Une Affaire de Coeur: Art & the Côte d'Azur

Iconic for it's glamour and allure, the secret to the French Riviera’s fascination lies away from the glitz of cocktail parties and white yachts and in the natural beauty of this seductive stretch of coast. Long before cameras were snapping Marlon Brando and Audrey Hepburn in the summer sun it was the unspoilt rustic charm of quiet fishing villages and sleepy pine forests that first put the Riviera to the eyes of the world. The picturesque backdrop to exclusive parties and dazzling celebrity muses, it is the Riviera itself that is perhaps the greatest muse of all. Here impressionism found it’s feet, cubism was born and fauvism came to life. But what made the Côte d’Azur so irresistible and why did it become such a catalyst for artistic change?


striking blue skies courtesy of @provencallife

"Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression" – Camille Pissarro

Considered one of the first pioneers of the impressionist movement Camille Pissarro strove to capture his landscapes in one sitting, plein air, finding soul in working from the living beating atmosphere of the place rather than recollections in a studio. Among his protegees was Claude Monet, then a student at the Academie Suisse. Monet took what he had learnt with Pissarro on his travels to the South and saw his impressionistic work flourish under the Provençal sun.

It’s no wonder he fell in love with the riviera – if the impressionist ideal was, as Pissaro alluded, to capture the artist’s first impression then the Côte D'Azur didn’t disappoint. It was a gift for the senses.‘It is so beautiful,so bright, so luminous. One swims in blue air and it is frightening.’ - Monet wrote in awe. He took his first excursion to the south in 1883 on a working trip with Renoir and was so captivated that he returned only a month later. The steady mildness of the climate was ideal for working plein air, while the sparkling blue waters, clear azure skies and dazzling pink sunsets were an inexhaustible source of inspiration.



There was another ingredient that made the Riviera so captivating to the artists who stumbled upon it – it’s famous ‘special light’. Both a gift and a challenge, Derain commented that on the Côte d’Azur there were “no shadows”. The sunlight reflecting off the sleepy ocean, pale stone and whitewashed houses giving the sensation of a land bathed in light. The colour palette of the region expanded beyond anything these artists had experienced. “Turned gold by the sun, standing out against beautiful blue and pink mountains and the everlastingly snow-covered Alps” Monet remarked enraptured. From bold cobalts to fuscia hues and deep oranges, the landscape offered an evocative spectrum completely opposite to the grey monochrome of city life.   


But to truly discover what made the place so pivotal for these artists we must look past the Riviera itself. As essential as the sun-capped mountains and turquoise waters, something far less tangible was at play. There was a liberating sense of escape for these artists discovering the charm of southern France, as Braque put it ‘just imagine, I left the drab, gloomy Paris studios where you were still working in bitumen...by contrast, what a revelation, what a blossoming!’ In it’s simplest form the Riviera offered these artists the very ideal it still promises today – all the excitement and release of a holiday. Of retreating from the drab everyday into this new oasis of light and colour. For me that’s what makes the works which sprung from this landscape so glorious. It’s the sense of fleeting, unadulterated joy and release, unhindered by the encroachment of everyday drudge. A time to return to our roots, basking in the presence of nature, time that as human beings we all crave but too often go without. 



Born in Aix-en-Provence Cezanne, by contrast, was a native of the Côte d’Azur. The glamour of escape and the novelty of new surroundings was never his experience of the Riviera. In 1904 he wrote ‘treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed toward a central point'.

Cezanne's more pragmatic approach to depicting the landscape mirrors his more practical experience of it, as home it loses the poetry of adventure but gains poetry of another kind – having lived and breathed the place Cezanne had the unique ability to see it from many perspectives. Indeed it was Cezanne's unique approach to perspective that was gradually transforming his style into what would later become cubism.  Unlike his contemporaries who flocked to his homeland, Cezanne was not overwhelmed by the sense of brilliance the Côte d'Azur evoked. With a steady eye he saw beneath the glitter to the core of the landscape and in this reality found just as much beauty as others found in the dream it offered. 

Inspired to seek out the scenes that filled Cezanne’s work, a new crowd of artists made their way south to the luminous coast. On arrival in the fishing town of Collioure an enthusiastic Henri Matisse wrote to Derain ‘I could not insist too much to persuade you that for you to make a trip here would be absolutely necessary for your work. You would find the most advantageous conditions. That’s why I repeat again, come.’ 

And come they did. Derain, Braque, Picasso, Munch all came to try their hand at the azure waters and hillside villages. What they found was a liberation that would shake the art world. So much so that when they exhibited their works in Paris they were dubbed the 'fauves' - wild beasts. Released from constraint in the southern climes they found the old conventions too narrow to express their expanding emotions. Surrounded by effervescent hues at every turn the time had come to free colour from it's old restraints. It was no longer a tool for representation it was a force for emotional expression.


sunny Collioure snapped by @jenlaceda

‘In the light experienced in the south of France, everything sparkles and the whole painting vibrates, take your picture to Paris: the blue turns to grey' -- Bonnard.

The riviera not only transformed art but the eyes through which it was seen, a rose tinted glow that extended beyond the canvas to the heart of the artist. An illusion almost – that could not survive in the real world. Perhaps for Bonnard the experience was too brilliant for representation – anything but to be in the landscape was not enough – once removed the art loses it's magic. But I would argue on this drizzling Febuary day that the blue is just as bright as ever. With their work these artists have extended the landscapes' borders into the imagination, giving us that moment of escape which set them free. To see through another’s eyes is always a gift, but to be privy to their moments of joy and liberation is very special indeed.