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Exploring the homes of France’s great artists

The Connexion takes an historic tour of some of the houses and towns in all corners of France that famous artists from all over the world called home

1 May 2019
By Samatha David

France attracts artists from all over the world as well as producing a healthy home-grown crop, and has numerous world-class art museums and galleries.

Admiring the works in them is inspiring, but to get truly up close and personal there is nothing like visiting a painter’s house. Snooping around the dining table, the bed, the sofa, the studio and the easel really brings an artist’s personality to life.

Arguably the best known among a crop of artists’ houses in Paris is Rodin’s house and garden, but the Musée Gustave Moreau in the 9th is also remarkable. The interior walls are covered in his artwork.

There are other artists’ houses all over the Hexagon.

December 2019 will mark the centenary of Auguste Renoir’s death and to commemorate his life, the ‘Eau et Lumière Association’ has drawn up 12 “Impressionisms Routes”, one of which links the sites related to Renoir’s life.

These are the Museum of Montmartre and the Renoir Gardens in Paris, the Musée de la Grenouillère in Croissy-sur-Seine, where he painted river scenes, his summerhouse and garden in Essoyes (Champagne), which is now a museum, and the house in Cagnes-sur-Mer where he lived for the last 12 years of his life.

The latter feels like a shrine – from the splashes of paint on the studio floor to the fine fabric wall-coverings, it is as if Renoir just went out to post a letter.

The family’s possessions, furniture, the paintings and sculptures are all there, and visitors are free to wander the extensive gardens with views of Cap d’Antibes.

Monet’s house in Giverny, 80kms northwest of Paris in Normandy, is also fascinating.

He lived there for more than 43 years, renovating the house and the gardens in his own artistic vision.

The water garden inspired his ‘Water Lilies’ paintings and the house contains much of his furniture and possessions, as well as his collection of Japanese prints.

Heading back south, Jean Cocteau was a frequent visitor to the Riviera who in 1950 was invited to relax at a socialite’s villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.

While there, he started doodling on the walls, and gradually covered everything, including the furniture of the Villa Santo Sospir, with art. In total it took him six months, and what was originally an invitation for a long weekend turned into an 11-year stay in what is now popularly called the “la villa tatouée” — the tattooed villa. Currently being renovated, it will re-open to the public in 2020.

Paul Cézanne had a studio in Aix-en-Provence which is open to the public.

Everything here is arranged as it was at the time of the artist’s death, and the tourist office has maps directing visitors to other Cézanne-related corners of the city. It is a pleasant way of seeing the city through new eyes.

As everywhere else in the world, France has always produced talented and influential female artists, who have long been overlooked when it comes to buying for museums, meaning their sale prices have fallen and their names become dusty and forgotten.

Increasingly, however, these artists are regaining their rightful positions in the art world. Stepping off the beaten track to explore their houses is a richly rewarding experience. 

The Musée Yvonne Jean-Haffen (1882-1993), overlooking the port of Dinan in Brittany, is an oasis of beauty and peace.

The interior of the house (called ‘La Grande Vigne’) has been preserved as it was when the artist lived there, complete with her furniture and artworks on the walls, while the two acres of carefully designed garden are stunning.

Jean-Haffen’s work covers engravings, lithographs and ceramics. She also illustrated books and magazines and provided artwork and interior design for passenger ships. She painted a massive mural in the dining room depicting Breton life, and designed some of the furniture, too.

She was nominated a Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1991.

Since 2017, La Grande Vigne has also housed Les Ateliers du Plessix Madeuc, an association which organises art residencies and related exhibitions throughout the year, as well as coordinating a variety of contemporary art events.

The studio and home of Rosa Bonheur (pictured left, 1822-1899) in the Château de By, near Thomery (Seine-et-Marne) is wonderful.

Successful during her lifetime, Bonheur bought the chateau from the proceeds of her work and lived there with partner Nathalie Micas until the latter died, when she formed a new relationship with the American painter Anna Elizabeth Klumpke.

All three are now buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Bonheur was popular in Britain, and met Queen Victoria (who was a huge admirer of her work) on a journey to Scotland. She received the Légion d’Honneur in 1865 and was promoted to Officer of the order in 1894.

A pet cemetery named after her, the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park in Maryland USA, was established in 1935 and contains the remains of 8,000 animals – and even a few humans.

A small chain of guinguettes (café/bars) in Paris is also named after her.

The Château de By has been preserved much as it would have looked when Rosa Bonheur lived there.

Her studio is filled with the possessions she collected during her lifetime, and there is a room full of sketches and unfinished work which gives a fascinating insight into her technique.

There are extensive gardens, a beautifully decorated tea shop and a range of temporary exhibitions, seminars and events.

Another arty celebration in 2019 is the bicentenary of the birth of realist painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) in Ornans (Doubs). The town will have its glad rags on all summer, and the Musée Gustave Courbet contains a full exploration of the painter’s work.

There is also his childhood home to explore as well as his vast studio, plus there will be special events all year including cycle trails through the countryside which he painted so many times.

On the trail of artists in France, there are some towns which are so closely associated with art and artists, they positively reek of oil paint.

The allure of Collioure is an open secret; if you’ve not been yet, don’t delay. Built around a pair of sheltered bays, the houses in the historic centre have been painted all colours of the rainbow; leaf green, thunder purple, raspberry pink, iron grey, daffodil yellow. There is a tiny port, a tiny beach and a very short scramble across the rocks to the next bay.

Picture-frames have been artfully placed around the town, so visitors can see the views which have been painted by the town’s creative visitors.

Henri Matisse, André Derain, Pablo Picasso, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Tsuguharu Foujita have all been inspired by the sun setting over the water, the royal castle, the medieval streets and the lighthouse which was concerted into the Notre-Dame-des-Anges church.

Fauvism (from the French les fauves – the wild beasts) was a response to Impressionism. The style emphasises strong colours and painterly expression in contrast to representation and realism.

The Maison du Fauvisme in Collioure is not a gallery or museum; it organises tours around the town’s artistic sites on a variety of Fauvism-related themes, and has a small boutique selling reproductions and postcards.

Collioure is stuffed with art galleries and shops selling art supplies, making it the perfect place to have a dabble with a paintbrush yourself, and it is heaven for photographers.

Do not miss the tiny Musée Peské in Collioure. It is best to visit when they have a temporary exhibition on. But if you are staying in the area for a few days, also visit the Musée d’Art Moderne de Céret which attracts 80,000 people a year with its permanent collection.

The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Museum in nearby Port-Vendres has a collection of his water colours and furniture designs and is also worth a look.

Arles is inextricably associated with the art of Vincent Van Gogh. Exploring the pale stone buildings, the Roman arena, it is easy to imagine how it must have looked when the painter arrived there in February 1888.

The town was something of a peaceful backwater, surrounded by Provençal landscapes. He produced more than 300 paintings and drawings while he was there, including some of his most famous works, The Night Café, The Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhône, and L’Arlésienne. Paul Gauguin also painted in Arles while visiting Van Gogh.

The hospital where Van Gogh was treated after his left ear was cut off, is now an exhibition space called Espace van Gogh. (New theories suggest that this was the result of a bar-room brawl rather than an act of self-mutilation but at this distance in time, neither theory is proven.) The courtyard has been planted to resemble his painting Le Jardin de l’Hôtel de Dieu and the building houses exhibitions as well as souvenir shops and a café.

Nearby, the mountain village of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence was where Van Gogh was admitted to a mental hospital. While there, he produced The Starry Night as well as his The Wheat Field series, many paintings of flowers and some haunting pictures of the hospital. 

Le Havre meanwhile, styles itself as the birthplace of Impressionism because it was here the marine artist Eugène Boudin met Claude Monet, who was only 18 at the time and starting out as an artist.

Under Boudin’s influence, Monet began painting landscapes and developed a lifelong interest in reproducing the play of light on water.

His 1872 work, Impression, Sunrise, painted in Le Havre, gave its name to the Impressionist style of painting.

Reflecting this, the port city is home to the magnificent André Malraux Museum of Modern Art (MuMa) which contains the largest collection of Impressionist works in France bar only the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

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