Whether called the Côte d´Azur or the French Riviera, this region in the South-East of France, or in the “Midi” as we sometimes say, has seen great French and international artists pass by at all times. We are going to meet them and discover the cultural richness of this French region. We will talk about writers, painters but also crafts and gastronomy. Endowed with an exceptional architectural and cultural heritage, the Côte d´Azur has always inspired artistic creation.
Ready to embark with us? Lets’ go!
Do you know where the expressions Côte d’Azur and French Riviera come from?
Antibes, its old town, the Vauban port and the Fort Carré
And the “Midi” in all of this? From the Latin meridies, which is at the origin of the word meridian, or even meridional, this expression designates the southern half of France.
Where exactly is the Côte d'Azur?
Let's start our cultural walk.
Each city has its artists. At each stage, the big names who have marked the city in different artistic fields. This artistic itinerary is not intended to be exhaustive, the region is so rich that we could devote a complete book to it; I just want here to give a little insight into the cultural richness of the French Riviera and make you want to come and explore it with us through the spectrum of art and its practice. Matisse said “Look at the world with the eyes of children”, we could say “Live the world with the hands of artists.”
Menton, its yellow gold and its frescoes
Our first stage starts in Menton, located on the Franco-Italian border, it is often nicknamed “the Pearl of France”. To present this city to you, let’s raise the curtain on two of its celebrities, Jean Cocteau and Le Citron de Menton. Let’s start with this famous citrus fruit. Lemon, and more particularly that of Menton, is the yellow gold of the Côte d’Azur, which has been cultivated in the 15th century. The lemon from Menton was exported and gradually became famous throughout the world; at the beginning of the 19th century, these citrus fruits reached their peak with more than 80,000 lemon trees! A decline will come in the 20th century until the frost episode of 1956 which marks the end of this culture in the region. To our happiness and that of all the gourmets and great Chefs who come to get their supplies here, citrus growing was relaunched in Menton in the 1980s and the lemon from Menton even obtained the IGP designation (protected geographical indication) in 2015 which sign the renewal of the sector.
Lemons from the French Riviera
Menton organized its first Lemon Festival in 1934, and since then, every year for three weeks in February, the city has seen giant sculptures made of citrus fruits, to the delight of the 200,000 visitors who come to admire these vitamin creations. 200,000 is also the number of citrus used for the decorations for this holiday!
After the Second World War, two artistic events were created in Menton: the Painting Biennale, under the aegis of Henri Matisse as Honorary President for the 1st edition, and the International Chamber Music Festival. It was on this occasion that Jean Cocteau, poet, filmmaker, painter and designer, fell under the spell of the city of Menton. It must be said that he comes as a neighbor because he regularly resides nearby, in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, in the Villa Santo Sospir, a residence that he will cover with frescoes during his various stays.
Detail of the Wedding Room of the town hall of Menton, Jean Cocteau
He was entrusted with the decoration of the Wedding Hall of the town hall of Menton. The artist devoted himself to it for 2 years, from 1956 to 1958. The mayor of the city suggested that he make Menton “a museum of his works”.
At the same time, he also created the decorations for the Saint-Pierre chapel in Villefranche-sur-Mer. “Villefranche is my island” he likes to say. This region inspires him; “I was born several times and died several times. One of my most significant births was… on your French Riviera, ” he said.
Let's continue our artistic tour and stop for a moment in Nice.
Hotel Negresco on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice
Ah, Nice and its palaces! Nice and its Promenade des Anglais! … But in fact, why do we say “promenade des Anglais” to describe this magnificent route which runs along the Baie des Anges? What are the English doing in this story? That is the question! as our friends from across the Channel would say! We have to go back to the end of the 18th century, when the British aristocracy began to make a habit of spending the winter in Nice, renowned for its mild climate. Luxurious palaces and sumptuous villas are being built along the coast to welcome them but no place to walk and enjoy the spectacle of this magnificent bay. The British then had the idea of financing the construction of a seaside promenade in the 1820s; Named “Strada del littorale” at its beginnings in 1824, it quickly became “el Camin dei Inglés”. In Italian, since it was not until 1860 that the County of Nice became part of France.
Port of Nice and the Bay of Angels
Nice and its artists
Let’s step back in time and find ourselves in the 20th century. Many artists meet in Nice. After Paris, Nice is probably the most cultural and cosmopolitan city in France, it attracts artists from all over. In the 1920s the American writer Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda stayed there extensively, where he wrote The Great Gatsby. Russian painter Marc Chagall lived in Nice for many years and has a museum dedicated to him. The Italian artist Amadeo Modigliani stayed there for a few months with his partner Jeanne Hébuterne, who gave birth to their daughter Giovanna there in 1918.
One of the city’s most iconic artists, who spent much of his life there, is undoubtedly Henri Matisse. The one who answered the question “Why Nice?”, ” For its necessary clarity “, came there for the first time in 1917 and died there in 1954. He formed very strong friendships there, notably with the writer and poet Aragon; the two men inspire each other, Matisse draws Aragon, Aragon writes about Matisse. There he also met Picasso who would become both his friend and his greatest rival. It was in Vence, in the hinterland of Nice, that in 1950 he produced “the work of his life” by decorating the Chapel of the Rosary, also known as the Matisse Chapel. This chapel is in the words of Matisse himself “the culmination of a lifetime of work”.
Instagram Publication @in_arts_travel_workshops Stained glass detail Matisse Chapel
Writers, the French Riviera and its power of inspiration
We have just mentioned Aragon and Scott Fitzgerald, 2 major writers of the 20th century, let’s stop for a moment to talk about the authors who frequented this region or who made it the scene of their novel and they are numerous! Some of them spend only a few hours there and were totally dazzled by it, like Victor Hugo who had lunch one day in 1839 in Antibes and wrote: “Everything here shines, everything flowers, everything sings. The sun, the woman, the love are there with them. I still have the sparkle in my eyes and in my soul. “, These few lines say a lot about the inspiring power of the French Riviera!
Statue of Victor Hugo in Antibes, by sculptor M.Galy
Guillaume Apollinaire, grew up on the French Riviera and returned there frequently thereafter. It was in Nice that he met the woman who inspired his famous “Poèmes à Lou”. It was also in Nice that the writer Romain Gary spent part of his childhood, his mother running a hotel in the city. He returned later to the region, he wrote part of his novel which won the Prix Goncourt, “the Roots of the Sky” in his villa in Roquebrune Cap Martin.
Guy de Maupassant also shared this passion for the Côte d’Azur which he crisscrossed for almost 10 years at the end of the 19th century: Cannes, Antibes, Nice, Menton, but also on the sea. What a beautiful description of the coast seen from the Bel-Ami, his sailboat which bears the name of one of his novels: “Before me, Antibes appeared vaguely in the lightened shadow, with its two towers standing on the city built in a cone, still enclosed by the old walls of Vauban… Day was dawning, the stars were extinguishing, the Villefranche lighthouse closed its rotating eye for the last time, and I saw in the distant sky, above Nice, still invisible, weird and pink glows: they were the glaciers of the Alps, the peaks of which dawned on.”
Nice is also the cradle of two Nobel Prize winners for literature, the Nice writer JMG Le Clézio, and Patrick Modiano who often stayed on the Côte d´Azur and made Nice the setting for several of his novels.
Everything blooms here indeed, flowers and vegetation flourish under the sun and the sea breeze. It’s no wonder that Grasse, located in the hills above Cannes, is the perfume capital of the world thanks to its flower production. We could follow in the footsteps of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the hero of Patrick Süskind‘s Perfume, who already in the 18th century came to continue his apprenticeship as a master perfumer in Grasse to create his absolute Elixir.
Cloth of Perfumer, Tomek Kawia - 1997 Statue in Grasse
Grasse, its flowers, its perfumes and its artists
Detail of the wall fresco at the entrance to Grasse by artist Vincent Ducaroy
Since the 16th century, tanners established in the city of Grasse have perfumed the leathers with local essences and the city’s activity has gradually developed around perfumery. Let us take advantage of this passage through Grasse to evoke Fragonard. Do you know what is the link between the famous painter of the 18th century and the perfumery of the same name created in 1926?
Perfume museum in Grasse
Well, the painter Fragonard is “a child of the country”, his family was settled in Grasse and his father was a great master glover and perfumer of the court. It is in honor of this local celebrity that the perfumery took its name. One of Fragonard’s paintings can be admired in the Cathedral of Grasse, next to a painting by Rubens, yes, yes you read that right, a Rubens in Grasse! Incredible, isn’t it?
The Impressionists, colors and the Mediterranean
If Normandy and the banks of the Seine are the favorite lands of the Impressionists, they have not remained insensitive to the colors of the Mediterranean. Claude Monet came to put his easel on the Riviera shores on different occasions, as was the case in Antibes where he spent several months in 1888 and produced around thirty paintings. “I paint the city of Antibes, a small fortified town, all gilded by the sun, standing out against beautiful blue and pink mountains and the chain of the Alps eternally covered in snow”. he will say.
Claude Monet, Antibes in the morning, 1888
Auguste Renoir spent the last 12 years of his life, from 1907 to 1919, in his property “the Domaine des Collettes” in Cagnes-sur-mer, now transformed into a Renoir museum. The film “Renoir” by Gilles Bourdos with Michel Bouquet, which was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, tells about this period in Renoir’s life.
The farm of Collettes, Auguste Renoir, 1915
Picasso and the French Riviera
It’s not possible to come here without talking about Pablo Picasso who left his mark on the region, from Antibes to Cannes via Vallauris and ending in Mougins, his last home.
It was in the Château Grimaldi above the ramparts of Old Antibes that Picasso set up his studio for a few months in 1946; he produced more than sixty works there which he bequeathed to the city of Antibes. Now the Picasso Museum in Antibes, it now houses nearly 300 paintings, sculptures and ceramics by the great master.
Picasso museum in Antibes
From 1948 to 1955, he stayed in Vallauris, city of pottery, it was there that he discovered and experimented with ceramics. He also produced the large “War and Peace” fresco in the Vallauris Chapel, which is now a museum.
Mediterranean cuisine and the king of Chefs
Let’s leave painters and writers for a moment to look at another Art, just as important, namely Culinary Art. French gastronomy, listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, is an essential aspect of the culture of the Côte d´Azur. The gastronomic specialties of the Côte d´Azur are numerous: pissaladière, pan bagnat, nicoise salad, small stuffed vegetables, socca …, the olive and its oil, the vegetables of the sun and the fish being part of the basis of Mediterranean cuisine. The flavors of the land are in the spotlight.
No wonder the man who was nicknamed “the cook of kings, the king of cooks” Auguste Escoffier, is from this region! An Escoffier Culinary Art Museum was also founded in his hometown, Villeneuve-Loubet. The father of French gastronomy left an essential heritage, he revolutionized the way of working in the kitchens, in particular by creating kitchen brigades in order to distribute the tasks of the team. Crêpes Suzette, Peach Melba or Poire Belle Hélène, the recipes he invented were numerous at the end of the 19th century and they will never cease to be taken up and revisited until today.
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See you soon for a new escapade in the arts.
Our walk in the footsteps of the great artists of the Côte d’Azur comes to the end. There would still be many names to drop, cities to explore, arts to evoke, you understood this region is not only of dazzling beauty but also of infinite cultural richness. Inspiration is found at every turn of its alleys, this rapture of the soul makes you want to create, in the azure radiance of the Mediterranean and in its coasts where sea and mountain meet so abruptly sometimes. What if you too let your imagination run free on an artistic and creative stroll alongside us? Let yourself be tempted by one of our creative workshops, an artistic stay iN ARTS during a French Riviera cultural weekend to follow in the footsteps of the great artists of the Côte d´Azur.