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Although there had been an artistic tradition in the South of France, principally in Nice and Avignon, from the fourteenth century, there is no doubt that in the nineteenth century Paris was the crucible from which new ideas flowed in dizzying succession, transforming literature, music, philosophy and the visual arts. However, as landscape was one of the essential elements in the development of artistic ideas, painters had always spent time away from the capital. The coasts of Normandy and Brittany attracted many of the impressionists to work in the open-air and the countryside around Paris, now only a convenient train-ride away, provided the subject matter for many of their most important works. For many artists there was also a financial incentive to spend time away from the more expensive lifestyle of the capital.
In the South of France the purity and intensity of the light, reflected by the bordering sea for so many hours each day must touch parts of the eye, and soul, of the artist not disturbed by the dimmer atmosphere of more northerly climes. With the warmer temperatures and the consequent loosening of neckwear and unbuttoning of waistcoats, it is maybe not too surprising that painters achieved leaps of imagination that pushed their work in new and unexpected directions.
Cézanne, whose home town was Aix-en-Provence, always
ill-at-ease in the milieu of the Parisian art scene, returned frequently
to the south where the very different landscape provided the
inspiration to try new and radical ideas. He never tired of the grounds
of Jas de Bouffon, the family home, or Mont Sainte Victoire or the coast
at L’Éstaque as motifs for his work. Provence was where he spent most
of his time and created the body of innovative work that is widely
recognised as forming a bridge between the art of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. The painting shown is Le golfe de Marseilles vu de L’Estaque, painted in 1878–79 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris/www.musee-orsay.fr).
Van Gogh had embarked on his ill-fated
sojourn in Arles and although his ‘Studio of the South’ ended in a
disasterous falling-out with Gauguin and his mental state went into
severe decline, the paintings that resulted, with their vibrant colours
and animated brushwork, must have been a revelation to his
contemporaries and stretched the boundaries of Post-Impressionism.
Gauguin’s work at this time can be seen as a stepping stone between the
influence of the impressionists, with which he had become increasingly
disillusioned, and a more ‘symbolist’ style which he developed in Tahiti
and the South Seas. The painting shown is The Yellow House, painted in 1888 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/www.vangoghmuseum.nl).
Monet stayed in Antibes for several months and was absorbed with capturing ‘pure, gentle sweetness ... surrounded by a fairylike air’,
and the canvases he produced seem to radiate light and colour. Renoir
found inspiration at L’Éstaque in the company of Cézanne and when his
health deteriorated with the effects of rheumatism he moved to Le
Domaine des Collettes in Haut-de-Cagnes, close to Nice, where he spent
the rest of his life. The painting shows Antibes, painted in 1888 (Courtauld Gallery, London/ www.courtauld.ac.uk).
The close-knit circle of Neo-Impressionist
painters – Signac, Cross, Van Rysselberghe and Luce all found the coast
of Provence around Le Lavandou and Saint-Tropez a natural home for their
movement, both artistically and intellectually speaking.
far west the quiet fishing harbour of Collioure was the unlikely venue
for another radical departure in artistic endeavour. It was here that
Henri Matisse and André Derain spent several months in 1905 developing
post-impressionist thinking in a new direction characterised by the use
of vibrant, non-representative colour in an exciting and even ‘wild’
manner. It was from this ‘wild’ aspect of their work that the Fauvist
movement was born – a short-lived explosion of light and colour in the
history of twentieth century painting. The work shown is View of Collioure by Matisse, from 1905 (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg/ www.hermitagemuseum.org).
Matisse, originally from
the very north of the country close to the Belgian border, remained
captivated by the south of France and it provided the inspiration for
much of his work, always diffucult to pigeon-hole and evolving in
unexpected directions. During the First World War he moved to Nice and
the area became his base for the remainder of his life.
Fauves including Marquet, Manguin, Camoin,
Dufy and Friesz all painted at various locations along the coast
including Martigues, L’Éstaque, Marseille, Cassis and Saint-Tropez.
George Braque who, together with Pablo Picasso, went on to be
influential in the development of Cubism was also a regular visitor to
the area. The painting shown is Road near L’Estaque, 1908, by Braque (Museum of Modern Art, New York/www.moma.org).
Picasso himself, a pivotal figure in the history of
twentieth century art, chose to live and work in the region for the
final decades of his life. Firstly at a large villa called ‘La
Californie’ just outside Cannes where his celebrity status eventually
made his life untenable. This prompted a move to the Chateau
Vauvenargues, near Aix where he lived until his death at the
age of 92.
Even today artists studios form a creative ribbon
along almost the entire length of the south coast of France. The unique
quality of the light and atmosphere continue to stir the imagination and
feed the soul.
SELECTED PAINTINGS AND WHERE THEY MAY BE SEEN
If works mentioned in the text do not appear in the list they are in private collections.
Georges Braque Road near L’Estaque, 1908 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Cézanne Le golfe de Marseilles vu de L’Estaque, 1878–79 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)
Matisse View of Collioure, 1905 (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
Monet Antibes, 1888 (Courtauld Gallery, London)
Van Gogh The Yellow House, 1888 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)
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