We can imagine ourselves under the crystal sun along France’s Mediterranean coast, which travelers might soon be able to visit once again. I had planned to be there last April, and still hope to get there this fall. But since we’re not yet able to make that journey, we can soak up the radiance online — on museum websites and in video presentations about the many artists, Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse among them — who traveled from Paris to the Mediterranean and shaped our vision of the seductive Riviera.
A trip to Provence and the Riviera might start at the western end of that stretch, in the Roman city of Arles, where Van Gogh first lived after leaving Paris. While none of the original paintings is still in Arles, there is a Van Gogh trail, with easels displaying his most iconic views of that city, where he lived for 15 months and where his exuberance propelled him to just keep on painting — and painting.
When I followed that trail of easels a few years ago, I started where Van Gogh himself started, in the town square where his famous “Yellow House” was painted; the house was bombed in World War II, but as you look at the easel, you can look up and still see the building and railroad bridge he painted behind it. As you follow the markers in the pavement, you visit six other spots where easels portray some of the most famous Van Gogh works, including “Starry Night over the Rhone” and the “Cafe la Nuit at the Place du Forum,” the glowing yellow cafe against a brilliant night-blue sky with huge stars only Van Gogh could have imagined. Until you can physically walk the walk in Arles, you can experience Van Gogh’s vibrant colors on YouTube, in a lively 2019 lecture series from the Yale University Art Gallery by Van Gogh scholar John Walsh, who shows nearly 50 of Van Gogh’s landscape and garden views in and around Arles in an hour-long talk.
Van Gogh’s paintings also can transport us to the wider area around Arles. He traveled south to the ancient city of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, in the Camargue region on the Mediterranean. There he turned his quick strokes to capturing one of Provence’s most sensual features: rows and rows of lavender receding into the distance.
Ten miles northeast of Arles, on the way to Saint-Remy and the Luberon hill towns, is the asylum where Van Gogh committed himself after a breakdown. There he had another creative burst. Familiar views of towering, twisting cypress trees, which Van Gogh compared to Egyptian obelisks, were among three landscape themes he experimented with in his year confined to the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum. His cypresses stand dark green against a brilliant blue or glowing yellow sky. His most iconic painting, “Starry Night,” is one of those. Sometimes the cypresses tower over wheat fields swaying with Van Gogh energy. The artist found a spiritual force in the olive trees so dominant in Provence. “The rustle of the olive grove has something very secret in it, and immensely old,” he wrote to his brother.
Visiting the asylum, I loved seeing easels along the garden path, showing his best-known landscapes, the views mostly unchanged today. And I loved standing at his upstairs vantage point, where I could so easily make out the Alpilles hills that are the backdrop of most of his landscapes from that time. Much of this is seen in another hour-long part of the Yale series on YouTube, rich in images from Van Gogh’s year at the asylum.
If Van Gogh journeyed from Paris to discover the color and light of Provence, the other giant whose work is forever linked to that brilliant landscape was a native of the city of Aix-en-Provence. While Paul Cézanne considered himself an Impressionist, he worked differently, his dabs emphasizing form as well as color, saying that he wanted to create pictures more “solid” than his Impressionist brethren were achieving. Cézanne’s landscapes fill out our vision of the countryside that lies between Van Gogh’s stomping grounds in Arles and Saint-Remy, and the Riviera to the east of Aix.
Over several decades, up until his final days, Cézanne painted the stunning Mont Sainte- Victoire, the landmark blue-gray peak jutting up above the otherwise flat Provence, about 60 times. He climbed to a viewpoint near his studio to capture the mountain at different times, in different lights. Visiting that studio, which has been kept much as it was, and then walking a short distance to the easels at his favorite viewpoint puts you right there, to see how the light shifts against the rocks of the mountain.
Cézanne also painted views of the bright blue Bay of Marseilles from the nearby rocky hillside village of L’Estaque. He was an evangelist about painting the light and landscape of the South, just as Van Gogh had been; Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet traveled from Paris in 1883 and joined Cézanne there briefly. Later, Cézanne became the first to break away from Impressionism. (Henri Matisse called Cézanne “the father of us all.”) A BBC docudrama about all the Impressionists focuses on the work and personal lives of Monet and Cézanne, who is presented as difficult but widely admired by his fellow Impressionists. You can enjoy Cézanne’s landscapes of Provence on a PBS program that was done when Washington’s National Gallery of Art presented a landmark exhibition of those works in 2006.
Two decades later and a hundred miles east, the same intense light and color inspired Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and Raoul Dufy, among many others whose landscapes give us a view of the brilliant Cote d’Azur (Blue Coast). In his pictures of the Riviera’s most popular gathering spot, Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, Dufy confected a resort feel with his characteristic black skeletal outlines, covered in a bright wash of primary colors, especially shades of blue.
Matisse made Nice his base for over 40 years, until his death in 1954. His house there is a museum with a large collection of his paintings and cutouts, along with some of the recognizable objects he pictured over and over. There is a documentary with hundreds of images of Matisse’s work during those years. The National Gallery of Art’s senior lecturer David Gariff recorded a 2020 lecture with views of the Riviera by Matisse and several others, including Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Signac.
Matisse’s rival, Pablo Picasso, spent some post-World War II years in the ancient seafront town of Antibes, where a museum today is dedicated to his years in that fortresslike building, a medieval bishop’s home and later a castle. His most iconic painting of the Riviera — while certainly less descriptive of the view than reflective of his emotions — hangs in the studio where he created it in 1946. “The Joy of Life,” a lively portrayal of Picasso and his young lover as mythological creatures cavorting along the shore and playing musical instruments, reflects his optimism after World War II. It’s easy to share his joy when you stand on the museum’s terrace with the impossibly blue Mediterranean before you.
Two generations after Van Gogh heralded the South’s clear light and brilliant colors, artists began to migrate after World War I to the “perched villages” of the Riviera’s hills above Nice. My trip that started by walking in Van Gogh’s shoes in Arles, and seeing through his eyes at the asylum in Saint-Remy, ended at one of these villages, the medieval town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence.
There are two highlights. At the very peak, the striking, modern Fondation Maeght museum has paintings and sculptures by most of the important artists who worked there. Some of the sculptures are of dramatic scale, stunningly displayed on the museum’s grounds. The view from that spot to the distant sea below is a fitting way to end an art journey that starts in Provence with the revolutionary work of Van Gogh and Cézanne.
And to really top it off, watch a video of the legendary watering hole and fabulous restaurant La Colombe d’Or just downhill from the Fondation Maeght. In the days when the giants of early modern art hung out there, the inn became a gallery of their works, which they gave in exchange for room and board. A staggering number of their paintings still line the walls. Diners sit among the Picassos and Matisses and toast the color and light that was their inspiration.
Nathan is a writer based in Bethesda, Md.