Provence has numerous art galleries, often celebrating the painters who have made the region their home. Many of the region’s most celebrated collections are housed in architectural wonders, helping to enhance the art on display and showcase Provençal locations at their best.
A number of acclaimed artists are associated with Provence. Some, such as Cézanne, were born in the area and others, like Matisse and Picasso, were drawn to the luminous quality of the light. The specific light in Provence is caused by the local Mistral wind, which clears the skies of pollution, creating stunning landscapes that have inspired countless paintings. Some of the art galleries in Provence celebrate artistic masters in the villas in which they used to live, such as Matisse’s villa in Nice. In other places, sculptures and artefacts are housed in grand buildings from La Belle Époque or stunning contemporary structures, such as the Mucem in Marseille.
Marvel at the architecture at the Mucem in Marseille
The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations is the cultural centrepiece of Marseille’s tourism industry and it’s astonishingly beautiful. It was opened in 2013 when Marseille was the European Capital of Culture and it is situated next to the old Fort Saint-Jean (which itself had a monumental makeover the same year). The Mucem is the pride of the newly regenerated dockside and sits alongside the chic Terasses du Port shopping mall as well as many new concept restaurants and bars. You can find a diverse range of art at the Mucem – modern graffiti sits side-by-side with football-related art exhibitions (football is one of Marseille’s biggest passions), but perhaps the biggest draw is the building itself and its stunning location.
The Musée Villa Masséna originally belonged to French aristocrat Victor Masséna, who used it as a winter retreat after its construction in 1898. It was donated to the city of Nice by Masséna’s son upon his father’s death. The villa was heavily restored in 2008 and opened as a museum and art gallery. Wander the intricate hallways of this amazing building to admire ornate artefacts relating to La Belle Époque. It’s also home to one of Napoleon’s death masks — there are many copies around the world, all of which were made from the original, which is thought to be in the US.
The Musée Granet houses a large permanent collection by French artist Paul Cézanne, who was born in Aix-en-Provence and lived his life here. The collection includes lots of his sculptures, etchings and paintings. It also runs temporary exhibitions on various subjects. It’s a small museum (which is reflected in the low ticket price), but it’s well worth a perusal and has one of the most interesting and reasonably priced art gift shops in town. There’s also a second permanent annex of artwork in a stunning old church on Place Jean-Boyer, a five-minute walk away, which is included in the entry ticket and often overlooked.
The Musée Matisse is a wonderful place to get to know the work of one of France’s most beloved painters. The distinctive burgundy-coloured villa was built in the 17th century and was Henri Matisse’s home from 1917 until he died in 1954. It has many of his paintings on display, as well as sketches and personal objects, and provides a great overview of the painter’s life.
The Hôtel de Caumont was built in the 16th century as a grand private home until it became Aix-en-Provence’s conservatoire. In 2014, the music school moved into a fancy new building a few minutes away and after extensive renovations, the Hôtel de Caumont opened as a private art museum and gallery. It has a permanent exhibition on Cézanne, but also runs interesting displays on everything from Marilyn Monroe to the Italian Masters.
Marc Chagall (1887-1985) is famous for his religious paintings and often painted scenes from the Old Testament. Chagall lived in Nice and this museum houses 40 of his religious works including some truly divine stained glass windows. Picasso so admired Chagall’s work that he said: “When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only painter who truly understands what colour is”.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nice has such a wide selection of art – spanning the 15th to 20th centuries – that it’s been the target of various art heists over the years. Built in 1878 for a Ukrainian Princess, it’s well worth the hike up the very steep hill below to get there – you can recover in the museum gardens among various statues and sculptures. The museum has plenty on display, from French and Italian Masters to Post-Impressionist paintings.
Situated on La Croisette in Cannes, one of the most famous promenades in the south of France, La Malmaison started life in 1863 as the Grand Hotel before it was knocked down in the 1950s and rebuilt in 1963. The only part of the original hotel that remains is the old seaside pavilion and former tea room, which now houses The Centre of Modern Contemporary Art, or La Malmaison art gallery, as it is better known. The whole gallery had a huge makeover in 1983 after it was bought by the city. It hosts two exhibitions a year, showcasing work by Matisse and Picasso as well as 20th-century work.
The Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MAMAC) houses contemporary American and European art from the postwar period, notably the 1960s and beyond, including Pop art and New Realist work. You’ll find paintings by artists like Andy Warhol and Niki de Saint Phalle. Stretch out on the terrace, which has a great view across the city, grab a coffee and reflect on the wonderful art below.
The Annonciade Museum was built by Penitent monks in the 16th century who helped to rescue prisoners of war when they returned to town. It became an art gallery in the mid-20th century, celebrating the town’s love of avant garde art. In particular, Le Musée de l’Annonciade showcases a lot of work by Paul Signac, who first came to paint in Saint-Tropez in 1892. He was drawn to the light and often painted the harbour, the small fishing village and seascapes. In turn, he encouraged other painters to visit the area and Saint-Tropez is still known today for its thriving arts scene. The gallery is small and charming and considers itself the first modern art museum to be established in France.