Creative Minds in Context: Cocteau, Renoir & Cézanne
This past week, my family and I traveled to the South of France to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday. During our visit, we stayed in Villefranche-sur- Mer, a fishing village that borders the Mediterranean Sea. The moment we arrived, I was entranced by the seaside town—motorcycles wove between passersby on the cobblestone streets, the harbor glistened in the sun, and fishermen sipped coffee at round tables by the water. I soon discovered that the timeless beauty of the South of France had cast a comparable spell on some of the most influential creative minds of the 19 th and 20 th centuries—it seemed that traces of French artists were everywhere I looked.
For instance, it was immediately clear that Jean Cocteau (a French artist, author, and filmmaker) had left an indelible mark on Villefranche. The elevators of our hotel had been hand-painted with whimsical designs by Cocteau himself, and witty quotations by the artist materialized in every corner of the building, from the doorknobs to the bread plates. Evidence of his creative influence appeared beyond the walls of our hotel; in fact, the interior of a local chapel brimmed with Cocteau’s semi-Surrealist contour drawings of Biblical scenes. When we first entered the chapel, our tour guide explained the process by which Cocteau had traced gestural figures onto the frescoed walls using a homemade projector. A focal point of the vast fresco was a depiction of Judas resembling the young Picasso, with whom Cocteau had maintained a playful rivalry. I was intrigued by the degree to which the chapel and the town as a whole radiated Cocteau’s creative energies. His legacy was alive in Villefranche, and old stories of his vibrant, experimental lifestyle in the South of France instilled his work with color and character.
Cocteau is only one example of the many French artists who derived inspiration from the unique ethos and geography of the South of France. In fact, our hotel was a short drive away from Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s home in Cagnes-sur- Mer, where he and his family lived from the early 1900s until the artist’s death in 1919. I had only ever studied Renoir’s dynamic Impressionist portraits and Parisian scenes, but our tour of the quiet villa he inhabited in his later years offered a new window into his life and character. Among the highlights of the Musée Renoir was the artist’s studio, which included a perfectly preserved easel, palette, box of paints, and wicker wheelchair. I learned that Renoir suffered from arthritis at the time but continued to paint despite his limited mobility. In this sense, the home in Cagnes-sur- Mer not only served as a testament to Renoir’s quotidian, family-oriented existence but also illuminated his undying dedication to the creative process.
Lastly, one of my most profound experiences of French art during our trip was a brief visit to Aix-en- Provence, the birthplace of Paul Cézanne. In light of the stunning display of oil paintings and watercolors from the Pearlman Collection that I had seen on display at the PUAM in the fall, I was particularly excited to view the artist’s works in context. At the Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix-en- Provence, my family and I watched a biographical film about the artist’s life in Aix and observed several paintings in person. The film provided new insight into Cézanne’s life story, detailing his meandering path from a study of the law to an impassioned career as a painter. His worldview came to life on the screen; the actor who represented young Cézanne described the internal geometries of Aix’s natural surroundings with a crazed enthusiasm that enlivened my own interpretations of Cézanne’s work. Of the Cézanne paintings that we saw in the museum, two of my favorites were an oil landscape entitled Vue Prise du Jas de Bouffan (1875-6) and a watercolor depiction of Mont Saint-Victoire, a recurring subject throughout Cézanne’s œuvre. While the dense pigment of the oil painting contrasts starkly with the ethereal and subtle aquarelle, each offers a glimpse into the artist’s boundless ties to the landscape, both tangible and spiritual.
It is one thing to appreciate an artist’s work in a gallery, imagining the visual and experiential cues that inspired his creative output. However, as I learned during my brief visit to the South of France, it is entirely another to borrow his worldview for a while—to stare out to sea at the same lighthouse Cocteau must have watched from his hotel window; to stand an arm’s length from Renoir’s favorite easel; to drive along a highway in Provence and catch sight of Cézanne’s beloved Mont Saint-Victoire, regal in the evening light.