Gallery News

The Legends of Côte d'Azur
03 July - 31 August 2024

‘The Monaco Masters Show: La Côte d’Azur, terre d’inspiration’ at Opera Gallery Monaco (3 July–31 August) explores the history, culture, and unique clarity of light that has beckoned many titans of art history to the French Riviera over the years. Here, we explore the unique relationships that five artists — Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Niki De Saint Phalle and Nicolas de Staël — had with the region.


By his 63rd birthday, Marc Chagall had seen more of the world than most. Born in Belarus, he lived and worked in Saint Petersburg, Paris and New York before settling in Vence, a commune set in the mountains overlooking the French Riviera. Years later, he reflected on his arrival to the area: “there, in the south, for the first time in my life, I saw that rich greenness — the like of which I had never seen in my own country.”


During his time in Vence, he worked prolifically on a number of public artworks, including a mosaic for the local Cathédrale Notre Dame de la Nativité; an image of Moses being lifted from waters of the Nile that can still be seen there today. He also spent time with near-neighbour Pablo Picasso, who himself had noticed the Côte d’Azur’s effect on his friend’s artistic output. During a dinner at Chagall’s home, Picasso commented that “some of the last things he's done in Vence convince me that there's never been anybody since Renoir who has the feeling for light that Chagall has.”


Picasso found himself equally inspired during his time on the Mediterranean coastline, spending the final twelve years of his life living and working prolifically in Notre Dame de Vie, his residence in Mougins. The house itself was full of early works which the artist had kept for himself, and his studio was ever-expanding. After filling the downstairs rooms with drawings and paintings, he had the house’s terrace covered to give him more space to work.


A painting that stands out from this period is Personnage (1970). Widely believed to be a self portrait — one of Picasso’s last — it depicts a figure looking directly at the viewer. Unlike the matadors and musketeers that the artist had taken to painting in his final years, this character displays no façade of machismo; the whites of his eyes are visible as he steps out of the foggy background into an equally unknowable future.


Also spending his final years creating important work on the French Riviera was Fernand Léger. In 1955 Léger bought a home in Biot, where he set up a ceramics studio to work on a number of mosaic projects with his former student Roland Brice. Sadly, the artist passed away before seeing many such projects come to fruition, but the facade of the Fernand Léger National Museum, which opened in 1960 on the site of his former home, now displays a monumental homage to the artist in the form of a mosaic fresco.


A few miles along the coast in Nice, over 200 works by Niki De Saint Phalle form a cornerstone of the collection of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. In 1953, experiencing severe depression, de Saint Phalle was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Nice. Following her discharge, she would create her best-known body of work, the Nanas. Throughout the remainder of her life, enjoying great success, she maintained a soft spot for the city, creating multiple public artworks including a three-metre tall statue of Miles Davies that stands outside the Hotel Negresco. In 2001, towards the end of her life, she returned to the town to donate a large proportion of her work to the museum, where there remains to this day a room dedicated to her.


Sadly, the French Riviera was not a miracle cure for all. Nicolas de Staël moved to Antibes in 1954, suffering from exhaustion, insomnia and depression. His studio here would turn out to be his last. De Staël was French filmmaker Jean-Luc Goddard’s favourite painter and the intense red, white and blue of paintings like Marine (1954) directly influenced Goddard’s use of the same colours in his 1965 film Pierrot le Fou, which was filmed on Porquerolles — an island off the French Riviera.


Tragically, the artist jumped from his studio terrace a year after moving to Antibes, following a meeting with a disparaging art critic. Also tragic is how wrong history has proven this critic. It is now broadly agreed that de Staël created some of his best work in his final year — including Marine and Le Grand Concert (1955), the largest painting he made, which now hangs in the Picasso Museum in nearby Antibes.


From discovering a more natural source of inspiration to seeking refuge from the pressures of city life, Côte d’Azur has provided a bucolic backdrop for many of the most important artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. For many, weary of their own celebrity, it was simply a quiet place to reflect. On this hallowed ground on Mediterranean coastline, the legacy of these artists continues to loom large.