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Before the railways, the Cote d’Azur was just a strip, 125 miles long, of impoverished Mediterranean villages. But it soon became legendary for its scintillating beauty and for the artworks it inspired. Journey along the coast from St. Tropez to Monte Carlo, meet the artists, architects, writers, and characters that inhabited what Somerset Maugham immortalised as ‘a sunny place for shady people’.
“What an amazing series on the Cote D’Azur. It was like a ‘Through the Letterbox’ look at the lives and loves of some of the most well-known artists and writers of the 20th century. The Cote D’Azur may be relatively contained in size but what a wealth of treasure she has inspired!”
Mourning the death of Seurat, his friend and collaborator, pointillist artist and sailor Paul Signac bought a house in the fishing village of St. Tropez. He’d call it ‘the eighth wonder of the world…’ Others soon followed. Writers Colette and Francoise Sagan made St. Tropez their home. Clive and Vanessa Bell set up a studio in Cassis. On visiting them, Virginia Woolf was inspired to write her most experimental novel.
On 27th January 1926, 60 year old painter Pierre Bonnard, recently married to his long-term mistress and model, Marthe, paid 50,000 francs for a beautiful Belle Epoque house. Here, at Villa du Bosquet, he’d make almost 300 works including self-portraits, L’atelier au mimosa, nudes, and landscapes that moved towards abstraction.
Monet spent February to May of 1888 painting in Antibes, creating over forty works. He said, ‘What I bring back from here will be sweetness itself, white, pink and blue.’ Over half a century later, when canvas and paint were scarce due to the war, Picasso was artist-in-residence at Antibes’s Chateau Grimaldi, producing nudes inspired by his latest love – Francoise Gilot – and still lives of sea urchins.
It was Cole Porter who introduced Gerald and Sara Murphy to Cap d’Antibes and, in the 1920s, their Villa America came to epitomise Cote d’Azur glamour. They hosted writers such as Hemingway and John Dos Passos, and artists like Léger and Picasso. Whilst Gerald’s career as a painter was short-lived, he and his wife were character material for another Riviera resident: writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.
A life-changing visit to see Cézanne in 1882 and worsening arthritis encouraged Renoir to buy Les Collettes, a farmhouse nestled in an olive grove. He considered the sensuous paintings and sculptures he developed there amongst the best of his career. Biot, famous for its ceramics since the C18th, was where Fernand Léger started making large polychrome reliefs with Roland Brice.
So wrote Sylvia Plath of Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, Matisse’s four-year labour of love that he would describe as ‘a distillation of [his] life’s work.’ It originated when his former nurse and model, Monique Bourgeois, became a Dominican nun. In 2005, in the picturesque village of St. Paul de Vence, Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon decorated the White Penitents’s chapel.
Documented in Jean Vigo’s 1930 silent film where the upper classes yawn in casinos whilst the poor struggle in slums, Nice would inspire its own artistic movement in the 1950s. Retrospectively known as the School of Nice, artists like Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, Ben (Vautier), and Nikki de St. Phalle made shocking works. At Cap Ferrat, Somerset Maugham entertained high society in the grounds of his Moorish villa whose gardens were peopled by naked men.
Poet, novelist, painter, film-maker, and writer of ballet scenarios, Jean Cocteau resided in room 22 of Villefranche’s Welcome Hotel. He brought his Parisian friends to haunt the place and credited it with curing his opium addiction. As well as painting the local fishermen, he created major works here like Le Testament d’Orphée and La Chapelle Saint-Pierre.
Edith Wharton used Monte Carlo as the backdrop for key scenes in her novel The House of Mirth but it was too expensive for most artists. At nearby Roquebrune, designer Eileen Gray created her first architectural work (finished in 1929), with bespoke modernist furniture. When she moved out of E1027, her former lover allowed his friend Le Corbusier to paint murals there. Which he did, naked. These garish designs, replete with references to Gray’s bisexuality, would enrage her.