From Matisse to Nice: the painters and places that put the French Riviera on the art map
‘It is so beautiful,’ wrote Monet, ‘so bright, so luminous. One swims in blue air and it is frightening.’ Annabel Matterson reveals how the South of France became a catalyst for creativity — illustrated with works offered in Joie de Vivre, online
Long before the South of France became synonymous with glamour and sun-drenched seduction — think of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in the 1955 film To Catch a Thief, or Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon on the beaches of Saint-Tropez — this corner of Europe attracted a very different kind of tourist.
Since the turn of the century, the sleepy fishing villages and remote towns of the Provençal hills had lured artists from Paris and beyond — the bright light, dazzling colours and palpable presence of the classical past all serving to inspire and revive jaded spirits.
Over the following decades, the Riviera and surrounding countryside would become a crucible for some of the most explosive artistic developments of the 20th century.
The 1880s: the Impressionists see the light
It was the Impressionists, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who first discovered the artistic potential of the south coast, finding an unspoilt landscape that perfectly matched their aims. ‘It is so beautiful,’ Monet wrote, ‘so bright, so luminous. One swims in blue air and it is frightening.’
Vincent van Gogh captured the landscape in and around Arles and Saint-Rémy in the final years of his life, while the Master of Aix, Paul Cézanne, used the rugged landscape of his native Provence to radically reconceive the very nature of art-making.
The indomitable Mont Sainte-Victoire was among his crowning subjects. While his work heralded Modernism, the landscape that inspired it would become hallowed ground for his fervent followers — Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Robert Motherwell and many more.
The 1900s: the Fauves liberate colour
After the flat plains and grey light of Bohain-en-Vermandois in the northeast, the Midi hit Matisse with the force of a revelation. In the summer of 1904, the Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac arranged for the young, up-and-coming artist to stay near his villa in Saint-Tropez. The trip marked the beginning of Matisse’s lifelong love affair with the Riviera, as well as paving the way for a new direction in his art.
The following summer, Matisse and his family headed south once more. This time, their final destination was Collioure, a tiny, remote and undiscovered fishing town close to the Spanish border. It was here that Fauvism took flight.
Matisse wasn’t the only artist to have travelled south for the stifling summer months. Henri Edmond Cross had relocated to a tiny village, Saint-Clair, just along the coast from Saint-Tropez, which, at this time, was really only accessible by water. Albert Marquet, Charles Camoin and Henri Manguin also followed Signac’s lead, seeking inspiration in the remote coastal towns. The Cubist André Lhote would also later spend time in the south.
Realising the potential of the area he had discovered — terracotta orange rooftops colliding with the scintillating blue of the sky and luminous green of the pine trees — Matisse wrote to his young friend and protégée, André Derain. ‘I could not insist too much to persuade you that for you to make a trip here would be absolutely necessary for your work. You would find the most advantageous conditions. That’s why I repeat again, come.’
Derain didn’t need asking twice. Soon, he found himself overwhelmed by the intense, all-enveloping heat and blazing light of the Mediterranean coast — truly revolutionary to a man who had never ventured this far south before.
The artists painted the landscape here with joyous abandon. They liberated colour from its centuries-old descriptive role and revelled in its materiality and expressive potential. It was when these Collioure paintings were shown later, in the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris, that the group were given the moniker Les Fauves — the ‘Wild Beasts’.
Over the following years, other Fauve recruits went south in search of the same inspiration. Braque and Orthon Friesz went to La Ciotat and Cassis. ‘It’s there that I felt all the elation, all the joy, welling up inside me,’ Braque later reminisced. ‘Just imagine, I left the drab, gloomy Paris studios where you were still working in bitumen. There, by contrast, what a revelation, what a blossoming!’
Matisse’s work from the south was also revelatory for Raoul Dufy. He would spend much of his life painting, drawing and making prints of this area of France — works that radiate the luxuriant sense of joie de vivre which characterises this region to this day. ‘One must meditate about pleasure,’ Gertrude Stein once wrote. ‘Raoul Dufy is pleasure.’
The impact of war
The First World War marked the beginning of the Riviera’s heyday. Its undiscovered beachside towns were a secret no more as people from all over Europe flocked south to escape the deprivations and fighting in the north.
Just as Matisse took rooms in a hotel in Nice in the winter of 1917, so others also escaped to these warmer climes and healthier lifestyles — crucial in the cases of the fast-living Amedeo Modigliani, as well as Chaïm Soutine and Tsuguharu Foujita, who were taken south at the beginning of 1918 by their dealer and patron, Léopold Zborowski. Juan Gris, too, made frequent visits to the south to convalesce in the years before his untimely death in 1927.
The 1920s: Picasso on the beach
The Riviera of the 1920s was a centre of revelry and decadence as well as creativity. Jean Cocteau, Francis Picabia, Serge Diaghilev, Ernest Hemingway and Coco Chanel were all here, and Picasso and his ballerina wife Olga Khokhlova might be found on the beach with the American ‘It’ couple, Gerald and Sara Murphy (the inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night ).
Picasso arrived in Saint-Raphaël for the first time with his new wife, Olga, in 1919. The summer instigated an almost annual pilgrimage south — most years, Picasso and his lover of the time would relocate to Antibes, Golfe-Juan, Mougins, Cannes or other hot spots.
‘I don’t claim to be clairvoyant, but I was astounded,’ Picasso wrote on his arrival in Juans-les-Pins the following year. ‘There it was, exactly as I had painted it in Paris. At that moment I realised that this landscape was mine.’
Picasso had a deep, spiritual affiliation with the South of France — his Mediterranean roots were not only nurtured by the sea and heat, but the history and legends of the region merged with his existing beliefs and superstitions to form his own unique mythology.
The classicism, light, heady seduction and languor of life in the south all fed in to Picasso’s art at certain points of his career. From classical bathers and Ingres-esque line drawings of ballet dancers, dozing lovers, nymphs and fauns to ceramics, Picasso plundered the landscape, iconography, symbolism — even the materials — of the south as inspiration for his art.
Home on the Riviera
After the Second World War, Picasso returned south as soon as he could, this time with his new lover and muse, Françoise Gilot. Light, colour and the undeniable joie de vivre of the region flooded his work once more. The Côte d’Azur became home.
In 1954 Carlos Nadal met Picasso during a painting holiday on the coast. Just as the move to Vallauris, with its many traditions and rich history, had reinvigorated Picasso, so the Mediterranean nourished Nadal’s own Catalan identity. He continued to paint the area for the years that followed.
He was not alone in seeing out his days in the south. Pierre Bonnard had moved into his home at Le Cannet in 1926, where he painted his garden and the panoramic views as saturated mirages of colour. ‘In the light experienced in the south of France, everything sparkles and the whole painting vibrates,’ he said. ‘Take your picture to Paris: the blue turns to grey.’
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Marc Chagall lived in the picturesque village of Saint-Paul de Vence, where Matisse was happily ensconced in his Villa le Rêve and his triumphant masterwork: the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence.
‘Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious,’ said Matisse on his first visit to Nice. It was these qualities that would go on to inspire not only him, but the myriad artists who lived and worked in this magical corner of southern France.