village of Vallauris near Cannes where he was made an honorary citizen for breathing new life into the declining local ceramic industry. After a brief time in Cannes itself he finally settled in Mougins on the road from Cannes to Grasse. He loved the peace and solitude and the warm Mediterranean climate that it offered. (You cannot see his house from the road.)

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) Matisse was born in Le Cateau in the north of France. He became the leading figure in the Fauve movement (loosely translated as 'The Wild Beasts') that formed in Paris in the early C20. In 1905 he stayed in St.-Tropez with the painter Paul Signac. It was this exposure to the bright Mediterranean sunlight which helped inspire the explosion of colour in Fauvist painting. His other great contribution was the continued simplification of draughtsmanhsip in favour of form and colour. In 1914 Matisse wintered in Nice and decided to remain on the Riviera for the rest of his life. He died in Nice in 1954. The Musée Matisse in the city is well worth a visit. His most famous legacy in the South of France, though, is the chapel at Vence whose murals and windows he designed between 1947 and 1951. In his own opinion, this was his greatest masterpiece.

Marc Chagall (1887-1985) Chagall was born in Vitebsk in what is now Belarus. He moved to France in 1923 and, after a brief sojourn in America during and in the aftermath of WW II, he returned to France in 1949 to settle in the beautiful perched village of St.-Paul-de-Vence where he found both the peace and the bright, colourful atmosphere to inspire his poetic imagery. He is one of the most loved artists of the C20. His work follows no particular trends in modern art. His themes are often taken from Jewish folklore, combined with his own irresistible humour and fantasy. He is inventive, poetic and sometimes surreal, using rich warm colours and strange dream-like sequences reflecting memories of his Russian Jewish upbringing. One constantly recurring theme in his paintings is his almost childlike vision of lovers. He remained utterly in love with his wife throughout his life. He died in St.-Paul-de-Vence in 1985, aged 98. The Chagall Museum in Cimiez has a small but interesting collection of some of his works on Old Testament themes.


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