It is hard to overestimate the effect the heartbreaking landscapes and light of the French Riviera had on some of the world’s great artists. Monet and Matisse, Picasso, Signac and Chagall are just a few who fell under the spell of the French Riviera, enchanted by that mythic, ethereal light falling across the Cote d’Azur’s pastel facades, dusky-blue Alps and sparkling seas.
Many of these great artists came to the French Riviera and stayed, finding a new vigour in their painting and spending much of their lives here creating Mediterranean-inspired masterpieces in the fabled southern light.
A yacht charter in the south of France is the ultimate way to visit the artistic highlights of the French Riviera, following the lives and works of the masters along a memory-trail of rose’ and Gauloises smoke, scandalous love affairs and tragic suicides. On your French Riviera yacht charter you can go ashore to visit the fabulous museums and former homes of these artists, dine in fine restaurants hung with their paintings, and admire the very same views that inspired their masterworks. Follow the path of the masters from the dreamy coves of Cap d’Antibes to the flowery hill village of St Paul de Vence and along the coast to the pastel beauty of Saint Tropez.
Back on your yacht you can sketch or paint at an easel on deck, or just dine and talk art with your company as you cruise towards the next destination, floating past landscapes and seascapes made famous by these exceptional men of art. Those who desire an even more immersive artistic experience on the French Riviera might bring an art teacher or art history lecturer onboard with them to really elevate their artistic experience on the Cote d’Azur.
Places you must visit on your art-lovers journey down the French Riviera
As the largest city on the French Riviera and one of the largest in all of France, it is no surprise that Nice is a dazzling cultural feast of world-class museums and rich artistic heritage.
One of Nice’s most famous adopted sons is Henri Matisse, who arrived in 1917 and lived here almost continuously until his death 40 years later. Initially residing in the Old Town before moving to the hilly green suburb of Cimiez, Matisse did not paint the landscapes of the Riviera directly, but his still- lifes and interior scene paintings are awash in the light and languor of the region, and scenes of French Riviera life often sneak into view on his canvases. He was certainly enchanted with the area, writing:
‘When I realised that I would see this light again every morning, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.”
And of the sea, ‘It is the blue of sapphires, of the peacock’s wing, of an Alpine glacier, and the kingfisher melted together. And yet, it is none of these, for it shines with the unearthly radiance of Neptune’s kingdom … it gleams, it is translucent, it shines as if it were lit up from below.’
Matisse was known by the locals as an eccentric man who dressed in strange clothes and canoed daily in the Port de Nice. The excellent Matisse Museum occupies a grand villa in Cimiez behind Nice, just opposite the lovely cemetery where he is buried.
Another excellent art museum in Nice is the Chagall Museum, the home of his superb 17 part Biblical series and 400 other works, while art lovers will also enjoy the Fine Arts Museum and MAMAC, Nice’s outstanding modern art museum.
CAGNES SUR MER
Cagnes sur Mer has been home to many artists, Chaim Soutine, Francisco Iturrino, Georges Charaire, and the great Auguste Renoir.
Renoir came to live in Cagnes sur Mer in his late sixties in an attempt to relieve the arthritis which would plague his later years. He and his wife bought Les Collettes, a villa with a breathtaking coastal view and surrounded by sunlit groves of olives and citrus trees. When his wife died and he was confined to a wheelchair, his art suffered from his grief and pain, until his interest was piqued again by a beautiful red-headed model of only 16, who sat for him and who would eventually marry his son. Les Collettes is now the site of the Renoir Museum, where you can see his wheelchair and easel and a selection of his great works.
ST PAUL DE VENCE
Saint Paul de Vence is a thriving artist’s colony, where you can watch artisans honing their craft in their workshops and wander through world-class galleries and museums. This beautiful perched village on the French Riviera has long been a mecca for celebrated artists, with Marc Chagall, Picasso and Matisse all spending time here in the shady squares and cobbled lanes.
The Maeght Foundation brings together astonishing works by Chagall, Miro, Leger, Calder, Braque and Giacometti, and is one of the biggest 20th century art collections in Europe. Also definitely worth a visit is the spectacular Folon’s Chapel, a 17th century chapel which Folon decorated with canvasses, stained glass windows, sculptures and a huge mosaic before his death in 2005.
The Saint Paul Museum also showcases the town’s artistic heritage, with exhibitions by Chagall and Andre Verdet, among others, while the town’s many stunning galleries feature works from talented contemporary artists such as Folon, Cesar, Tobiasse, and Niky de Saint Phalle.
It almost goes without saying that any art-lover visiting the French Riviera must organise a table at La Colombe d’Or. The dining hall of this family-run auberge is hung with the works of the famous artists who stayed there during the war years, paying for their room and board with their paintings and beginning a grand tradition. Matisse, Chagall, Leger and Picasso are just a few of the greats on show here, their artworks placed with an endearing casualness on bedroom walls and dining halls throughout the hotel. This is one of the most wonderful collections of art to be enjoyed anywhere outside the hushed halls of a museum, and while the walled garden outside is a very lovely place for a meal, true art aficionados will dine inside, in the formal dining room among the modern masters.
The charming nearby village of Vence, while less famous (and less crowded) than St Paul, also has its fair share of artistic treasures and famous residents. Aman, Blais, Chagall, Dubuffet, Dufy and Soutine all spent time here, leaving a rich legacy of galleries and exhibitions.
No legacy is greater though, than Matisse’s, who left his beloved Nice for a six-year period in Vence, where he created the design and magnificent stained glass windows of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence as a favour to a dear friend who had become a nun. Despite being an atheist, Matisse considered the chapel to be his masterpiece.
Other notable artistic sights in Vence include the excellent Musee de Vence for art exhibitions, the impressive Blue Gallery in the heart of a former mill, and the Chapelle des Penitents Blancs with its vibrantly colourful dome.
This charming medieval town found its fame as an artist’s colony during the Renaissance, specialising in amphorae and glazed pottery, before finding modern fame for its industry of glassblowing, in particular the bubble-glass technique invented in the 1950s. The town is littered with artisan workshops and galleries, but the real highlight is the Fernand Leger Museum on the outskirts of the village, which is adorned on the outside with giant colourful murals initially intended for the exterior of the Hannover Stadium. Hannover’s loss is Biot’s gain in this case, and the whole museum is a triumph, showcasing Leger’s life on the French Riviera through his colourful Cubist works, where, as according to the website, ‘his shaped contrasts and vibrant colours translate the rhythm of the machine, the poetry of the objects and the beauty of the modern city.’
Due to its iconic Picasso Museum looming on the city walls, Antibes is famously well known as the place that reinvigorated Picasso after the dark war years, but somewhat less well known for its longstanding artistic connections to Paul Signac, Nicolas de Stael, and Claude Monet.
Picasso arrived in Antibes in 1946, where he set up his studio in the tower of the Chateau Grimaldi. He credits the history and light of Antibes with renergising his art, entering a prolific and happy period where he created 23 paintings and 44 drawings.
‘Every time I come to Antibes I am attacked by the itch of antiquity’, he exclaimed, and many of his works from this time carry a strong mythological theme. Upon leaving Antibes, he donated all his Antibes creations to the Grimaldi Chateau in a fit of thanks, including the famous ‘Joie de Vivre’, saying ‘If you want to see the Picassos of Antibes, you must come to Antibes to see them!’ And so the Picasso Museum was born.
Yet Picasso was far from the only one to fall for Antibes’s charms.
Paul Signac also moved to Antibes in 1913 with his long-time mistress and their daughter, painting many canvasses including ‘Antibes, Thunderstorms’, ‘Pink Cloud’, ‘Port d’Antibes’ and ‘Antibes, 1918’ with its lovely view of the marketplace.
Nicolas de Staël was also a resident of Antibes for a brief, prolific and ultimately tragic stage of his life. Working from a studio high on the ramparts, Nicolas produced nearly 150 artworks in just five months, before committing suicide.
While not a permanent resident, Claude Monet painted 40 landscapes of Antibes over four months; the vast majority views at different times of day from the Plage de Salis and Cap d’Antibes back across the bay of Angels towards Antibes Old Town and the Alps behind. Many art historians credit his Antibes period as the very beginnings of his later approach of painting in series. Monet was obviously inspired by the place, writing,
‘I’m painting the town of Antibes, a small fortified town turned gold by the sun, standing out against beautiful blue and pink mountains and the everlastingly snow-covered Alps. And elsewhere he wrote ‘It is so beautiful here, so clear and luminous! You are bathed in blue air, it’s frightening!’
Picasso fans will also want to visit Vallauris, where Picasso went to live after his Antibes period. Vallauris ushered in the ceramics stage of Picasso’s career, with over 4000 works completed at the Fournas workshop. The real highlights of a visit to Vallauris are the wonderful ‘Guerre et la Paix’ (War and Peace) fresco he painted in the old chapel, as well as his ‘L’homme au Mouton’ sculpture in the village square.
A trip to Le Cannet is a must for followers of Pierre Bonnard, who moved to Le Cannet in 1927 and produced over 300 works there based on the simple scenes of daily life around him, as well as some superb nudes. The Bonnard Museum in Le Cannet exhibits many of his works, imbued with the radiant blocs of colour of the Nabis style.
St Tropez, it may be said, is where the artistic legend of the French Riviera in this period really began. Inspired by Monet to visit the French Riviera, Paul Signac bought a villa in Saint Tropez in 1892, entranced by the light of the area and working on his theory of pure colour and Pointillism in paintings such as ‘Harbour at Saint Tropez’. Signac hosted a series of artists including Pierre Bonnard and his good friend and protégé, Henri Matisse, who would paint ‘Luxe, Calme, and Volupte’ here before decamping to his life in Nice.
St Tropez is rich in artistic history, and your art-themed yacht charter will end at the small but utterly remarkable Annonciade Museum, which features works by Signac, Vuillard, Bonnard, Denis, Derain and Matisse.
This summer, embark on an artistic journey on a luxury yacht charter down the French Riviera, in pursuit of the modern masters who fell in love with this splendid place and left their mark on it, and the art world, forever.
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