The South of France is known by painters for its light. Impressionistic painters Van Gogh, Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin traveled to the area to paint in the light of the south and you can, quite literally, follow in their footsteps.
“When you’re born there, it’s hopeless, nothing else is good enough.”
Cézanne said those words of his hometown, Aix-en-Provence. He lived and worked in Aix and famously painted the near-by mountain, Mt. Sainte-Victoire, obsessively.
You can walk in the steps of Cézanne by following a pedestrian route in Aix marked by gold studs stamped with a “C.” The route starts on Rue Villars and takes a circuit through the city showing where Cézanne went to school, met with other painters for coffee and lived out his life.
For the best vantage point of the mountain Cézanne chose as his motif, visit the Terrain des peinters. This spot was one of Cézanne’s favorite vantage points. Nine replicas of his paintings are on display. You can contemplate the progression of his work and the view that he worked from.
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“The uglier, older, meaner, iller, poorer I get, the more I wish to take my revenge by doing brilliant color, well arranged, resplendent.”
Vincent Van Gogh wrote those words to his sister, Wilhelmein Van Gogh, while living in Arles. Van Gogh traveled throughout France painting whatever caught his eye. You can visit any number of places, hold up a picture of Van Gogh’s painting, and realize that the painter stood in the exact spot you are now standing and painted the scene before your eyes.
One spot for this experience is the hospital in Arles. Named Médiathèque d’Arles but referred to as Hotel-Dieu, Van Gogh spent time here after several mental breakdowns, the most famous of which is when he cut off part of his own ear.
From the second level, you can peer down and see the courtyard garden Van Gogh painted. The painting Garden of the Hospital in Arles was painted here.
A lesser known scene Van Gogh painted is located a short distance outside of Arles’ walls in an area called the Alyscamps. The Alyscamps is a large Roman necropolis. The walkways are lined with Roman tombs and mausoleums.
Van Gogh’s Les Alyscamps emphasizes the tall poplars and the colors of autumn. Following the row of trees in the painting are the above-ground sarcophagi. The scene in both real-life and the painting is grand and haunting.
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“How do you see this tree? Is it really green? Use green, then, the most beautiful green on your palette. And that shadow, rather blue? Don’t be afraid to paint it as blue as possible.”
Paul Gauguin said that in a conversation with French painter Paul Sérusier. Gauguin, a contemporary of Van Gogh, was underappreciated until after his death. He created his most famous paintings in Tahiti but his midlife work was completed in France, some of it done while sitting next to Van Gogh.
Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh visited the Alyscamps together. Gauguin sat at a different vantage point and left the sarcophagi out of his painting. Comparing his painting to Van Gogh’s reveals how differently painters interpret the same area.