Beyond beaches: Art in the French Riviera

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - Rick Steves Rick Steves (www.rick steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected] steves.com and follow his blog on Face­book.

With its ro­man­tic coast­line, invit­ing beaches, and re­li­able sun­shine, south­ern France’s Riviera re­gion has been a tourist des­ti­na­tion since the 1860s. A hun­dred years ago, aris­to­crats from Lon­don to Moscow flocked here to so­cial­ize, gam­ble, and escape the dreary weather at home. But the area also at­tracted a who’s who of 20th-cen­tury artists, who were drawn by the Mediter­ranean’s bo­hemian at­mos­phere, lu­mi­nous light, and con­trast­ing col­ors of sea, sand and sky.

The le­ga­cies of the many artists who worked in the south — in­clud­ing Pier­reAu­guste Renoir, Henri Matisse, Marc Cha­gall, Ge­orges Braque, Raoul Dufy, Fer­nand Léger and Pablo Pi­casso — are memo­ri­al­ized to­day in an in­trigu­ing col­lec­tion of lo­cal mu­se­ums. And vis­it­ing them is easy, with­out the long lines and crowds of other ma­jor mu­se­ums (leav­ing you plenty of time for the beach). Here are some high­lights:

Renoir Mu­seum, Cagnes-sur-Mer

Pierre-Au­guste Renoir, whose Im­pres­sion­ist paint­ings strad­dled the turn of the last cen­tury, built a house and work­shop for him­self in Cagnes-sur-Mer in 1907. By then an old man, Renoir would spend his last 12 years in this lit­tle vil­lage (half­way be­tween Nice and An­tibes), hap­pily tend­ing his fruit trees, paint­ing in his stu­dio and dab­bling in sculp­ture. Vis­i­tors see his ate­lier, with his easel and palette still in place (as well as his wheel­chair and canes), and some orig­i­nal paint­ings. www.cagnes­tourisme.com

Matisse Mu­seum, Nice

Henri Matisse, the mas­ter col­orist, first came to Nice in 1917, leav­ing be­hind fi­nan­cial strug­gles and a dif­fi­cult mar­riage in Paris. He would re­main in the Riviera, on and off, un­til his death in 1954. Though this mu­seum’s col­lec­tion is slen­der, you’ll see typ­i­cal examples of his fa­vorite mo­tifs (flow­ers, fruit, fe­male nudes) as well as his love of dec­o­ra­tive pat­terns and joyful color. www.musee-ma­tis­senice.org

Cha­gall Mu­seum, Nice

Marc Cha­gall set­tled in the Riviera af­ter World War II. His best-known paint­ings fea­ture a mag­i­cal re­al­is­tic style that con­jures up his na­tive Rus­sia, with fid­dlers on roofs and horses in flight. Cha­gall had a hand in d es­ign­ing this de­light­ful mu­seum, which in­cludes his Bib­li­cal Mes­sage cy­cle: 17 large lu­mi­nous can­vases on bib­li­cal themes, painted in bright reds, blues and greens that man­age to com­bine aspects of his Rus­sian/Jewish her­itage with the Chris­tian mes­sage. www.musees-na­tionaux -alpes­mar­itimes.fr

Pi­casso Mu­seum, An­tibes

Pablo Pi­casso, the pi­o­neer of cu­bism, sum­mered on the Riviera nearly ev­ery year from 1919 un­til he died in 1973 — with the ex­cep­tion of World War II. But in 1946 he re­turned to An­tibes, on the coast, where he spent a pro­duc­tive part of a year work­ing in the town’s land­mark Château Grimaldi. Forced to im­pro­vise his ma­te­ri­als af­ter the short­ages of the war years, but elated by the new­found peace (and a new girl­friend), Pi­casso pro­duced an amaz­ing vol­ume of cel­e­bra­tory, col­or­ful art­works. The com­pact mu­seum now housed in the Grimaldi of­fers a man­age­able look at the paint­ings and sketches Pi­casso made there. www.an­tibes-juan­le­spins.com/cul­ture/museep­i­casso

Pi­casso Mu­seum, Val­lau­ris

Af­ter his sab­bat­i­cal in An­tibes, Pi­casso moved on to Val­lau­ris, a typ­i­cal Riviera vil­lage mid­way be­tween An­tibes and Cannes. The lit­tle town was home to sev­eral ac­tive art pot­ter­ies, and Pi­casso be­came so en­am­ored by the ce­ram­ics he saw that he re­solved to take up clay as a medium. He ended up stay­ing in Val­lau­ris un­til 1955, and the mu­seum there is a good place to be­come ac­quainted with his play­ful ap­proach to ce­ramic art. www.museep­i­casso-val­lau­ris.fr

Maeght Foun­da­tion, St. Paul de Vence

This invit­ing, pri­vate mu­seum, sit­u­ated just above the in­land town of St.

Paul de Vence, of­fers an ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion to mod­ern Mediter­ranean art. Its founder, the Parisian art dealer Aimé Maeght, pur­chased an arid hill­top in the 1960s, planted it with 35,000 trees and shrubs, and hired the Cata­lan ar­chi­tect José Luis Sert to de­sign a mu­seum for his col­lec­tion. To­day it gath­ers the work of many fa­mous mod­ern artists (Fer­nand Léger, Joan Miró, Alexan­der Calder, Ge­orges

Braque, Marc Cha­gall) un­der one roof. The lovely set­ting, with a ver­dant sculp­ture gar­den, is a bonus. www.fon­da­tion­maeght.com

Matisse Rosary Chapel, Vence

Matisse con­va­lesced from cancer surgery in 1941 with the help of a Do­mini­can nun, and years later, in 1949, he re­paid the fa­vor by designing this tiny chapel in the hills above Nice. De­cep­tively sim­ple, the chapel is tiled in plain white, with a few black-on­white line draw­ings (one de­picts St. Do­minic). But yel­low, green and blue stained-glass win­dows fil­ter the sun­light, cre­at­ing a cheery dance across the walls — ex­press­ing Matisse’s ir­re­press­ible love of life. It’s a space of light and calm that only a mas­ter could have cre­ated. www.chapellema­tisse.fr

Thanks to th­ese di­verse mu­se­ums, the Riviera has a cul­tural rich­ness that’s not typ­i­cal of re­sort ar­eas. The col­lec­tions re­flect the con­ge­nial joie de vivre of south­ern France: the play­ful­ness, free­dom, color and beauty that in­spires artists to this day.

DO­MINIC ARI­ZONA BONUCCELLI/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

The es­sen­tial el­e­ments of the French Riviera appeal to va­ca­tion­ers and artists alike in places such as Nice.

RICK STEVES/RICK STEVES’ EUROPE

The Cha­gall Mu­seum in Nice was pur­pose-built dur­ing the artist’s life­time to present his bib­li­cal paint­ings.

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