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G - 5 : In Love with the French Riviera

Paul Signac, L'Orage (Thunderstortm), Saint-Tropez, 1895

Claude Monet, Paul Signac, Pierre Bonnard, Henri-Edmond Cross, Henri Matisse, Renoir, Chaim Soutine, Raoul Duffy, Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall are only the most prominent names on the long list of artists who settled on the French Riviera. If I were to include more contemporary names, the list would be considerably longer. What brought all of them to the south of France? According to French tourism brochures it was the light of the Mediterranean, the richness of the colours and the beauty of the landscape which attracted and inspired these artists. Great marketing line but a bit detached from reality.

Claude Monet, Landscape of Antibes, 1888

When researching history to find out where artists lived, we find clusters in Athens and Rome during the classics, then in Bagdad during the caliphate, later in Constantinople – Istanbul, Rome, Florence, Venice, Madrid, Paris and London. Artistic talent does not come with money. Artists were and are - usually - poor. Specifically at the beginning of their career. They flock to places where there is demand for their talent and where they get paid. Wealth and art always go together – sometimes we forget because in today’s societies, governments are the most prolific spenders on art. But governments are the wealthiest organisation mankind ever created Again, money and art go hand in hand.

Henry Matisse, Luxe, Calme et Volupté, 1904

So why did so many artist flock to the French Riviera at the beginning in the 20th century? Some arrived before 1914, others in the years between the world wars and a few after 1945. Before mass tourism kicked in during the 1960s, it was a poor region. True, Europe’s Royals and wealthy wintered in Nice and San Remo before the First World War. Many others came to Menton to cure their tuberculosis. But from 1914 to 1945 when tourism collapsed due to war, depression and occupation, life was a struggle.

Henry Matisse, La Villa Bleu de Nice, 1918

There were a few exceptions though. Some wealthy people stayed to avoid the hassle of living in big towns. They became the silent sponsors who kept the artist community alive. Others, like the owner of the hotel La Colombe d’Or in St Paul de Vence accepted paintings as payment. There were also a few art dealers who kept their connections with wealthy clients in the rest of Europe. Last but not least, life on the French Riviera was not expensive. For a modest amount of money artists could afford a studio and work in peace.

Paul Signac, Voiliers dans le Port de Saint-Tropez, 1893

Most artists discovered the beautiful light and landscape of the French Riviera once there. Some arrived because they were ill (like Renoir). Others were invited by friends. A few came because surviving in the cities was not any easier. Paris was hit as hard by the wars and depression as the rest of France but the cost of living in the Metropol was far higher.

Henry Matisse - his painting Bonheur de Vivre, 1905 inspired Pablo Picasso ...

Given that the community was small, the artists visited and inspired each other. Guy the Maupassant invited Claude Monet for a visit and Monet stayed. Paul Signac created a school of neo-impressionists in Saint-Tropez and attracted painters like Pierre Bonnard and Henri-Edmond Cross. Matisse and Picasso visited and inspired each other.

... to paint La Joie de Vivre after a visit at Matisse's home in 1946

As a wonderful legacy, the Côte d’Azur has today a very high density of contemporary art museums with very impressive collections. For an art lover, visiting the French Riviera is a definitive must. Click on the link above to find their names and locations.

The Chateau Grimaldi in Antibes is Home to a large Picasso Collection today

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