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12 October 2021

There are some parts of the world where the landscape, climate and culture combine to exert a pull that is hard to resist, particularly for those who are creatively minded, and the French Côte d’Azur is one such place.

 
 The Port of Saint Tropez, Paul Signac, 1901-2

 

The sun-drenched vistas, sparkling, vivid blue sea and charming hilltop villages of the Côte d'Azur have long held a fascination for artists, never more so than during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a succession of painters were drawn to this stretch of French coastline seeking inspiration and the company of their peers.
 
Amongst this esteemed cohort of artists – which included Cézanne, Monet, Renoir and Signac – was Matisse, who arrived in Nice in 1917, first taking a room at the Hotel du Beau Rivage close to the sea and the Promenade des Anglais, before settling in the suburb of Cimiez. The decade that followed his relocation to the Riviera saw his artistic style soften and relax, and he remained in the south of France for many years, producing a great many paintings and later developing a body of work using paper cut-outs.

“The sea is blue, but bluer than any one has ever painted it, a colour entirely fantastic and incredible. It is the blue of sapphires, of the peacock’s wing, of an Alpine glacier, and the kingfisher melted together; and yet it is like none of these, for it shines with the unearthly radiance of Neptune’s kingdom.”

Henri Matisse

Villefranche-sur-Mer

During his time on the Côte d’Azur, with Matisse often painted its exquisite landscape, including several views of the coastline framed through an open window. These paintings vary in the amount they focus on the exterior view – often showing the azure sea or stretches of the Promenade – or interior details, which could include furnishings, textiles and floral arrangements, as well as figures at leisure or engaged in an activity such as reading or playing a musical instrument. 

These beautiful and evocative paintings capture a range of atmospheric effects, with Matisse portraying the different qualities of light to be experienced on the French Riviera to enhance the mood and ambience of the scenes. Whilst some are bright, colourful and sun-filled, others are quieter, more muted and introspective. 

“From my open window you can see the top of a palm tree – white lace curtains – coat-rack on the left – armchair with white lace cover on the back – on the right a red table with my suitcase on it – sky and sea blue – blue – blue.”

A letter written by Matisse to his wife Amélie from the Hotel du Beau Rivage in Nice, 1917

In 1948, Matisse explored the full potential of the medium of the paper cut-out in an ambitious decorative project. Having moved to the hilltop town of Vence on the Côte d’Azur five years earlier, he worked on designing plans for the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence using this method. Later regarded by the artist as his ‘masterpiece’, the chapel is now sometimes known as the Matisse Chapel.

The Chapelle du Rosaire

A vibrant mix of vivid colours and forms inside the chapel balances the simple white architecture of the exterior and its zigzag-patterned roof. Stained-glass windows formed of bright yellow, green and blue abstract shapes, signifying the sun, land and sea respectively, are complemented by black and white tiled murals, representing religious scenes. Stepping inside this unique building offers the opportunity to quite literally become immersed in Matisse’s artwork and creative vision.

Further artistic encounters with Matisse’s oeuvre are to be had at the museum dedicated to his work in Nice. The Musée Matisse, located in a 17th century villa close to where the artist once resided, contains one of the world’s largest collections of his works – from paintings, drawings and prints to sculptures, stained glass and illustrated books. His work is also held in the collection of the Musée de l’Annonciade in St Tropez, alongside pieces by his fellow Fauves, as well as Signac and the neo-Impressionists, and Bonnard and the Nabis. 

Picasso joined Matisse, his friend and great rival, on the Côte d’Azur, and this artist’s legacy is also enshrined in a dedicated museum. The Musée Picasso is housed in the former Chateau Grimaldi in Antibes, a coastal city located between Cannes and Nice. In 1946, the chateau was briefly home to Picasso, and later became the first museum given over to his work. By this time an established and famous artist, he made a number of donations – of paintings, drawings and ceramics – to the museum, as did his muse and second wife, Jacqueline. The collection has since expanded to include around 250 works of art by Picasso.

“I’m not only going to paint, I’ll decorate the museum too!”

- Pablo Picasso, on being offered the use of the Chateau Grimaldi as a studio

Musée Picasso, Antibes

The light and landscape of the Côte d’Azur must have exerted a special influence upon Picasso, the climate evoking his homeland in Spain. After Antibes, he spent time in the town of Vallauris, known for its history of ceramic art. Here, Picasso began working with clay, and became prolific in the medium.

The Chateau de Vallauris, formerly a priory, is now home to three small museums, one of which explores the town’s long tradition of ceramics, and another that is known as the Picasso National Museum. It features the artist’s famous cycle of 18 paintings, ‘La Guerre et la Paix’ (‘War and Peace’), painted in 1952. His work can also be seen in the town’s market square, where the bronze sculpture Man with a Sheep stands: a gift from Picasso to Vallauris in recognition of the welcome that the town and its people gave him. 

Since the arrival of Cézanne in the 1880s, the Côte d’Azur has been a constant source of inspiration for many painters, sculptors and other creative minds. Early next spring, ACE travellers will make their own voyage to the area in the footsteps of these artists, in search of the views, vistas and atmosphere that so entranced Matisse and Picasso amongst others – as well as, of course, the outstanding collections of art that are housed in the region.

"I just loved this tour. It has given me new perspectives on so many artists."

- ACE customer on a previous Art on the Côte d'Azur tour

ACE Tour Director and art history expert Sarah Burles will be our guide on this exploration of Nice, its environs, and the legacies of the artists who lived and worked there. To find out more, or to book a place, click the button below.

 


 

Images:
The Port of Saint Tropez by Paul Signac, 1901-2. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Villefranches-sur-Mer by Ivan Ragozin via Unsplash
Detail from the 'Matisse Chapel' by Jean Pierre Dalbéra is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Musée Picasso, Antibes by Clemensfranz is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
 
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