Favoured for its honey-gold light, lavender-carpeted hillsides, and sleepy pale-stoned villages, Provence captured the hearts and minds of many of the greatest painters of the impressionist and post-impressionist movements, including such luminaries as Renoir, Van Gogh, and, Cézanne – not to mention Matisse and Picasso.
Today, its rich artistic history, intoxicating beauty, and sleepy atmosphere make it the perfect destination for art lovers. But where to start? The borders of Provence contain some of the most spectacular towns and villages in all of France, and so many cultural gems to gaze upon that it’s no wonder so many people end up visiting the same sights and leave feeling they’ve only scratched the surface. Indeed, Provence has inspired so many great artists and have been immortalised in so many landscapes that the most common reaction of the art-lover is to lay down in some aromatic field and let the sun bake them into a stupor. I would, however, advise against submitting to this temptation, as you’re bound to miss the stunning array of museums, artists studios, and other wonders that Provence seems to ooze from its every pore.
I’d start with Van Gogh. As a Dutch national, his artistic offerings not only capture the beauty of this wondrous southern nib of France but also evoke the inquisitive eye of an outsider looking in. Tired of Parisian life, Van Gogh decided to relocate to Arles in February of 1888. He immediately fell in love with the vibrant landscape; letting its blossoming almond trees, golden wheat fields, and ink-blue night skies inform the post-impressionist style that we know and love him for today. From the famed Yellow House in Arles to the Saint Paul de Mausole asylum in St-Remy-de-Provence, where Van Gough was a patient, Provence hums with the memory of Van Gogh. Indeed, many of his paintings – 150 of them in fact – were painted in St-Remy-de-Provence, where you are able to visit some of the scenes he immortalised. Of course, the best way to do this would be to go by bicycle, not forgetting to stop by the astonishing garden at the Estrine Museum on the way.
Provence attracted as many famed artists as it did penniless anonymous ones. Renoir, for example – a legend in his own lunchtime – made his home in Cagnes-sur-Mer, in the Cote d’Azur. This ivory-white farmhouse, set in a garden of lush gardens and olive groves, with the Mediterranean just an oyster shell’s toss away, is truly something to behold, serving as a living exhibit all year round. Inside, there are countless examples of Renoir’s works, from the landscapes that hang on the walls of the first and second floors to the basement, where Renoir once worked on his sculptures and ceramics. Of course, the most powerful artwork is the view from Renoir’s son Claude’s room, where you can see red-tiled rooftops of the surrounding village – itself set in a forested hillside – soaking up the warm sun, just as they would have done when Renoir purchased the house in 1907. Just don’t pay attention to the tower blocks looming in the distance – that might ruin the effect.
No trip to Provence is complete without a trip to the namesake jewel in its crown, Aix En Provence; for it was here that Paul Cézanne was born, lived, and died. Padding along the cafe-lined streets, it’s almost impossible not the trace the pathways that Cézanne himself may have walked on his way from his peach-hued childhood home on Rue Matheron, to the College Bourbon where he studied. If you’re truly committed to losing yourself in Bohemian reverie, you may even find yourself in Les Deux Garçons, the pub where Cézanne hung out with other members of the French artistic community, one of whom was legendary writer, Emile Zola. You’d have to be pretty gone on absinthe to get a table though; unfortunately, Les Deux Garçons burnt down in 2019, leaving its interior completely destroyed. Really, though, there are a few better places for art lovers to while away the hours than in Cézanne’s studio on the outskirts of the city. With its vivid red shutters just visible through the immense tangle of climbing roses, it is in this idyllic monument on the Lauves’ hill, surrounded by his most personal and precious objects, that you truly feel the presence of Cézanne’s spirit.