Following the Footsteps of Impressionists
Copley News Service

A lavender sky accented by a vibrant swirl of electric-blue clouds, a fuchsia field and pastel-dotted mountains are all part of a landscape as seen through the eyes of artists living in Provence more than a century ago.

Inspired by the light, color and warmth of this region, the Impressionist and Cubist painters created their own reality, which I relived during my two-week trek through the south of France. As I followed the footsteps of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Braque and their contemporaries along scenic coastal towns, my eyes began to perceive color and form with a sharpened acuity and new meaning.

  By visiting the actual venues where these artists painted and sketched, and the myriad of museums displaying their creations, I was drawn into the life and breath of the artists' world. My journey became a continuous palette of pleasurable sights, sounds and shapes as I vicariously sensed each painter's rich experience - from the countryside of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Arles to the seascapes of Saint-Tropez.

I based myself in the larger towns of Avignon, Aix and Marseilles and took day trips by car and train. Distances ranged from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. My direct flight from San Francisco to Paris via Air France, with a change of flight to Marseilles, was the beginning of my art adventure.

SOUTH OF FRANCE - Tile roofs put a pink perspective on the French resort city of Saint-Tropez with the azure waters of the Bay of St. Tropez as a backdrop.
CNS Photo by Beverly Mann
  Founded by the Greeks in 600 B.C., the harbor town of Marseilles was a crossroads of culture and ideas. Today, the bustling commercial port and France's third-largest city is riddled with restaurants, sidewalk cafes and shops. By night, Marseilles is magical, with a memorable view from atop the ancient towering church overlooking the Old Port.

L’ESTAQUE - The harbor at L’Estaque, France, north of Marseilles, inspired cubist and post-impressionist painters such as Paul Cézanne and Georges Braque.
CNS Photo by Beverly Mann
The weather was a bit chilly and misty the day I arrived at Marseilles, but the sun managed to peak through as I ventured forth to the tiny harbor of L'Estaque, only a 15-minute bus ride north from the center of town.

Once a summer retreat, L'Estaque remains an industrial suburb with working-class neighborhoods. But it was here above Marseilles that Cubism was born and where I caught a glimpse of the colors and forms that captured the eyes of painters from the past.
  As I climbed steps and followed the signs to Cezanne's apartment at Place de L'Eglise, where he resided in 1876, I peered over the stairway to the cozy inlet below, laden with sailboats. Afterward, I walked down toward the boats where 19th century painters Dufy, Derain, Braque and Cezanne painted the harbor and striking view of Marseilles and Nerthe Mountain. The photographic images of their works on signposts facing these views made the experience even more meaningful.

Before leaving Marseilles the next day on an hour's drive to Saint-Tropez, I made a brief stopover at the unassuming seaside town of Toulon, an area rebuilt after its partial destruction during World War II. I visited the ground floor of the Musee des Beaux-Arts with its exhibition of Provencal painters Emile Loubon and Guigou, who influenced the Impressionists.

Just 30 minutes from here sits scenic Saint-Tropez, a stylish port reminiscent of the Italian Riveria and Portofino. This locale is a paradise for painters with its pastel-colored, tile-roof homes overlooking the azure waters of the Mediterranean and sculptured mountainside trimmed with emerald greenery. Once filled with intrigue by pirates and sailors who frequented the area, this jewel-box town of cobblestone pathways has been transformed into a fashionable holiday resort of boutiques and fine restaurants.

SAINT-TROPEZ - The golden-hued sunlight illuminating Saint-Tropez, France, has inspired painters, and photographers for decades. CNS Photo by Beverly Mann
The city center, Lices Square, with its array of plane trees and knotted branches, has been a motif for many a painter. The nearby restaurant, Table du Marche, proved to be a culinary treat and became my pied-a-terre in the short time I was there.

It took five minutes from here to walk to the port where hopeful painters sell their wares in a lineup of easels embroidering the waterway of sailboats and grand yachts. I thought of artist Paul Signac, who upon his arrival in 1892 immediately fell in love with this vista and felt he had enough material to keep him busy for a lifetime. Matisse and Bonnard also found their creative spirit in Saint-Tropez.
  Though difficult to leave this alluring town, I ventured back past Marseilles to my next stop, Aix-en-Provence, only a 20-minute train ride from Marseilles. A university city flowing with students, fountains and ancient dwellings, Aix was the former capital of Provence and home of Cezanne, the pioneer of post-impressionism and cubism.

I introduced myself to the city by entering the world of Cezanne via brass foot plaques through the streets and venues where he lived and painted. Tours are available through the local tourist bureau. On Rue de l'Opera, just off the main tree-lined thoroughfare of Cours Mirabeau, is the modest birthplace of Cezanne. On the main street stands Cezanne's father's hat shop and adjacent Cafe des Deux Garcons, the artist's hangout. After strolling along cobblestone paths passing stately black gaslights and tempting boulangeres, I arrived at rue Cardinale and Mignet College, where Cezanne befriended writer Emile Zola. I continued on to the Palace of Justice to 23 rue Boulegon, Cezanne's residence before his death in 1906. I had lost all sense of the present and was back a century.

At the end of town off Avenue Pasteur on 9 Avenue Paul Cezanne stands the artist's atelier and place of creation, surrounded by green garden paths. In the studio stood the easel, original bottles and objects of art that was Cezanne's study for still life. I felt honored to be so close to these items that I've viewed from afar on museum walls.

I arrived at a vantage point on the edge of town where Cezanne set up his easel in view of the chiseled, slate-gray Sainte-Victoire, eyeing an enlarged photograph of one of his some 44 paintings and watercolors of the mountainside, while seeing the actual landscape itself. I thought of the words I read from a letter from Cezanne to his son dated a month before Cezanne's death: "I go to the countryside every day. The motifs are beautiful, and I thus spend my days better here than elsewhere."

These words carried with me as I traveled the last lap of my journey past the colorful, fertile landscape approaching the Rhone River to the medieval city of Avignon, a vital trade center during the 12th century and site of the Palace of the Popes. Today, the city's 90,000 inhabitants enjoy a cornucopia of the arts and gastronomy. Avignon hosts a theater festival during the summer months, where every cornerstone becomes a theatrical venue.

A short distance and an enjoyable day trip from Avignon are two cities associated with the works of Van Gogh: Arles and Saint-Remy.

A museum-piece city, Arles has a more intimate feel than Avignon. Rich in Roman ruins and drenched in antiquity as far back as Julius Caesar, founder of the town in 46 B.C., Arles aroused the interest of Van Gogh in 1888. Here, at 35, he sought the light of Midi (aka Provence) with hopes of creating a community of artists, including Gauguin, through the creation of the Atelier du Midi. Though, none of this panned out, Van Gogh was most prolific in Arles, producing more than 200 paintings, drawings and letters. In one of his many letters to his brother Theo, he wrote, "In the Midi, the senses are aroused, the hand becomes more agile, the eye sharper, the mind clearer."

Only a 15-minute ride from Arles sits Saint-Remy, where Van Gogh created some of his most famous works while recuperating at the mental hospital of Saint Paul de Mausole. The tourist bureau has several morning Van Gogh tours from April to mid-October on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

The tour of the hospital and its beguiling grounds where Van Gogh captured nature's purity was one of my most memorable experiences. My guide Matilde was filled with facts about the artist, which she shared as she led me through the garden area and hospital gift store, where some impressive paintings of the present patients were on sale.

As we approached the olive groves with its splash of bright lemon wildflowers and lime fields, I could feel the sun warming my shoulders and smell the scent of lavender. When Matilde held up a copy of Van Gogh's painting depicting this setting, she explained how the artist saw the leaves turn copper and silver upon the reflection of the sun. I then realized how one's view of reality could be altered in just seconds.

As my exploration of the artists of Provence drew to an end, I pondered on this scene of Van Gogh's olive trees outside the hospital. I realized that I had become more mindful of the world when looking at a blade of grass, a twist of a branch, or the color of the sky. I was not only looking at the whole of life, but its significant parts.

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