So much of the character and spirit of Provence has been captured not on camera, but on canvas. Over the centuries, Europe’s great artists have flocked to this gorgeous land, attracted to the abundant natural light and the spectacular scenery. Today the legacy of artists like Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse and Van Gogh cannot be missed. Throughout Provence, museums and monuments stand in their honor, offering a glimpse into their world.
While falling in love with Provence this summer, we were inspired to learn that so many visionary artists had once felt the same way. There’s something magical about being in the energy of creativity, and the painters who brought us modernism certainly had plenty. Read on for a look at four modern masters who found their stride in the South of France. Hopefully their stories move you to go where you feel most lit up and create the work of your wildest dreams.
Born in Aix-en-Provence, Paul Cézanne laid the foundation for generations of modern artists with his unique approach to color, technique, composition and self-expression. Endlessly inspired by the beauty of the land he called home, much of Cézanne’s work brings the spectacular scenes of 19th century Provence to life. His favorite local vistas he painted again and again, experimenting with his style and evolving his perspective. In Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire for example, you can clearly see his journey toward abstraction and the earliest hints of cubism. Bridging the gap between impressionism and modernism, Cézanne was considered by both Matisse and Picasso to be “the father of us all.” To this day in Aix-En-Provence, you can visit the artist’s atelier and see the studio where he worked.
Legendary Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh was toward the end of his career when he left cold, grey Paris for sunny Provence. His dream was to start an artist colony in the South, so in February of 1888 he rented what he called “The Yellow House” in the town of Arles and began his most prolific period of work. When spring bloomed, Van Gogh was so taken by the light, warmth and color of the countryside that he produced fourteen paintings of orchards in one month. Over the next year and change, hundreds of bright, expressive and iconic canvases emerged, depicting Provence’s Alpilles mountain range, the olive trees and cypress groves, the village squares and street-cafes and of course, the flowers—like his famous Tournesols. Today the city of Arles has mounted steel easels with photos of Van Gogh’s work at every locale he painted, allowing you to see the town through the artist’s eyes.
Influential modernist painter Henri Matisse was studying to be a lawyer in northern France when he came down with appendicitis. While recovering from the illness, his mother bought him art supplies and he fell madly in love. He immediately dropped law school and committed to his new path. Moving to Paris to study at Le Academie Julian, Matisse found inspiration and mentorship in great Impressionist artists like Camille Pissarro and Paul Signac. After following Paul Signac south for a summer in St. Tropez, Matisse’s style took on a powerful point-of-view that established him as the leader of a new movement known as “Les Fauves”—meaning “the wild beasts.” Fauvism was expressive and emotional, loose and messy, with little regard for natural colors or realism. Matisse would eventually settle in Nice, where today a museum in his name houses many of his colorful depictions of Riviera living.
When Spanish-born Picasso arrived in Paris around the turn of the the 20th century, he became fascinated by the works of France’s Post-Impressionist painters—most importantly, Paul Cézanne. After an exciting youth as a rising star in the Paris art scene, the elder Picasso would fall in love with the Côte D’Azur and eventually follow Cézanne’s footsteps south. After WWII, the already-famous artist settled into the Chateau Grimaldi in seaside Antibes, where he enjoyed a happy and prolific time, composing the poem “La Joie de Vivre” and at the end of his stay, donating over sixty works to the city—which can be seen at the museum there to this day. Next he moved up the Riviera to Vallauris, where he learned ceramics, and then to Cannes, where he produced many major works from a 19th century villa. After many years by the sea, Picasso would later purchase a chateau in the hills of Provence overlooking Mont Saint-Victoire, delighted to own a piece of land that had been painted so many times by Paul Cézanne.