Niki de Saint Phalle, ‘La Toilette’, 1978, paper maché and var. materials. Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain


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Nice is second only to Paris as the French city with most museums and galleries. Since the latter years of the 19th century the light, climate and lifestyle of the south of France have attracted some of the art world’s most legendary names and inspired them to create some of their best work.

Behind the trompe l’oeil facade of a 17th century villa, the Matisse Museum holds Henri Matisse’s entire personal collection, including his famous cut-outs. There are also paintings, drawings, prints, illustrated books, photographs, engravings, sketches, tapestries, ceramics, stained glass windows and all the bronze sculptures he ever made – a visual history of the artist’s work.

Marc Chagall Museum

The Marc Chagall Museum is housed in a modern building especially designed to display the largest public collection of the artist’s works. At the heart of the collection is the Biblical Message cycle of 17 paintings illustrating Old Testament books. Chagall himself decided the placement of the works on the walls.

The Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, or MAMAC, specialises in the main avant-garde art movements in France and the US over the last half century. Highlights include a room dedicated to Yves Klein (the leading figure of the French New Realist movement), a collection of American Pop Art and a large part of Niki de Saint Phalle’s personal collection, including her rotund, colourful and larger than life figures. The building itself is a major landmark, with four corner towers linked by glassed-in walkways and a series of rooftop bridges connecting terraces with spectacular panoramas of the city.

Nice is also the main gateway to the Cote d’Azur, or Riviera, where artists spread out and settled along the coast or in the inland hilltop villages.

In Vence Henri Matisse dedicated three years to the design of a masterpiece of sacred art, the Chapelle du Rosaire. Matisse worked on all aspects of the building’s design and decoration, including stained glass windows, ceramics and furniture – the first time an artist designed an entire monument.

Picasso Museum (Photo: J-L Andral)

Antibes is famous for its ramparts, where the Picasso Museum is perched over the Mediterranean. Picasso moved to Antibes in 1946 and accepted an invitation from the city’s mayor to use a room in a former chateau of the Grimaldi family, the rulers of Monaco. Paintigh on whatever materials were at hand in the austere, post-war years, including plywood, recycled sail canvas and concrete, he subsequently donated the works from this period to the city of Antibes and the chateau became the first national museum in France dedicated to a living artist.

Picasso is also linked to Vallauris, where he first learned ceramic techniques, producing over 4,000 works, many of them on display in the Magnelli Museum and the Ceramics Museum. Both are housed in a former Renaissance priory which is also home to the Picasso ‘War and Peace’ Museum, named after the two remarkable murals permanently installed in the deconsecrated chapel, now a kind of ‘peace temple’. In front of the museum stands the bronze statue ‘L’Homme au Mouton’ (‘Man with a sheep’, 1943), the first Picasso sculpture installed in a public place.

Fernand Léger died soon after buying a villa in Biot, which his wife turned into the Léger Museum. The vast murals on the outside walls demonstrate why Léger is considered a forerunner of Pop Art. With almost 350 paintings, drawings, oils, stained glass windows and mosaics, it is the largest collection of Leger’s works in the world.

Pierre Bonnard, a founder member of a group of avant-garde artists known as Les Nabis (‘The prophets’ in Hebrew), has a museum dedicated to him in a former hotel in Le Cannet. The Bonnard Museum has a permanent collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs and stages changing exhibitions exploring different aspects of Bonnard’s work.

Located in a sumptuous 19th century building, the former residence of a Ukrainian princess, the Musée des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) has a collection of over 600 works spanning the 15th to the 20th century. Some of the rooms are among the largest of any museum on the French Riviera. Along with the main attraction, a collection by the Fauvist Raoul Dufy, the Ecole Francaise is well represented by the likes of Degas, Boudin and Sisley, while Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists include Bonnard, Vuillard and Van Dongen.

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