Provence’s Painters of Light: Part I

Ester Laushway (March 2007)

Last year, Paul Cézanne, the long misunderstood genius of Aix, had his posthumous revenge. He was fêted, lauded and lionized non-stop from January to December as the father of 20th century art, the Provencal painter who had the most profound influence on the different schools of painting that succeeded him.

But let’s not forget that he was not alone. Between 1875 and 1920, the special, vivid light of Provence attracted many prominent painters of that period. Some were local talent, such as Cézanne himself; others, like Van Gogh, came from elsewhere, in search of a special vision, following a sunlit dream. Provence will live forever thanks to their work, which is displayed in some of the most famous museums and galleries in the world.

Since we are lucky enough to be surrounded by the natural wonders they captured on canvas, we can follow in their footsteps, visiting the sites they painted in their life-size, three-dimensional splendour. This month, we will concentrate on three inland sites that inspired painters: Avignon, Arles and Saint-Remy-de Provence. Next month, we will head down to the sea, to Martigues, l’Estaque, Marseille, Toulon and Saint Tropez, to look at some of the artists who viewed the Mediterranean as their muse.

The walled city of Avignon, on the Rhône River, is our first stop. With its maze of ramparts and towers, crowned by the monumental masterpiece of Gothic architecture – the Popes’ Palace – Avignon has the kind of striking profile that just begs to be painted. On a national level, Paul Saïn is the most widely celebrated artist who captured Avignon on canvas, but the man who made his influence most deeply felt locally was Pierre Grivolas, Director of the city’s school of Fine Arts from 1878 to 1906. He had the then unusual idea, and the courage, to send his students out into the open air to study the landscapes and light. He encouraged a whole generation of gifted artists, which include René Seyssaud, the Provencal Fauvist, and August Chabaud, who described the Midi as having “so much light that it’s almost black.”

South of Avignon, on the banks of the Rhône, stands the Roman city of Arles. Today it dominates the Camargue region; once it was the metropolis of Roman Gaul. Its long history has made it a veritable open-air museum, but ancient monuments are not its only claim to fame. One tormented, talented soul has immortalized Arles: Vincent Van Gogh. He arrived here in 1888, full of hope and expectations, and found the light and colours that made his genius explode into a brilliant sunburst before the night of insanity descended. In Arles, in just over a year, Van Gogh produced 200 paintings and nearly as many drawings. He worked mostly outside the city walls, but one of his Starry Nights was painted from the Café le Soir on the Forum Square.

From Arles, Van Gogh went to the ancient town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, located between Avignon and Arles. Founded 3,000 years ago by the Greeks, then enlarged by the Romans, the trading post of Glanum, on the outskirts of today’s glamorous little town, is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Europe. Right next to it is the monastery and psychiatric hospital of Saint-Paul de Mausole, where Van Gogh came in spring 1889 and spent the last year of his life. Trying in vain to keep his inner demons at bay, he worked feverishly. His famous “Irises” were painted at the hospital and an understanding doctor allowed him to go out into the countryside, where he was particularly drawn by the twisted shapes of the olive trees, a graphic reflection of his tortured spirit. The hospital is still a working psychiatric treatment centre for women and in fitting tribute to Van Gogh, painting classes are part of the therapy.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence