Henri Matisse lived in here in Vence from 1943 to 1949 when he conceived and decorated the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. After World War II Marc Chagall spent time in Vence working with ceramics, sculpture and stained glass windows. Chaïm Soutine was here for over a decade. During the same period Raoul Dufy was moving back and forth between Vence, Menton and Grasse. Jean Dubuffet built a house here and lived and worked in it for many years. Alexis Mossa explored Vence and the surrounding areas in the late 1800s and early 1900s, producing over seven thousand watercolor paintings. You see where I’m going with this?
Vence has long been a favorite location for painters, sculptures and other creative individuals. The landscapes, the light, the climate, the Baous, the fountains, the old town. All of this and more has attracted artists from all over the world for hundreds of years. Today we’ll look at a short walk you can take through the heart of Vence and visit six locations used for some well known paintings.
All along the Côte d’Azur you’ll find these special lecterns which have been set up in various cities, towns and villages to mark the location where famous paintings were created. They show the painting itself and give you some basic information about the painter. It’s very inspiring to stand in the exact spot the painter stood and look at the exact scene they were looking at. It’s interesting to see how the landscape or village has changed since the original painting was created. In Vence we have six of these little markers. Note: A lot of famous painters also hung out in Saint-Paul de Vence which is about five miles away from Vence. Many people confuse the two towns, but trust me, Vence is the place to be. Saint-Paul de Vence is beautiful but overrun by tourists. But, I won’t go into that today.
“L’arbre de Vence” – Chaïm Soutine
We’ll begin our walk at the famous Ash Tree located in the Place du Frêne. Said to be almost 500 years old, this magnificent tree is one of the most famous landmarks in Vence. Planted in 1538 to commemorate a visit to Nice by King François 1st it towers above the small square and provides comfort and shade to all those who pass by. In 1929 Chaïm Soutine painted the tree and titled it “L’arbre de Vence” (The Tree of Vence). The oil on canvas work measures 74.8cm by 52.3cm. Soutine painted this tree numerous times.
Chaïm Soutine was a Russian painter of Jewish origin who lived in Vence for over ten years (1919 to 1929). Inspired by classic painting in the European tradition (Rembrandt, Chardin, Courbet), he made a major contribution to the expressionist movement. By concentrating on shapes, colors and textures more than the actual physical appearance of objects, he developed a very unique and individual style that served as something of a bridge between the classical painters and the more abstract painters that would soon follow. My favorite story about Soutrine is that when he suddenly sold 60 paintings to a prominent American collector, after having been broke for most of his life, he took the money, ran into the streets of Paris, flagged down a taxi and ordered the driver to take him immediately to Nice, over 900 kilometers (almost 600 miles) away. My kind of guy! One of his most famous paintings, Le Bœuf sold at auction for $28,165,000 in 2015. Another version of “L’arbre de Vence” was sold in 2004 by Christie’s of London for 1,297,000€ ($1,608,280). It remains today in the private collection of the buyer.
“La vue sur l’Adret” – Jean Dubuffet
From Le Frêne it’s a very short walk onto the Belvédère Fernand Moutet where we have a fantastic view of the Baous and the valley of the Lubaine River. Clearly the view was just as impressive to Jean Dubuffet who painted it in 1961. “La vue sur l’Adret” (The view of the Adret) is currently housed in the Collection Foundation Doubuffet in Paris. An oil on canvas work that measures 132cm by 162cm the painting features the houses, streets and hills of le Baou des Blancs which I can see clearly out my office window. Interestingly, Dubuffet also did an Indian ink and ink wash on paper version of this same scene.
Jean Philippe Arthur Dubuffet was a French painter and sculptor. He embraced a style known as “low art,” abandoning the traditional standards of beauty and instead embracing what he considered a more authentic approach. He founded the art movement known as “Art Brut” (raw art or rough art) which focused almost excusiveley on art created by those outside of the established art scene, having little or no contact with the mainstream art world or art institutions. Children, the mentally ill and other “outsiders” were prominent examples. Dubuffet built a house and studio in Vence in 1955 where he lived off and on for almost twenty years.
“Place Surian” – Maurice Cahours
For our next painting we’ll need to backtrack a bit. Turn around and head up Avenue Marcellin Maurel, entering the old town at the Le Pontis passageway. Just a few steps up on your right is Place Surian, a wonderful little square, today filled mostly with restaurants. Henri-Maurice Cahours painted this scene in 1968. It’s a small little work of gouache (opaque watercolor), only 13c by 17cm, that perfectly captures the romantic feel of old Vence. The blue sky, the large umbrellas sheltering market vendors, the bare tree and townspeople all give us a look into the past via this impressionist work. Today it is held by a private collector.
Henri-Maurice Cahours is not as well known today as some of the other painters featured on this walk. He worked for many years in Paris where he often painted the old streets of Montmartre. He was one of the most well known painters of the area in the period following World War II, friends will all the artists and characters that Montmartre attracted in the 1950s. Due to his wife’s poor health he moved to Vence in 1965 where he transformed the former prison of the Bishop of Vence, built in the 15th century, into a workshop for painting. Until his death in 1974 he often traveled back and forth to Normandy and some of his best known work is that of the seascapes he painted from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and English Channel.
“Vence un passage sous voûte” – Alexis Mossa
Pass through Place Surian and take Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, then turn left on Rue Saint Lambert until you arrive at Place Godeau. Our next painting is the work of Alexis Mossa, a piece entitled “Vence un passage sous voûte” (A passage under an arch in Vence). A watercolor completely devoid of people, this is now on view in the Musée Masséna in Nice. Painted in 1907 the painting features a archway passage through the old town of Vence. Now over a hundred years old it’s easy to see some of the changes that have occured in the buildings Mossa painted. The archway is no longer round as it is in his painting, it’s rectangular now with some decorative corners. The tree still stands, though the windows above the archway also appear different now.
Alexis Mossa was born in Colombia, though his parents were from Nice. They returned to the south of France when Mossa was five years old. He attended the Paris School of Fine Arts and returned to Nice in 1869 where he established himself by creating parade floats, carnival albums and posters. During his lifetime he painted hundreds and hundreds of watercolors, but little was known of them at the time. His son kept most of the paintings hidden and they were finally discovered almost fifty years after his death. Today many of his paintings, such as this one of Vence, hold significant historical value as they identify and describe little known or forgotten aspects of small French villages.
“La Fontaine de Vence” – Raoul Dufy
From Place Godeau turn right on Rue des Portiques and then right again on Boulevard Paul André after you pass out of the old town. Straight ahead, suitated in Place Antony Mars, you will see the magnificent Basse Fountaine which dates back to 1822 in its current form. An oil on canvas painting from the painter Raoul Dufy makes use of this beautiful setting. Measuring 65cm by 54cm, Dufy’s painting uses cool pastel colors and a playful style to reproduce the famous fountain. Dufy sketched and painted this fountain multiple times and a similar one of his paintings sold in 1999 for $112,500 at a Christie’s auction in New York. This particular painting, the one featured in our walk, can be seen in the MNAM Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Raoul Dufy was a draftsman, printmaker, scenic designer, book illustrator, furniture designer, planner of public spaces and painter. He was known as a “Fauvist” painter, a group of early 20th-century modern artists whose work emphasized strong color and painterly qualities over realistic values. Born in Normandy in the port city of Le Havre, Dufy developed his own distinctive approach to painting, a style that came to be known as “stenopgraphic.” Skeletal structures, foreshortened perspective and the use of thin washes of color gave these paintings a cheerful, almost childlike feel. In 1937 he completed one of the largest paintings every created, a very popular ode to electricty known as “La Fée Electricité” for the 1937 Exposition Internationale in Paris. He spent a considerable amount of time on the French Riviera painting yachting scenes, chic parties and musical events.
“Jour de Foire, Place du Grand Jardin” – William Thornley
From Place Anythony Mars take Avenue Marcellin Maurel to Le Grand Jardin, the large square at the heart of Vence. Our last painting is by the French painter and printmaker, Georges William Thornley. It’s a dark, red tinted oil painting whose exact date is unknown. Thornley was the President of the Society of Fine Arts of Antibes from 1928 until his death in 1935, so I’m guessing it is from somewhere around this time. The painting showcases some type of fair in Le Grand Jardin in Vence, looking much different than it does today. At this time the “garden” occupied both sides of the street, while today it is confined to the south side only.
Georges William Thornley was a successful French painter, engraver, lithographer and watercolorist, remembered today mostly for his seascapes from Normandy and his landscapes from the French and Italian Rivieras. He began exhibiting work in 1878 and won several awards throughout his career. He is considered an impressionist and his style features bold brushwork and paint laid on the canvas in very thick layers so that the brush strokes are clearly visible. His work is usually very detailed and moody, capturing light and color in a very decorative manner.
As I said earlier, you can find these kinds of lecturnes throughout the Côte d’Azur. If you stop in any city, town or village and visit the Office de Tourisme be sure and ask them if they have a brochure outlining the path you can take to visit the landmarks.