After last month, when we looked at some of the inland splendours of Provence that inspired painters like Van Gogh and Cézanne, we are heading down to the sea this time, to focus on artists who planted their easels in view of the cobalt blue waters of the Mediterranean. What lovelier muse, tempestuous and tranquil in turns, could any artist have?
Southeast of Arles, the little harbour town of Martigues, on the edge of the Etang de Berre, preserves a historical centre in spite of its industrialized surroundings. Its quiet canals, in which the colourful fishermen’s houses and boats are reflected, earned it the nickname of “the Venice of Provence.” Attracted by the special quality of the light and the picturesque setting, Félix Ziem, an artist of Armenian and Polish origins, whose work anticipated Impressionism, opened a studio here. He was the first of many painters, including the avant-garde Fauvist Raoul Dufy, who were captivated by Martigues.
A little further east along the coast, towards Marseille, the picturesque little port of l’Estaque snuggles at the foot of a mountain chain that protects it from the Mistral wind. Cézanne stayed here often between 1870 and 1882, renting a little house just above the train station. He was drawn by the striking panorama over Marseille that you have from the hilltop. Later, this village became the official birthplace of Cubism, with Georges Braque’s famous geometric depiction of its houses in 1908. Raoul Dufy passed this way, too, so did several Impressionists, making l’Estaque, in spite of its humble, working class character, into one of the key focal points of the beginnings of modern art.
Marseille, France’s oldest city, founded 26 centuries ago by the ancient Greeks, has always been a major port and meeting point for different cultures and civilizations. Just walk along the Old Port, where fishing boats and yachts provide a bright backdrop to the daily fish market, with the catch of the day, still flapping, displayed in a glistening, not-so-still-life. Or stroll around the city’s old quarters, where washing hangs in colourful garlands outside the windows and neighbours stand in the street, chatting, and you will soon understand why Marseille made so many artists reach for their brushes.
In the mid 19th C, under Emile Loubon, Director of the Marseille Art School, a school of Provençal landscape painting took shape, which included such famous names as Paul Guigou and Adolphe Monticelli. Very soon, their place was taken by artists with a less traditional, more experimental style, such as Alfred Lombard, Albert Marquet and the omnipresent Raoul Dufy.
Continue east along the Mediterranean to the lively town of Toulon. It is easy to see why the French navy chose it as its home base: the natural harbour is superb. An arc of white limestone mountains encircles the town and reaches forward to embrace the sea. The painter who dominated the city’s artistic life at the end of the 19th C was Vincent Courdouan, recognized as the leader of the Provençal school of landscape painting. The younger generation who followed, with artists such as Frédéric Montenard and Louis Nattero, turned away from the idealistic, romantic style of their elders and started to use light and colours with a freer hand.
The final stop on our tour is the now terminally chic resort of Saint Tropez. Long before Brigitte Bardot became its main attraction when she bared almost all in Vadim’s 1956 movie, Et Dieu Créa la Femme, the little fishing port displayed other natural splendours. The serene little harbour, with its constantly changing palette of vivid pastels, drew a whole succession of painters. Most famously, it was in Saint Tropez that Paul Signac developed the technique of imitating colour photography by using dots of pure colour, known as Pointillism. (Had he lived in the computer age, it would probably be called Pixelism). His house became the meeting point for painters from many different schools, among them Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse, who dared outrageous experiments with colour under the bright sun or Provence.