Postcard: Art in the Provence

Today’s postcard is from St Paul near Vence, just above Nice on the french Riviera.

St Paul is a medieval village perched on a hill top. Just outside the wall of the citadel is an inn named “la Colombe d’Or”, the Golden Dove. This unassuming inn became a favourite haunt for artists in 1920′ and after.

The innkeeper’s son, Paul Roux, had an exceptional eye for emerging art and somehow attracted relatively unknown artists like Picasso, Miro and such like. The inn’s reputation grew and became host to many great painters and writers like Vlaminck, Matisse, D.H. Lawrence and Kipling and many others. The Colombe d’Or is still open for business and you can add your name to its illustrious guest list.

St Paul itself is a huge magnet for tourists that seem to pass the historical inn in favour of crowded tourist shops in the citadel. In fairness, the front of the inn doesn’t look particularly special but the terrace at the back has an amazing view of a small valley with vines and olive groves. From here it is easy to imagine Matisse sketching the waitress with olive leaf shaped limbs on a napkin whilst sipping an ice cold rosΓ©.

There are at least a dozen very good galleries in St Paul, including a couple that sell Warhol, Chagal and Picasso. Surprisingly, these galleries are interspersed by sweet shops and souvenir dens and it is easy to think that the double signed Warhol print of Mick Jagger in the window next to the fridge magnet stand is a cheap copy.

It isn’t.

Although St Paul is cute and quaint, its light or scenery is not all that different from the surrounding villages and it was really only due to a passionate innkeeper’s son that St Paul became a junction of art.

A similar place is a few hours west in the village of St Remy de Provence, just below Avignon. This, and in the next town, Arles, is where Van Gogh painted his most famous works. It is also the birth town of Nostradamus a few centuries earlier.

St Remy is also a medieval citadel that became a centre for art. Gaugain lived with Van Gogh here but as much as Van Gogh tried to make their friendship work, Gaugain preferred his own good company and moved on, leaving Van Gogh in his downward spiral of distress. Ever since, St Remy has attracted both artists and art admirers. Unlike St Paul, St Remy is a real town with a real population. It is animated and although Van Gogh’s Starry Night was painted in Arles, the brasseries in St Remy definitely have that Starry Night feel about them.

When you walk in the countryside just outside St Remy, it is like walking inside Van Gogh’s paintings. His bright and vivid colours of irises, olive trees, wheat fields or skies, are exactly as they are today.

One is not likely to question Van Gogh’s genius as an impressionist painter but when you see his original subject matter, you may wonder if he simply copied what he saw without any attempt at interpretation. Given his ambition for speed painting, even his style becomes, ehh, almost obvious. Daring yes but what else could he do? It is then not surprising that few if any of the locals thought much of his paintings. This explains why you won’t see his paintings here. None was left behind, as far as I know.

It is a privilege to walk in these scenes that inspired these great artists. When you stand in the hospice room where Van Gogh painted sunflowers, how can you not feel his restless urge to paint every waking moment, even when he wasn’t well enough to leave his room?

To share for a brief moment the light that coloured the palettes of these great masters and to get a glimpse of their impressions that changed forever how we look at the world.

I can’t deny that at such a moment, I want to take up a brush and paint and express myself like they did.

If I do, I promise not to sell any in my lifetime.

Don’t worry.

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