An Artist's Tour of Provence - Part I

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An Artist's Tour of Provence - Part I

Ten Great Places You'll Want to Paint

Mont Sainte Victoire by Paul Cezanne
Mont Sainte Victoire                                                             Paul Cezanne

  The south of France holds so many charms for the traveling artist that it must rank at the top of anyone’s bucket list. The region of Provence is one of the oldest areas of France, having been occupied since prehistoric times. In fact, the coast of Provence has some of the earliest known sites of human habitation in Europe. Primitive stone tools dated to 1 to 1.05 million years B.C. have been found in the Grotte du Vallonnet near Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, between Monaco and Menton. Artists have been painting in Provence since prehistoric times as well—paintings of bison, seals, auks and horses dating to between 27,000 and 19,000 B.C. have been found in the Cosquer Cave near Marseille. The Romans made the region into the first Roman province beyond the Alps and called it Provincia Romana, which evolved into the present name. They ruled the area from the 2nd century B.C. to the 5th century A.D. during which time the aqueducts, baths, arenas, theaters, villas and monuments were built, many of which can still be seen today. It is certainly one of our favorite places in France to visit and paint, and over the years we have found some special spots which we return to as often as possible.


           photo of Aix-en-Provence

   Provence was ruled by the Counts of Provence from their capital in Aix-en-Provence until 1481, when it became a province of the Kings of France. While it has been part of France for more than five hundred years, it still retains a distinct cultural and linguistic identity, particularly in the interior of the region. Aix is located in the
département known as the Bouches du Rhone, or mouths (watersheds) of the Rhone river. This is an area of vast contrasts, ranging from mountains (the Alpilles to the north, Sainte Baume and Sainte Victoire to the east) to plains and wilderness areas (Camargue). Densely populated areas (Marseille), forests, and a diverse coastline (creeks, beaches and harbors) add to this wide variety of Provençal landscapes and culture. When we teach workshops in Provence, we often make Aix-en-Provence our base to operate from—its central location and amenities are a compelling and enjoyable draw. The locals are friendly, relaxed and helpful—more so if one speaks a bit of French and attempts to converse in their native tongue. The food is generally superb, and Aix’s proximity to the Mediterranean means fresh seafood is always on any menu, along with a variety of rich stews, pork and duck specialties.

             Photo of the Cours Mirabeau, Aix, Provence, France. by John Hulsey    Place de la Marie, Aix en Provence. photo g John Hulsey
                              Along the Cours Mirabeau                                               Place de la Marie

  For lodging, one can find every level of accommodation, from the humblest, inexpensive gite to the swankiest hotel/spa. Travel overseas can be exhausting, so when we have a class arriving from the U.S., we like to book them into the most comfortable hotel possible. We have been fortunate to base two of our workshops out of Le Pigonnet, a 5-star hotel situated on a private, gated street near to the old center of Aix, or centre ville. Service and comfort aside, a prime attraction of Le Pigonnet is the magnificent garden which occupies the rear of the property. It is an idyllic oasis in the heart of a bustling college town and a perfect spot to start a day of painting or relax when the day is done. On our last visit, the hotel was still distinctly Old World French in decor and there was great variability in the look of each room. Since then, they have renovated the interiors into a more modern Euro-style. 

             photo of Le Pigonnet.©John Hulsey   Teaching in the© A. Trusty
                                            Le Pigonnet                                                    Teaching in the Garden

             photo of Le Pigonnet.©John Hulsey   In the Garden. photo © J. Hulsey
                                       Spring Garden                                                        In the Garden

  The location of Le Pigonnet allows for an easy walk to the old, scenic parts of the centre ville where the interesting narrow streets wind around from square to square. These light-filled squares usually feature a central fountain which fills with water from underground springs—water brought to Aix originally by the Roman engineers, and still flowing today. The squares are community gathering spots and host the weekly markets for produce, flea market goods, flowers and entertainment. Painting opportunities abound. Subject matter is nearly infinite, and we love to wander around taking it all in. One can almost randomly pick a spot or scene and make a beautiful painting from the inspiration around every corner. Above all is the strong, clear light of Provence which has attracted artists here since the dawn of time. Of course, Paul Cezanne may be the most well-known Aixois, but Picasso also lived just outside Aix at Château de Vauvenargues for three years. Other artists who have either painted there or called Provence their home are:

   Adolphe Monticelli (1824–1886) was born in Marseille, moved to Paris in 1846 and returned to Marseille in 1870. His work influenced Vincent van Gogh who greatly admired him.
   Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) lived little more than two years in Provence, but his fame as a painter is largely a result of what he painted there. He lived in Arles from February 1888 to May 1889, and then in Saint-Remy from May 1889 until May 1890.
   Auguste Renoir (1841–1919) visited Beaulieu, Grasse, Saint Raphael and Cannes, before finally settling in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1907, where he bought a farm in the hills and built a new house and workshop on the grounds. He continued to paint there until his death in 1919. His house is now a museum.
   Henri Matisse (1869–1954) first visited St. Tropez in 1904. In 1917 he settled in Nice, first at the Hotel Beau Rivage, then the Hotel de la Mediterranée, then la Villa des Allies in Cimiez. From 1921 until 1938 he lived in an apartment at 1 place Felix Faure in Nice, next to the flower market and overlooking the sea. He then moved to the Hotel Regina in the hills of Cimiez, above Nice. During World War II he lived in Vence, then returned to Cimiez, where he died and is buried.
   Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) spent each summer from 1919 to 1939 on the Côte d'Azur, and moved there permanently in 1946, first at Vallauris, then at Mougins, where he spent his last years.
   Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) retired to and died at Le Cannet.
   Georges Braque (1882–1963) painted frequently at L'Estaque between 1907 and 1910.
   Henri-Edmond Cross (1856–1910) discovered the Côte d'Azur in 1883 and painted at Monaco and Hyères.
   Maurice Denis (1870–1943) painted at St. Tropez and Bandol.
   André Derain (1880–1954) painted at L'Estaque and Martigues.
   Raoul Dufy (1877–1953), whose wife was from Nice, painted in Forcalquier, Marseille and Martigues.
   Albert Marquet (1873–1947) painted at Marseille, St. Tropez and L'Estaque.
   Claude Monet (1840–1927) visited Menton, Bordighera, Juan-les-Pins, Monte-Carlo, Nice, Cannes, Beaulieu and Villefranche, and painted a number of seascapes of Cap Martin, near Menton, and at Cap d'Antibes.
   Edvard Munch (1863–1944) visited and painted in Nice and Monte-Carlo (where he developed a passion for gambling), and rented a villa at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat in 1891.
   Paul Signac (1863–1935) visited St. Tropez in 1892, and bought a villa, La Hune, at the foot of citadel in 1897. It was at his villa that his friend, Henri Matisse, painted his famous Luxe, Calme et Volupté in 1904. Signac made numerous paintings along the coast.
   Pierre Deval (1897–1993), a French modernist and figurist painter, lived and worked at the Domaine d'Orvès in La Valette-du-Var from 1925 until his death in 1993.
   Nicolas de Staël (1914–1955) lived in Nice and Antibes.
   Yves Klein (1928–1962), a native of Nice, is considered an important figure in post-war European art.

   So consider yourself among the best kind of company when roaming the historic area of Provence as well as the streets of Aix. The famed Provençal light permeates everything as it bounces off the buildings and down into the shadowed streets and alleys. It seems that every building is painted in the warm hues of sunlight or made from local stone so that the atmosphere is filled with radiance and color. Then there is the color and bustling activity of the street markets to take in—especially the flower market. The countryside around Provence is dotted with greenhouses and farms which bring the freshest products into Aix each week. After a long drab winter a visit to the flower market on a sunny day in April is a delight for our senses.

             photo of Aix. © J. Hulsey     photo of Flea Market, Aix. © J. Hulsey
                                          Street Shadows                                                    Street Market

             photo of flower market, Aix, France. © J. Hulsey      photo of produce market, Aix, France. © J. Hulsey
                                  Flower Market, Aix                                                  Morning Produce Market


   One sunny day, we took the class on a plein air painting excursion in the old part of Aix. While we were looking around, a brightly dressed group of dancers and musicians showed up and performed a country dance for us as their manager passed out fliers announcing that night’s performance. We stood transfixed as the dancers swirled and joined and parted in rhythm to the music. We all tried to take pictures as they moved, and much later, I created the painting below from my blurry photos and memory.

                          Watercolor painting of Polish dancers in Aix, France. © by John Hulsey
                                The Dancers, Aix            20.5 x 30"            Watercolor              Joh
n Hulsey

Watercolor, he Alley, Aix. © John Hulsey

     As we explore the old town with its many winding alleys, rues and passageways, we always discover interesting subjects to paint. The play of the strong Mediterranean light upon the buildings creates wonderful contrasts of shadow and light. We do memorize the map of the main routes back to our starting point before we set off, but after that, we just wander, inviting ourselves to get a little lost in the process. Inevitably we come upon something delightful - an old fountain or a narrow alley filled with colorful doorways or laundry strung across on a line - all sorts of intriguing Provencal details that beg to be painted. We keep a sharp eye open for unexpected architecture and geometry that can work well in a painting. This passageway  penetrates several buildings and connects a central square with the Cours Mirabeau, which bisects the centre ville. One has to know where to find the entrance to it, as it is a bit below street level, and surrounded by vendor's stalls. At the Cours Mirabeau end of the alley, it narrows down to an opening only wide enough for one person to squeeze through at a time! (Above:  The Alley - Aix, 16 x 12", Watercolor,  John Hulsey)
             photo of plein air painting in Aix, France. © J. Hulsey        Watercolor Hide and Seek © by John Hulsey
                             My Models on Location in Aix                            Hide and Seek    16 x 12"   Watercolor  

  An example of the kind of happy situations one can discover wandering the streets is illustrated above. One of our workshop participants, the artist Cindy Wheeler, was with us on our first day in Aix, before the rest of the class arrived. We took the opportunity of a free day to wander around and came upon some children playing hide and seek in a sunny square while their parents sat at a nearby cafe. As Cindy sketched, I quickly set up my watercolor gear and executed a very fast watercolor while the kids were at play. When I was done, they came over and, in my best French, we discussed the picture, occasionally stumbling over words I did not know. These are the kind of interactions and experiences we live for whenever we travel.

 Exploring the Countryside

   Day trips for our workshops were accomplished with a private coach, but it is fun to rent a car to go exploring. Rental cars in France can come with GPS, something we find very useful. France has some wonderful super highways that can speed one around with amazing efficiency. But, if you want to explore the small towns, one has to get off onto the side roads, and without a good map and a vigilant eye, the numerous connections, round-abouts or rond-points and directional changes can get one lost in a hurry. So don’t be in a hurry! One time, I was the navigator as we sped up the highway on our way from Aix to Lourmarin and the Luberon. I am so used to the vast distances and hours-long trips of the Midwest that I misread the scale of the map and went way past our exit. It wasn’t until we all began to notice the snow-capped mountains of the Italian Alps looming on the horizon that we realized how far afield I had led us. No worries, though. We simply got off at the next exit and artfully wound our way through the scenery and multitudes of road connections until we arrived at our destination—the village of Lourmarin—just in time for a sumptuous picnic lunch. We make it a policy to always gather up supplies for a good picnic before we get lost.

                  photo of Roquefavour Aqueduct, Provence. © by J. Hulsey
                                                                    Roquefavour Aqueduct  


   A very easy little half-day painting trip may include the nearby village of Ventabren. Located just 14 km west of Aix on the D10, Ventabren is a very pretty village, perched at the top of a hill and dominated by the ruins of the Château of Queen Jeanne. It is ideally situated in the middle of the Marseilles-Aix-Salon de Provence triangle, and boasts a picturesque Provençal countryside backdrop, while being less than 30 minutes away from a major urban area. Ventabren is unique in that it boasts the largest stone aqueduct in the world! To see it, either leave the village and follow the signposted route, or take the D65 (Route de Roquefavour) from Aix. You will get a spectacular view as you drive through it on the way to the village. The Roquefavour Aqueduct was constructed by a young 26-year-old engineer, Franz Mayor de Montricher, in the middle of the 19th century (1842-1847) to transport water from the Durance to Marseille.

photo of Ventabren.©J. Hulsey

  We learned about Ventabren several years ago from a local who emphasized that it was an undiscovered, tourist-free village of true Provencal charm, and, he was right. Since then, Ventabren has developed considerably graduating from a small Provençal village to a vast residential municipality, with new houses mushrooming and extending below the village on to the plains which surround it. Even so, it is still a quiet village and the folks who live there maintain their traditional ways of life.

              photo of Ventabren.©J. Hulsey    photo of Ventabren.©J. Hulsey
                                     The Grand Staircase                                                  Le Grande Rue

   There are two ways to enter Ventabren - by car or by foot. By car, one continues to climb the main road - the Grande Rue - up into and through the village until, at the very top of the hill one finds a large recreational park with spaces to park the car. By foot, one parks in the lot at the bottom of the hill, just at the entrance to the village, and scales the staircase, lined with flowers in the spring. At the top of the stairs is the charming little Place de l’Eglise. We love the cobbled, flower filled streets and the lovingly restored stone houses.
    Many of the old doors of the houses are flanked by lush greenery and shutters which have been repainted in traditional Provençal tones, already a little faded by the sun. We found some pretty fountains, an old wash-house and a 17th-century church.

                          photo of Ventabren square.© J. Hulsey
                                                                                      Place de l'Eglise

              photo of Ventabren. © J. Hulsey     photo of Ventabren. © J. Hulsey
                                The Bell Tower - Ventabren                                                    Ventabren

              photo of Ventabren door.©J. Hulsey     photo of ancient staircase. © J. Hulsey
                                          Ventabren Door                                                      Ancient Staircase

                           photo of Ann Trusty in France. © J. Hulsey
                                                                Ann under the rose arch doorway

              photo of Ventabren. © J. Hulsey     photo of Ventabren. © J. Hulsey
                                   The Light of Provence                                                  An Inviting Composition

   Make sure you also visit the ruins of the Château de la Reine Jeanne. From the foot of the ruins you can enjoy a wide panoramic view over the Etang de Berre, the Etoile chain and Vitrolles.

             photo of Ventabren, Castle of Queen Jean. © J. Hulsey     photo of Ventabren vista. © J. Hulsey
                            Château de la Reine Jeanne                                               Château Vista

photo of John Hulsey painting in France.  It has become par for the course to have little adventures or meet nice people when we travel to paint in Europe. In our experience, Europeans seem to be, on average, very interested in working artists and are open to engaging in conversation. The people of Ventabren lived up to this reputation as well. After wandering around for an hour or so and seeing very few people, Ann and I set up to paint part of the village on a wide staircase surrounded by beautiful old houses and flower boxes. Before long, an old woman came out of her house to water her flowers, and seeing that we were painting, invited us to come in! (We never turn these kinds of invitations down). She walked us through her lovely home to her rear terrace, which presented the splendid view of Mont Sainte Victoire off in the distance. She thought that we would surely know of Cezanne’s obsession with the mountain and felt that this was the place to paint it. Unfortunately we were already late for a lunch rendezvous, so we had to politely decline her generous offer to set up and paint on her terrace.

                            photo of Ventabren. © J. Hulsey
                                                                                   Our Lunch Spot

             photo of Ventabren. © J. Hulsey     photo of food. © J. Hulsey
                                          Lunch Terrace View                                              A Good Start to Lunch

   Lunch was not to be missed and we joined Cindy Wheeler and our workshop partner at a wonderful little restaurant well-known for its food and spectacular aerial view of the countryside. Small portions of perfectly prepared local food combined with a glass of delicious Provencal rosé wine reminds one that there is more to life than work. There is joy in these little moments of leisurely pleasure and the restoration they provide. In this, the French are particularly expert. We spent the rest of the afternoon sight-seeing, taking photos and absorbing all we could of this charming village before we had to leave for a class dinner that evening at our hotel in Aix. The next day promised more adventure as we would saddle-up again to visit some of the remarkable medieval towns north of Aix. Stay tuned for Part II, when we visit Lourmarin, Roussillon and Gordes.

                         watercolor painting of poppy fields © by John Hulsey
                            Poppy Fields Near Ventabren      15.5 x 20.5"         Watercolor          John Hulsey

   Click on the image above to see a step-by-step painting demonstration.

 If you are traveling to France to paint, you may be interested in our French Language Phrases for Artists!

 Ready for more of Provence? Click here to read An Artist's Tour of Provence Part II.


Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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