The Côte d’Azur is overflowing with art galleries and museums. Small ones and large ones, some you’ve heard of and some you haven’t. You’ll find local galleries that are like little hidden treasures and famous museums known around the world. You can’t visit any town or village in the area without stumbling across some type of art museum or gallery. From Menton to Nice to St. Paul de Vence to Antibes to Aix-en-Provence, and everywhere in-between, art museums are scattered far and wide throughout the French Riviera. I think we can attribute this in part to the fact that so many famous artists have lived and worked in this area over the years. It is said that the light in this part of France is like no other and that, among other things, has attracted artists from Van Gogh to Picasso to Matisse to Chagall. Carole and I have been to many of the art museums in the area over the years. Because Vence is part of the Nice administrative zone we have museum passes which allow us to get into most of the fabulous Nice museums for free. But there is one museum that I think is a bit different from all the rest, Le Musée Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer. You won’t find the largest selection of art here. In fact, the amount of actual art is very small compared to many museums. The big draw here, at least for me, is that the museum is located in Renoir’s beautiful villa on his magnificent estate. I find that when I visit this museum I actually spend as much time roaming around the grounds of the estate as I do viewing the art hanging on the museum walls.
[more info after the photo gallery]
Pierre Auguste Renoir was born in 1841 in Limoges. He grew up in Paris and worked for some time as a porcelain painter before enrolling in art lessons at the age of 20. In 1864 he first began making his paintings available to the public and shortly thereafter became an integral part of the “impressionist movement.” During this period he painted what are now known as his first masterpieces (“Ball at the Moulin de la Galette,” “The Swing” and “Two Sisters” just to name a few). His paintings, especially his portrait commissions, brought him a steady income and allowed him to live comfortably with his family in Paris. His wife, Aline, and their three sons, Pierre, Jean and Claude were frequent subjects for his many paintings.
The female nude was one of Renoir’s primary subjects and his paintings celebrate the beauty and sensuality of the human body. Indeed, he is known today as one of the greatest painters of the female body. His paintings are full of vibrant light, saturated colors and rich, luminous atmospheres. In addition to his nudes, he is probably best known for his portraits and figure paintings, but he also painted many landscapes that have become some of his most popular works. He was an incredibly prolific artist and over his lifetime he created several thousand paintings, continuing to work up to the very end of his life.
In 1892 Renoir first began to experience symptoms of progressive chronic polyarthritis. The joints of his hands, wrists, ankles and feet started to become increasingly deformed. His doctor advised him to spend the winter months in the south of France, convinced that the warm weather would help with his conditions.
In February 1898 Renoir first visited Cagnes-sur-Mer and fell under the influence of what was, at the time, a small, charming, rural Mediterranean village. Beginning in 1903 he began to spend more and more time each year in the area. He was especially drawn to a small farm, Les Collettes, where huge ancient olive trees, said to have been planted by the soldiers of King Francois I, grew on a hill overlooking the sea. Palm, mandarin, lime and bitter orange trees grew alongside grape vines, roses and any number of other flowers, long grasses and shrubs. He would often paint here, alone or with friends such as Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Auguste Rodin, to name just a few.
When it was announced in 1907 that the property might be sold to a company who would cut down all the olive trees to grow carnations (or make napkin rings as an alternate story goes) Renoir and his wife purchased the farm. They continued to operate the farm during their years there and made every effort to preserve the wild and pastoral atmosphere of the property. Aline looked after the gardens and grew enough vegetables to keep the family fed. Local workers would come to help with the olive and orange harvests. It was here at his beloved Les Collette estate that Renoir died in 1919.
The entire site was significantly renovated in 2013. This involved the restoration of the house and also included opening up the lower, garden level floor which is now dedicated to Renoir’s sculptures. Wandering around this estate, roaming through the tall grass between the old olive trees, strolling through the garden and the small orange grove, walking up and down the well manicured trails, is a real delight and one that I never tire of. It’s not hard to see why Renoir was so attracted to this little piece of land. The views of Haut-de-Cagnes, Cap d’Antibes and the Mediterranean coast are simply stunning. Quiet, serene, peaceful and rustic, it’s a beautiful place to spend a morning or afternoon.
Established to preserve the memory of Renoir, his work and his Cagnes-sur-Mer estate, the Renoir Museum first opened its doors in 1960. The museum is housed in the villa that was built for Renoir and in which he lived from 1908 until his death. The estate was acquired by the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer in the late 1950s and turned into a museum because of concern about the preservation of the site. It is now an official “Musée de France,” meaning that the Ministry of Culture has designated it as a major museum serving the public.
At the end of the 1950s when the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer acquired the estate with the intention of turning it into a museum, only a few pieces of furniture remained in the villa. Due to the support of private art collectors and large national museums around the world the town was able to put together an impressive collection to fill the museum. In total there are now about 200 pieces of art located in the museum, all of which are in one way or another linked to Renoir. The museum contains 16 original Renoir paintings and 40 of his sculptures. There are also numerous other paintings by friends of Renoir, many of them using Les Collettes as the subject.
When you first arrive at the estate you will find a visitor’s welcoming center where a knowledgeable staff can answer questions and help with the details of your visit. A gift shop is filled with a large variety of souvenirs, books, prints and other things.
By today’s standards the house that now serves as the actual museum is not large or particularly imposing, though it is quite beautiful. When the Renoirs first purchased the estate there was just a very small farmhouse on the grounds. Aline hired a prominent Nice architect, Jules Febvre, to design and build a new house large enough for the entire Renoir family and guests. The facades are built from rough stones that remain unpainted. A lower floor, at the garden level, sits next to a large exterior staircase that leads up the main floor of the house. Large bay windows in the house give way to spectacular views of the coastline. Interesting enough, though Renoir painted numerous views of the estate and the property, he never once painted the house.
When you enter the building through the exterior staircase you find yourself in the sitting room which was painstakingly restored during the recent renovations. Photographs of the Renoir family are now placed throughout the room where they spent so much time. Beside it is the dining room, also renovated to look as it did when the Renoir’s lived there. Experts were able to examine patches and remains of the furniture fabrics and walls and restore them to their original glory. More photos of the family line the room. The kitchen and a few small bedrooms complete the bottom floor. A few paintings by Renoir of his son Claude can be found in the Maurice Gangnat room.
Renoir’s main studio is located on the second floor and it is here that you will find some of his studio furniture still intact. It’s amazing to walk through this room and see all of his tools still in place. Easels, brushes, canvases, palettes, it’s as if he just stepped out to have a cup of coffee on the terrace and will be right back in a few minutes. It’s one of the things I love most about this museum, the fact that you find yourself in the very rooms where Renoir lived and painted.
Most of the Renoir paintings housed at the museum are located here on the second floor. In Claude’s bedroom you’ll find six beautiful canvases, including “La Ferme des Collettes” and “Les Toits du Vieux Nice (The Roofs Of Old Nice).” Down the hallway in Renoir’s bedroom is the huge painting “Les Grandes Baigneuses de la Période Dite Aigre” along with two other female nudes. Next to Renoir’s bedroom is Aline’s bedroom, a bathroom, some other small bedrooms and a second, smaller studio that Renoir often used. These rooms contain other paintings by Renoir as well as artifacts from his sons: stills from movies and ceramic works.
The lower, garden level floor of the house has been dedicated to the sculpture work that Renoir created, mostly in his later life, and mostly with the help of an assistant, Richard Guino. Renoir would choose the subject, draw preliminary sketches and advise Guino how to fashion the clay or wax. Together they created around 20 pieces, the most well known being “The Washer Woman” and “The Venus Victrix.” Unfortunately, this partnership ended in bitterness with Guino feeling under appreciated for his portion of the work and for many, many years the sculptures were credited, publicized and exploited as the work of Renoir alone. It was not until 1973 that Guino was able to win a lawsuit and gain recognition as a “co-author” of the sculptures.
The museum is open from 10:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:00PM to 6:00PM from June to September. From October to March 10:00AM to 12:00PM and 2:00PM to 5:00PM. In April and May 10:00AM to 12:00PM and 2:00PM to 6:00PM. Be careful, it’s closed every Tuesday.
Admission is very reasonable, just 6€ for adults and free for everyone under 26 years of age. There is also a “combination” ticket you can buy for 8€ which allows you access to the Grimaldi Castle in Haut-de-Cagnes, just a few kilometers away.
Parking is somewhat limited at the museum itself but it’s only a 10 or 15 minute walk from some large parking lots in Cagnes-sur-Mer. There is also a free shuttle that runs during the high season.