Jon Bryant investigates the enduring allure of the Provencal landscape to painters past and present, in this focus on Provence art
Painting en plein air with an easel in front of you, a glass of pastis balancing on a rock nearby and a beret perched on your head is what Provence was designed for. Monet, Picasso, van Gogh, Derain, Chagall, Gauguin, Dufy, Braque, Signac, Renoir were all inspired to paint the landscapes of Provence, the unspoilt savagery of Mont Sainte Victoire, the gentle slopes of the Massif des Maures and tanned stones of Roquebrune.
Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter to his painter friend Berthe Morisot: “…if you want to see the most beautiful country in the world, it is here: this is Italy, Greece, les Batignolles, all rolled into one and has the sea as well.”
However, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that artists were ‘allowed’ to paint the landscape for its own inherent qualities. Earlier depictions of the countryside show narratives from classical or biblical mythology except it’s not Greece or Egypt but the towers and bridges of Marseille, Avignon or la Fontaine de Vaucluse in the background.
Artists like Thomas Cole, Jean-Antoine Constantin, Hubert Robert and particularly Aix-born François-Marius Granet replaced the biblical avengers and archangels with a tired old peasant, put him in the background on a cart and began to portray the countryside as the central character in their art. Thus began the Provencal landscape: the green, pillowed hills of the Luberon and the combination of the wild with the cultivated in lines of lavender, vines and olive trees.
Granet was painting Mont Sainte Victoire before Paul Cézanne was even born yet he has been eclipsed by the man seen by many as the father of modern art. Cézanne’s landscapes around Gardanne, L’Estaque and his repeated portrayal of Sainte Victoire are the full expression of Provence. Ignoring the shadows of Impressionism, Cezanne’s landscapes sought the truth within the land.
Further west, van Gogh had arrived in Arles and was also challenging the Impressionists with his violent strokes and visceral colours to portray the boiling south of France and his own passionate unrest. He died in poverty. Cezanne died rich yet neither are affordable today but for the excessively wealthy.
A simple 1889 sketch of a Saint Rémy poppy field by van Gogh sold in 2007 for £417,000 and a watercolour of an Arles Harvest Landscape sold a few years earlier for 10 million dollars. Any serious landscapes by Cézanne could probably top the region’s annual arts budget. Our best option to take home a piece of Provence is to wander round the region’s many art galleries and choose a landscape from one of the current crop of Provencal artists.
A good place to start is the Galerie Imbert, opened 13 years ago by Kathleen Imbert on the rue Jacques de la Roque near the cathedral in Aix. Unframed landscapes and still life paintings flood her charming, narrow gallery. “I’ve sold to local French people, visitors on holiday, some well-known celebrities who have places here. A piece of art is a wonderful gift.” Imbert represents around 20 artists including the charismatic, locally-born Monique Charpentier. “She has exhibited all over Provence and has a wonderful figurative, colourful, expressionistic style, often incorporating collage work….She especially likes doing starry nights, lavender fields, olive trees or just what is on the table in front of her at home.” Prices range from €110 for a small piece to €480 for something more substantial in gesso on canvas.
Another of Imbert’s artists is Marina Rey who walked in to the gallery one day with some tiny pieces that she had done and which greatly impressed Imbert. “We put them on the table at an exhibition and they sold like hot cakes.” Rey has since done larger works including ‘semi-imagined’ Provencal villages. “Marina makes some sketches of a village and does a rendition based on those sketches mainly using a palette knife.” The gallery showed an exhibition of her works in April and May. “She reproduces in her paintings the perfume of a phantasmagorical universe of Provence,” says Imbert about Rey’s work.
Of course, you don’t have to be from Provence to paint Provencal landscapes. Juri Platon is from Germany yet his rooftops and stone cottages are as authentic as any other on the gallery walls. He describes the sky in Provence as ‘bleu absurde.’ He says you cannot paint the actual blue because it’s so blue and without any other nuance, that no one would believe it.
Another popular artist on Imbert’s books is Carole McDermott who is based near New Jersey in the USA. She may not have been born under the smell of lavender and olives but her landscapes are perfect remembrances of the plane trees and farmhouses of Provence. She is a full member of the American Watercolour Society and travels out regularly to paint in Provence.
“The artists have taught me so much about nature itself. Their depiction of trees, rocks, lakes, mountains in the landscape paintings of Provence helps me to contemplate nature itself. I’m a writer; I don’t have the patience or the visual concept of the world to be an artist. The landscapes are about nature and how we live within nature,” says Imbert.
In spite of Aix’s reputation as a centre for the arts, it has comparatively few sale galleries and most can be found on the same road. Just along from the Galerie Imbert is the Galerie Amaury Goyet, which specialises in Provencal art from the 19th and start of the 20th century. It currently has a delightful Marcel Arnaud picture of Mt. Saint Victoire from 1920 for €2,000. Perfect to remind you of a holiday in the south of France or to hang above the fireplace in view of the real Mont Sainte Victoire.
Masters of Provencal art
To see the more renowned Masters of Provencal art, you need to head out to Apt to the Galerie Grossi, proud of its reputation as the oldest art gallery in the Luberon. Here is where the more serious money starts too and where a holiday souvenir becomes more interesting to the insurance companies and alarm fitters. Prices for an oil painting can top €25,000.
Owner Pierre-Hélen Grossi is keen to stress it’s not a local gallery but includes artists from all over the south-east of France. He represents over 65 different artists, the real ‘Maîtres provençaux’, such figures as René Seyssaud (1867-1952) whose bright, intense colours inspired Matisse to say of him, “he was a fauve before the Fauvists.” Grossi put on a Seyssaud retrospective a few years ago and still has some of his important pieces on show in the gallery.
“Choosing a painting to buy is always a personal choice. You never know what is going to grab you; some people like big colours and others like a gentler, more subtle touch,” says Grossi. Over two floors, the range on show in the gallery is impressive. Xavier Etienne, for example, whose lavender fields light up the ground floor, was a former decorator-in-chief at the Toulon opera house. Pride of place in the gallery currently goes to the Corsican-born Pierre Ambrogiani: “He was the ‘top’ in the 1950 and 60s. He came 20 years after Seyssaud and was greatly influenced by him but used a more weighty texture to his paintings of Sault and Aurel,” says Grossi. Opposite the reception desk is an Emile Loubon of a couple kissing under an umbrella on a rock somewhere in Provence with a black and white spaniel gazing at them. It’s a very exacting image of a particular type of afternoon jaunt under the title ‘Paysage animé’.
The gallery is a mass of lavender fields and hilltop villages, paths vanishing into nowhere, outcrops of sandy rock, ochre facades, a distant olive grove and abandoned cartwheel. Grossi says he does not have much art at his home – he has his own landscape view of the Luberon through a large window.
Names like Chabaud, Verdilhan, Guigou and Yves Brayer trip off Grossi’s tongue but his gallery is an expression of all Provencal landscapes. He even has modern ‘masters’, some from Germany and Spain but whose love of the countryside and whose depictions are as real as anything dreamt up in a Marcel Pagnol story. Pablo Picasso, Victor Vasarely, Nicolas de Stael, even Edvard Munch … none of them were French let alone Provencal yet have become part of the region’s artistic heritage.
There is so much space in Provence, so many scapes and geometrical lines merging on clifftops, valley bottoms and half-way up mountains, that it makes you feel you too can take an easel out into the fields and start painting. In the gardens at the Pigonnet Hotel or at Les Lauves, you can stand and paint from the exact spot where Cézanne stood over a century ago… and perhaps glimpse his brushmarks on a nearby rock.
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