Nice: a river runs through it

Nice: a river runs through it

Many towns have grown up around rivers which have later been covered in (Liverpool and London included). Beneath the city streets, waterways continue on their ancient courses in underground culverts. Nice was once such place, where the Paillon, a river fed by mountain streams that flood each year with the melting of the snows, for much of the 19th century divided old Nice from new, poor from rich, servant from master.  Then,  in 1883, the Paillon was culverted, paved over, and became an unknown presence.

But last October, in a dramatic beautification of the city landscape, a new, linear park – the Promenade de Paillon – opened following a major urban renewal project that restores, at least metaphorically, the Paillon to its original place in the heart of the city.   Continue reading “Nice: a river runs through it”

Walking in Nietzsche’s footsteps

Walking in Nietzsche’s footsteps

The last time we were in Nice – last September – a summer-long celebration of Matisse was just drawing to a close, so we spent a lot of time in galleries.  This time was different: armed with John and Pat Underwood’s sublimely-titled Walk and Eat around Nice we spent a good part of our stay taking advantage of the excellent public transport system, travelling out of the city to experience some of the Underwood’s recommended walks.

The first walk we embarked on began at the hilltop town of La Turbie, followed the north side of the Grande Corniche crest with superb views of the snow-clad Mercantour mountains before crossing the shoulder and heading for the medieval hilltop town of Eze. From there we dropped down to the sea, following an old mule track known as the Nietzsche Trail.  There were magnificent coastal views and a profusion of springtime wild flowers. Continue reading “Walking in Nietzsche’s footsteps”

Another fine salade Nicoise

Another fine salade Nicoise

When we last visited Nice – on the occasion, last September, of my 65th birthday – I posted a celebration of the city under the title A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise.  We’re just back from another few days in Nice, so here’s another mixture of flavours and colours that recall our short break.  There are strong opinions as to what should or should not go into a Salade Nicoise – residents of Nice are horrified at the English tendency to add potatoes, and tinned tuna or anchovies are (surprisingly) acceptable, but both together are not. Furthermore, they don’t use French beans as we tend to: a classic Salade Nicoise should be made with fresh fava beans.

Which is merely a preamble to this eclectic selection of memories of the four days we spent in Nice.  We had found an apartment at the top of the Old Town (the very top, in fact: our building was actually located just inside the wall of the Château gardens. From the balcony we had stunning views across the rooftops of the Old Town, and across the bay to the airport. Continue reading “Another fine salade Nicoise”

A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz

A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz

When we landed in Nice for a long weekend, a city-wide tribute to Matisse – Un Ete Pour Matisse – was just drawing to a close.  Comprising eight (yes, eight!) exhibitions celebrating his work and legacy, we managed in the short time we were there to see just three. Continue reading “A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz”

Matisse in Nice: through an open window

Matisse in Nice: through an open window


We arrived in Nice for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday just as a summer-long tribute to Matisse was drawing to a close.  Nice 2013: A Summer for Matisse brought together many of the city museums to celebrate the artist who chose to live in Nice for more than thirty years.  2013 also marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Musee Matisse in Nice. Continue reading “Matisse in Nice: through an open window”

Cezanne’s studio at Les Lauves

A highlight of our short break in Provence was a visit to Cezanne’s studio at Les Lauves, a fifteen minute walk uphill from the centre of Aix-en-Provence. Cézanne bought the small country property on the hillside in November 1901.  At that time it was surrounded by agricultural land, olive and fig trees with clear views across to Montagne Sainte-Victoire. On the land at Les Lauves Cezanne had his studio built, its most striking feature being the large north-facing window that provided the best light for painting.

Today the two-storey studio is surrounded by dense shrubbery and tall trees, and other properties have encroached as suburban Aix has crept up the hill.

We were fortunate in visiting the studio out of season.  For nearly half an hour there were only four other visitors in addition to ourselves – and since the others spoke English, that was the language the guide gave her talk in (the only English guided tour is at 17:00 each day).  We had her full attention until a large and enthusiastic party of schoolchildren from Marseille arrived.

The studio is on the first floor. Living accommodation was created on the ground floor, but Cézanne ended up using this mainly to store his canvasses – up to 2,000 of them – and continued to live in an apartment in the city.  Each morning, our guide explained,  Cezanne would rise early and walk the mile up the hill to the studio.

He would work at the studio from about 6am to 10.30am, return to Aix for lunch, then go back to paint until 5.30pm, either in the studio or walk further up the hill to the summit for the clear views it offered of his motif, Mont Sainte Victoire.  Cézanne was photographed at this spot by Kerr-Xavier Roussel in January 1906 (below).

It was up the hill, in autumn 1906, that Cézanne got caught in a thunderstorm and was taken home unconscious in a laundry cart. He rose again early the following day to work on a portrait of Vallier, his gardener.  But his condition worsened and he died of pleurisy six days later during the night of 22-23 October. ‘I have sworn to die painting’, Cézanne had written only a few days earlier.

The studio remained empty for 15 years. It was bought in 1921 by a Marcel Provence, who lived there until his own death in 1951.  Anxious to rescue it from property developers, the art historian and Cézanne scholar John Rewald organised a committee of over 100 American benefactors who purchased the house, then gifted it to Aix University  Since 1969 it has been owned by the City of Aix.

Although the city suburbs have expanded to swallow up the area, the house still stands in acres of wild and overgrown gardens, which visitors are free to stroll around.

A ten minute walk to the summit of Les Lauves leads to the Terrain des Peintres, a small park that has preserved Cezanne’s favourite site for painting Montagne Sainte-Victoire.  Here is the view of the mountain that Cezanne painted so many times, framed by pines, and with ten ceramic panels displaying some of the paintings he worked on here.

Cezanne: Mont Sainte-Victoire (Philadelphia Museum of Art)
Mont Sainte-Victoire, watercolour, 1895 (national Gallery of Scotland)

Cezanne produced 44 oil paintings and 43 watercolours of  Montagne Sainte-Victoire, presenting the forms and rhythms of the landscape with short diagonal brushstrokes and patches of colour.  The mountain was the motif whose secret he strove to unlock.  He wrote to his first biographer, Joachim Gasquet:

The blue smell of the pines … must be married to the green smell of the plains which are refreshed every morning, with the smell of stones, the perfume of distant marble from Sainte-Victoire. I have not expressed it. It must be done. And by colours, not literature.

There is speculation that, like many other artists of his time, Cezanne was influenced by Japanese prints,  particularly the work of Hokusai, who was also obsessed by a mountain – Mount Fuji.  Why would these artists paint the same motif so many times over so many years?

On the Toshidama Gallery blog there is the suggestion that, as well as there being a spiritual dimension to their quest,  there was also a ‘relentless need to get below the surface of the motif, to strive to represent something greater than a pedestrian depiction’. At the age of 74, Hokusai wrote:

If I go on trying, I will surely understand them [images of nature], still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.

Cezanne similarly commented:

I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.  … My age and health will never allow me to realize the dream of art I’ve been pursuing all my life.

My personal favourite of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire images is the Courtauld painting (above).  This is typical of many of the earlier depictions of the mountain in that its subject is framed by pine trees.  And it is one pine that dominates my favourite of all Cezanne’s paintings – The Great Pine (1892-6), not painted at Les Lauves but probably, given the red soil in the foreground, at another of Cezanne’s favourite spots, the Bibemus Quarries near the foot of  Montagne Sainte-Victoire.

In his survey of Cezanne’s work, Meyer Schapiro wrote:

A poetic conception of the tree as a giant individual, rising to the heavens above the heads of its smaller fellows, twisted in axis and shaken by great forces, but supreme in its height and vast spread. Its rise from the ground is dramatic in its stages: through a sturdy bent trunk, far stronger than any other we see; through a region of bare and dying branches, leafless against the sky; then the great arched crown of foliage spanning almost the entire sky. The landscapists of the Romantic school, Huet and Dupre, had painted similar heroic trees, but the stormy sky and tormented ground in their pictures are a more obvious external motivation of the agony of the tree. In Cézanne’s picture, the drama is in the tree itself, with its strained, conflicting forms, reacting to the wind. With a remarkable simplicity that often passes for naivete but is the wisdom of great art, he presents his vision of the tree in the clearest way, placing the tree in the center of the field directly before us. But he knows how to use the surrounding elements to support the drama. The ground slopes and the other trees are inclined away from the big trunk as if they have been parted by the giant’s upward movement. We see no branches beside those of the central tree; its torment and spread are a unique fact.

The picture is a beautiful harmony of blues and greens, in which the occasional warm touches in the branches and foliage pick up the strong ochre band of the road.

Simple and perfectly legible, it has also a great vitality and movement through the brush strokes. With few lines, they create by their changing directions a perpetual stirring of the space, great eddying currents, winds, and turbidities. Yet they resolve into a few large masses of color.

Cézanne’s feeling for the great tree goes back to his youth. In a letter to Zola in 1858, he wrote: ‘Do you remember the pine on the bank of the [river] Arc, with its hairy head projecting above the abyss at its foot?  This pine which protected our bodies with its foliage from the heat of the sun, oh ! may the gods preserve it from the woodman’s baleful axe !’

Chapelle du Rosaire by Matisse

Chapelle du Rosaire by Matisse

Today we took the bus up into the hills to the small hilltop town of St Paul de Vence (1€ ticket!) to visit the Maeght Foundation and then on to Vence to see the Chapel du Rosaire, designed by Matisse.

The Chapel of the Rosary is a small chapel built for Dominican nuns in Vence. It was designed and decorated by Matisse between 1949 and 1951 and houses a number of Matisse originals. Matisse himself regarded the Chapel as his masterpiece.

In 1941, Matisse, who lived most of the year in Nice in the south of France, developed cancer and underwent surgery. During the long recovery he was particularly helped by Monique Bourgeois, who had responded to his advertisement seeking  “a young and pretty nurse” and who took care of Matisse with great tenderness. Matisse asked her to pose for him, which she did, and several drawings and paintings exist. In 1943 Monique decided to enter the Dominican convent in Vence, and she became Sister Jacques-Marie.

Matisse eventually bought a home at Vence, not far from the convent. She visited him and told him of the plans the Dominicans had to build a chapel in Vence. She asked Matisse if he would help with the design of the chapel. Though he had never done anything like it, but Matisse agreed to help, beginning in 1947.

There are three sets of stained glass windows, making use of just three colours: an intense yellow for the sun, an intense green for vegetation and cactus forms, and a vivid blue for the Mediterranean Sea, the Riviera sky and the Madonna. The two windows beside the altar are named the ‘Tree of Life’, but the forms are abstract. The colour from the windows floods the interior of the chapel, which is otherwise all white.

For the walls, Matisse designed three great murals made by painting on white tiles with black paint and then firing the large sections of tile. Behind the altar is a large image of St. Dominic, founder of the Order of Dominicans.

On the side wall there are abstract images of flowers and an image of the Madonna and Child, all created in black outlines on the white tiles. On the back wall of the chapel are the traditional 14 stations of the cross. Although the 14 stations are usually depicted individually, Matisse incorporated all of them on one wall in one cohesive composition.

Matisse also designed the priests’ vestments for the chapel, using the traditional ecclesiastical colors of the religious seasons: purple, black, rose, green, and red.

Postscript: here’s a moving extract from the BBC Modern Masters series in 2010, in which Alastair Sooke visits the Chapelle du Rosaire: