Provence through artists’eyes

The genius of Cézanne and Picasso is celebrated in a show opening next week in Aix-en-Provence. Visit the museum, then tour the hills and coasts that inspired them, says Rosemary Bailey

The Observer, Sunday 17 May 2009

Chateau de Vauvenargues, Aix en Provence, France. Photograph: Henry Ely

Ochre earth, twisted silvery olive trees, blue skies, red roofs and sunflowers … Our visual image of the south of France has been defined by the artists who have painted there since the end of the 19th century, drawn by the fierce light of the Midi. Today the south of France must be the best place in the world to appreciate the landscapes that inspired the masters – Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and a host of others – and to see their work in several world-class museums.

“The Midi fires the senses: makes your hand more agile, your eye sharper, your brain clearer,” wrote Van Gogh. But Cézanne was the first, a native of the Midi, born in Aix-en-Provence. After several periods in Paris and the north of France he returned home, to the strong light and dramatic shadows of his native land. His exploration of the underlying forms of nature was to inspire many artists after him, notably Picasso, who called Cézanne “the father of us all”.

Now a major new exhibition at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence will bring the two together, with around 100 works by both artists. It shows how Cézanne and Picasso used similar subjects, such as the still lifes of fruit and tablecloths, the harlequins and the naked bathers, how both struggled against the constraints of classical painting, and how Cézanne’s explorations – his dogged attempts to plumb all aspects of a subject – led eventually to the simplified geometric forms and fractured angles of cubism.

You can combine a visit to the exhibition with time spent exploring Cézanne’s own country, paying homage to Mont Sainte-Victoire, the sacred mountain of the region, which Cézanne painted obsessively (87 times). You can visit his studio, Les Lauves, just outside Aix, kept in reverent homage with his palette, brushes, and still-life objects, though the view the artist painted is now somewhat blighted by modern development. You can also tour the Jas de Bouffan, the house where he lived and painted for 40 years, the labyrinthine Bibémus quarries he painted (a cubist inspiration if ever there was one) and do a circuit of viewpoints for Cézanne’s paintings.

Picasso stayed faithful to Cézanne, buying several of his paintings for his personal collection, and eventually acquiring the 17th-century turreted chateau of Vauvenargues on the northern slopes of Sainte-Victoire itself. “I have just bought myself Cézanne’s mountains,” he said.

Picasso moved here from the Riviera and stayed from 1958-1965 with Jacqueline Roque, his second wife and protective companion for the last 20 years of his life. He produced many fine paintings here, in muted colours, influenced by the austere mountain terrain.

He rendered the massif of Mont Sainte-Victoire in the form of a gigantic nude, in Nude under a Pine Tree (1959). Though he died in his villa in Mougins, in 1973 aged 92, it was at Vauvenargues he chose to be buried. Now the owner of the chateau, the daughter of Jacqueline, has agreed to open the chateau to visitors. For the duration of the exhibition small groups of visitors will be permitted to see Picasso’s studio – preserved with brushes, paints and still-life arrangements – and his bedroom, with its furniture and a mandolin that appears in several of his paintings. A mural by the artist over the bathtub remains untouched.

And there is his tomb, adorned with his sculpture, Woman with a Vase, and now shared with Jacqueline, who committed suicide in 1986. The Aix exhibition includes intimate photos by veteran photojournalist David Douglas Duncan of the couple at Vauvenargues.

Access to Mont Sainte-Victoire itself is restricted in summer – it was ravaged by forest fires in 1989 – and a further threat has just appeared, with a proposal to run the new high-speed railway line from Marseille to Toulon at the foot of the mountain. Protest has been vociferous – from local wine-growers and olive farmers, and from those who want to protect the artistic heritage of the land.

Ironically, one of the first pictures of Mont Sainte-Victoire painted by Cézanne, a fierce opponent of modern progress, was a protest against the proposed Aix-Rognac railway line, which would cut through the family estate. Nevertheless, the Provençal landscape that inspired these artists remains essentially unchanged: the exhibition will be a wonderful opportunity to see it all through their eyes and appreciate what Cézanne called his “promised land”.

Picasso-Cézanne 2009 runs from 25 May-27 September at the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence ( Tickets for a tour of Vauvenargues chateau must be bought at the museum and cost €7.70 for adults, €4.20 for teenagers and over-60s, €2.20 for under-13s, including obligatory shuttle bus from Aix. Advance tickets are sold out but get there early for one of 72 tickets available each day. Easyjet ( flies from Gatwick to Marseille from £30 one way.

Rosemary Bailey’s latest book, Love and War in the Pyrenees (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is out in paperback in July.

Picture this: more highlights of the painters’ Midi


“What made me stay are the great coloured reflections of January, the luminosity of daylight,” said Matisse. His beautiful Italianate villa houses the Matisse Museum. As well as works from every period, his personal collection includes the vases, masks, pots and wall hangings used in his paintings. One moving example of his work is the Chapelle du Rosaire, an exquisite blue and white chapel he designed at the end of his life. If there was a heaven, he said, it would be “a paradise where I paint frescoes”.

St Paul de Vence

This chic village is now filled with galleries. Dining on the terrace of the legendary Colombe d’Or is not to be missed, despite the prices: you eat amid a priceless collection of art donated in lieu of payment by Léger, Picasso, Braque, Modigliani and others. Nearby Fondation Maeght is one of the most celebrated fine art collections in France.


Renoir first came to Cagnes in 1883 with Monet and returned frequently to paint the filtered golden light, the olive trees and the terracotta roofs. His house, Les Collettes, is surrounded by a magnificent ancient olive grove – a shady retreat on a hot day – and inside 10 original Renoirs are on display, as well as his studio with chair, easel, palette and brushes. Much of the house remains as he left it, with his furniture and his handmade ceramics in the bathroom.


When war broke out in 1939, Picasso was in Antibes, painting Night Fishing at Antibes. After the war he was given the Grimaldi Palace, overlooking the rocky shore, as a studio. He donated most of the work he did there, including the huge La Joie de Vivre, to what is now the Picasso Museum. The collection also includes works by de Stael, Miro and “School of Nice” painters César, Arman, Spoerri and Klein.

St Tropez

Many artists were inspired by the light and colour of St Tropez, and the Musée de l’Annonciade has a good collection. Signac was one of the first artists to paint here, his sea- and landscapes using a pointillist rainbow palette of dots. His Umbrella Pine at Les Canoubiers captures the sparkling light and shimmering sea. In St Tropez today many of the views these artists painted can still be seen: the Citadelle, the harbour, the Place des Lices and the pine-fringed beaches.


Ceret, near the Spanish border, is where, in 1911, Picasso and Braque explored the possibilities of cubism, resulting in celebrated works such as Picasso’s Landscape at Ceret and Braque’s Rooftops, Ceret. Ceret’s museum has an excellent collection, including a series of bowls with images of bullfighting by Picasso, and an early painting of his, Portrait of Corina Pere Romeu (1902).


Collioure is famous as the birthplace of fauvism, one of the early avant-garde movements of the 20th century, its artists dubbed fauves or “wild beasts” for their unnaturally bright colours. Matisse came in 1905, followed by Gris and Derain, Picasso and Dufy. Matisse’s Landscape at Collioure is a riot of colour, balanced with untouched white canvas. The chateau has exhibitions of modern art, the tiny cobbled streets are full of art galleries, and amateur painters set up their easels on the quayside.