Home to the artist Picasso that called “the father of us all”, Aix-en-Province celebrates its famous son with a number of landmarks, while a clutch of art and craft museums makes the town a Provencal favourite of art-lovers.
Aix town centre has changed little since Paul Cezanne last walked its streets over a century ago. The Cours Mirabeau, southern France’s stateliest avenue, is still the heart of the city. Edged with plane trees and sidewalk cafes and dubbed the “Champs Elysees of the South”, the Cours stretches 440 metres from, at one end, the vast Rotonde roundabout and fountain – the first of four fountains along the Cours, the figures on it represent Law (facing Cours Mirabeau), Agriculture (facing Marseille) and Art (facing Avignon) – to Good King René’s fountain at the other end, with the 15th century Count of Provence, a poet and arts patron, holding the Muscat grapes that he introduced into the region.
Place de la Mairie (Town Hall Square) in Aix-en-Provence Old Town (‘Vieil Aix’), Photo: Daniel Kapikian
The 42 metre wide thoroughfare separates the narrow streets and alleyways of the medieval-Renaissance old town (Vieil Aix) from the elegant Mazarin district, filled with townhouses by the richest noble families when the city was enlarged in the 17th century. No.55 on the Cours Mirabeau is the house where Paul Cézanne lived as a child.
The 42 metre wide Cours Mirabeau, dubbed the “Champs Elysees of the South”, Photo: Sophie Spiteri
Paul Cezanne’s statue at the end of the Cours Mirabeau
In the Mazarin district the Hotel de Caumont Centre d’Art occupies a gorgeous 18th century mansion which was completely restored in 2010 to become an art centre. You can almost hear the carriage horses clip-clop their way into the ‘cour d’honneur’ or breathe in the refined atmosphere in the opulently appointed period rooms.
Chambre de Madame in the Caumont Centre d’Art, Photo: Sophie Lloyd
Two upper rooms host special exhibitions, which recently have included Masterpieces of the Guggenheim: From Manet to Picasso and Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro: The Great Masters of Japan. In fine weather the Cafe Caumont spills out onto the spacious patio, which leads to an immaculately landscaped walled garden complete with a fountain topped with three giant, water-spewing stone fish.
In the auditorium the film ‘Cezanne in the Aix region’ pays tribute to the town’s favourite son and his love for the area which so influenced his work. Beautifully photographed, the film features actors playing the artist, his friends and family members, with voice-overs and dialogue in the painter’s own words offering a glimpse into his private life. Showing some of his most famous paintings and images of places where he lived and worked, the film is an excellent foretaste to further Cezanne attractions.
A scene from ‘Cezanne in the Aix region’ © Culturespaces (Hotel de Caumont Centre d’Art)
Housed in the state rooms of the former Archbishop’s Palace, the Musée des Tapisseries shows a collection of 17th and 18th century tapestries consisting of three suites featuring grotesque figures, scenes from ‘Don Quixote’ and Russian folk games. These are complemented by temporary exhibitions of contemporary sculpture and other works.
Musée des Tapisseries
The palace courtyard, the Theatre of the Archbishop, is filled with banked seating to host opera performances in the annual Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.
A scene from Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ at the 2019 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, © Jean-Louis Fernandez
The main civic art museum in Aix is the Musée Granet, named after its founder, the local painter Francois Granet (1775-1849), whose works are among those by Provencal and other French painters (including a huge Ingres) as well as 14th to 18th century Flemish and Italian works. There is also a sculpture gallery and an archaeology section.
Cezanne frequented the building for five years when it was an art school, but despite his subsequent fame his presence is low key in the form of ten early works shown, curiously, in an unmarked room. (Follow the Archaeology signs.) Cezanne’s sparse representation is due to an early curator who, in common with most of conservative Aix’s high society in the late 19th century, objected to what he considered his avant-garde art, declaring: “Never in my lifetime will one of his works enter here”. None did, though some have crept in since, including a forerunner of the ‘Large Bathers’ and portraits of his wife and childhood friend, Emile Zola.
Paul Cezanne, ‘Les Beigneuses’, c.1890 (Musée Granet)
In 2010 the Musée Granet acquired an annex in the nearby Granet XXe (Granet 20th), a beautifully modernised 17th century chapel which is now home to a fine collection of 19th and 20th century art assembled by the late collector Jean Plaque, himself a painter with a Cezannesque style. The collection includes works by Picasso, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Degas, Renoir, Gaugin, Bonnard, Monet, Paul Klee and others. There are also examples of Cubism (Juan Gris, Dufy, Fresnaye, Leger) and Art Brut.
Granet XXe (Granet 20th)
Upon his death in 1941 the Swiss-born art collector Henri Dobler left the Pavillon de Vendome, a 17th century mansion, along with his collections, to the town of Aix-en-Provence in order for it to be turned into a museum. (A painter himself, Dobler had a feud with Cezanne, whose work he called “dirty paintings” and “the biggest scam of the century”.)
Pavillon de Vendome
Dobler purchased the faded baroque jewel in 1906, returning it to its former glory and filling it with Provencal furniture. The collections are made up of 17th and 18th century portraits and canvases of the four seasons, augmented by modern and contemporary art exhibitions. The Pavilion is surrounded by a formal French garden.
On the western outskirts of town stands the ‘architectonic’ centre of Aix. Designed by the ‘op art’ pioneer himself, the Vasalery Foundation is a temple to modern art, where 44 monumental works by the Hungarian master of optical illusion, Victor Vasalery, enliven the mood in this vast, lumino-kinetic building. Visitors can immerse themselves in what feels like a gigantic construction game, with works made of anodised metal, tapestry, ceramic, enamel and silkscreen-printed glass creating a ‘multi-coloured city of happiness’. In the “Vasarely Plasticien” (“Vasarely Plastic Artist”) area you can explore the artist’s world through almost 200 original works and documents, from his beginnings as a graphic designer to his work on monumental pieces. There is also a series of temporary exhibitions and other events.
“When you’re born there, it’s hopeless, nothing compares!…The whole future of art is to be found here in the south of France.” So described Paul Cezanne his love for the region which defined his art. Cezanne (1839-1906) remains Aix’s main ambassador. During the two-hour guided walking tour In the steps of Cezanne art pilgrims can visit several landmarks which figured prominently in the artist’s life, including his birthplace, the school he attended with childhood friend Emile Zola, the location of his father’s hat shop and the apartment he returned to after a day’s painting. (Sadly, Cezanne’s favourite watering-hole, Les Deux Garcons, closed abruptly in 2019 amid alleged financial misdealings before being heavily damaged in a suspicious fire.)
To follow in Cezanne’s footsteps look out for large brass Cs in the pavement.
A frequent, 10-minute bus service to the north of town stops yards from Cezanne’s Studio, built especially for him and where he worked virtually every day from 1902 until his death in 1906. The light-filled studio has been left as if Cezanne had just popped out for lunch in town before returning for an afternoon session. Amid the artistic clutter you will spot the backpack which held his easel and painting materials and many of the actual objects depicted in his paintings, including an olive pot he depicted over 20 times, a collection of skulls and a Cupid statue.
A short walk up the hill is Cezanne’s favourite viewpoint, Le Terrain des Peintres, and a view of the Sainte-Victoire mountain, which he obsessively featured in over 80 oils and watercolours. From this viewpoint, the peak appears as a triangular shape, which appealed to Cezanne’s sense of geometry. From here too the limestone best reflects the light. Standing around the pleasant rest area are reproductions of some of his works reproduced on glazed lava stone.
Cezanne’s favourite view of the Sainte-Victoire from Le Terrain des Peintres
Le Terrain des Peintres with some of Cezanne’s works reproduced on glazed lava stone
Paul Cezanne, ‘The Sainte-Victoire mountain with a large pine’, 1886-87 © The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Cezanne also found inspiration in the Bibemus Quarries, a few kilometres east of the town centre. The quarries had been worked since ancient times (the pale stone of many of the 17th and 18th century mansions and monuments in Aix was brought from here), but by Cezanne’s time they were practically abandoned.
The Bibemus Quarries, Photo: Sophie Spiteri
However, the geometrical shapes of the quarries’ soaring walls and rocky outcrops provided the inspiration which edged Cezanne towards Cubism. He rented a small hut there, where he kept his canvases and often slept and from which he set out to paint 11 oils and 16 watercolours, including yet another view of Sainte-Victoire. Reproductions of works at the point where he painted them pepper the quarry, which can be visited by only by guided tour from the main tourist office.
Paul Cezanne, ‘The Saint Victoire mountain seen from Bibemus’, c. 1897 (Baltimore Museum of Art)
Cezanne’s final resting place is the beautifully kept Saint Pierre Cemetery, where the artist’s “neighbours” include the modernist composer Darius Milhaud, the sculptor Jean Amado, the Orientalist painter and contemporary of Cezanne, Henri-Émilien Rousseau, and the art scholar and Cezanne biographer John Rewald. In the distance behind Cezanne’s gravestone stands his beloved Sainte-Victoire.
Cezanne’s grave in the Saint Pierre Cemetery
WHERE TO STAY
Tucked away in a quiet street in the elegant Mazarin district is La Maison du Collectionneur, built in 1780 and where in the words of the owner, an interior designer and avid contemporary art collector, you can “live with the art”. His passion has led to an eclectic selection: a table from the Hotel Georges V in Paris, a chair which once belonged to Brigitte Bardot, vintage movie posters, a Christian Lacroix floor, Philippe Starck accessories, the loft room dedicated to the the ‘60s to the ’80s, a first floor homage to surrealism – everything either an authentic artwork or object or made especially for the hotel.
La Maison du Collectionneur
FURTHER INFO Pays d’Aix Tourist Office