In southeastern France, touring the village where Marc Chagall found inspiration

By Lily Radziemski,

Lily Radziemski for The Washington Post

The landscape surrounding Saint-Paul de Vence on the French Riviera.

In the hills of the south of France, a narrow road carves upward through billowing trees against the backdrop of the Mediterranean, seemingly leading to the sky. It twists and turns, brushing against wildflowers and lengthy branches overflowing onto the pavement. Every few seconds, through the spaces of the leaves, a glimpse of a walled city begins to reveal itself, closer and closer, until . . . it’s right there, Saint-Paul de Vence, commanding the landscape, soaking in the light of the Riviera. It looks like a painting. Some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century thought so, too.

A few years ago, on a trip to Nice, a French friend offered to take me up to Saint-Paul de Vence, a place she had visited during some summers growing up. I begrudgingly agreed — having been very comfortable nursing a hangover on the beach — but an hour later, having known nothing about the village, I found myself gazing at the tombstone of Marc Chagall, the legendary Belarusian French artist whom I had long admired, in awe.

Fast-forward to August of this year. When I ended up in the south at the last minute in a sort of prodigious gift from the universe, I set off on a mission to Saint-Paul de Vence.

After arriving in the village — and watching it wake up from Le Café de la Place, double espresso and flaky croissant in hand — Marine Rostagni, a guide leading “In the Footsteps of Marc Chagall,” and I met for a walking tour.

We strolled uphill along the Chemin Sainte-Claire — the footpath, she says, that Chagall enjoyed taking between his house and the village. The silhouette of Saint-Paul de Vence, its stone wall wrapping around the centuries-old buildings clustered above it, glistened in the distance under the midmorning sun.

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Painter Marc Chagall in his Saint-Paul de Vence studio in 1957.

She explained that in the 20th century, the Côte d’Azur and its surroundings were a haven for artists, including Jacques Prévert, Pablo Picasso and more. But this didn’t happen by coincidence. The special light — a soft, golden veil that canopies the landscape — pulled painters in by almost magnetic force. And in 1920, art aficionado Paul Roux and his wife, Baptistine, opened La Colombe d’Or, an inn that still exists today as a hotel and restaurant, which became a sort of refuge and meeting spot for artists and writers, including James Baldwin.

Chagall was born in 1887 in Vitebsk, in what was then Russia and is now Belarus. When he moved to Paris in 1911, his paintings — which had frequently exhibited dark, dull tones — drastically evolved, exploding into bright emeralds and blues inspired by the City of Light. Over the next decades, acrobats, lovers and animals would dance across Chagall’s canvases, drifting in clouds of oil-painted azure.

In his life behind the canvas, Chagall was often on the move — first driven by his artwork, later by war. After having left Russia for good in the 1920s, he later fled to the United States when France fell to the Nazis.

Around 1950, after frequent visits to the famed Greek publisher Tériade’s villa on the Riviera, Chagall bought a house in Vence and settled in the south for good. He soon met Valentina “Vava” Brodsky, the Russian woman who would become his second wife.

After lunch at La Colombe d’Or, I set off to meet Isabelle Maeght. She remembers this period well, gazing outside of the windows in her bright office at the Fondation Maeght, overlooking the lush treetops and deep-blue coastline. She has sleek, white-blonde hair and wears cobalt eyeliner. A faint smell of cigarette smoke lingers in the air, her pack of Marlboro Reds sitting next to an empty cup of espresso.

She describes Chagall as “part of the family,” coming every Sunday for lunch at their house, and Vava as “the wife of an artist before everything.” Besides the habit he had of pinching their cheeks, she says he was a very nice man.

Lily Radziemski for The Washington Post

La Colombe d’Or, an inn that still exists today as a hotel and restaurant, was frequented by Chagall and other artists.

The Fondation Maeght, created by her grandparents in 1964, is located at the other end of the Chemin Sainte-Claire. The art foundation is surrounded by a garden that holds sculptures from artists including Joan Miró and Alexander Calder, close family friends. For the foundation’s inauguration, Chagall donated the painting “La Vie,” an homage to the artist’s life and dreams featuring dancers, musicians and acrobats mid-flip, which still hangs on its walls. And one of his first mosaics, “Les Amoureux,” located outside of the foundation’s bookshop, is a portrait of Maeght’s grandparents.

Reflecting on Chagall, Maeght — in a matter-of-fact drawl — describes how “he was a very simple man in his daily life, and he painted with formidable power.”

“He was jovial enough. But at the same time, he had lived through some things that were very difficult in his childhood, and sometimes this would come out. He’d speak about fleeing Russia, he’d speak about all of this in a grave manner. And then 10 minutes later, he’d take off again in big laughter,” she added.

In 1966, Chagall moved from Vence to Saint-Paul de Vence. The new house, named La Colline, was built for him by architect André Svetchine a few hundred yards up the road from the foundation.

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Meret Meyer, Chagall’s granddaughter, remembers making frequent visits to the village, recalling the heavy stone structure of the house and its big, luminous studio. He was not the grandfather who cleared his schedule to take the grandkids to get ice cream, though. She remembers that his days were regimented around the artistic process, grandchildren present or not.

“He was not a person who went to the beach, or walking up and down [the village],” she said over the phone, after I had returned to Paris. “He was a very hard-working artist, getting up always at the same time very early, and spending most of his day in his studio until 8 or something like that. So the days, independently from us, were always the same. Because he was hard-working and very disciplined, extremely disciplined.”

Lily Radziemski for The Washington Post

Café Timothé in Saint-Paul de Vence.

One of the projects that Chagall completed in the south was “Biblical Message,” a series of paintings originally destined for a chapel in Vence. However, as time passed, it became clear that the paintings would be going elsewhere: the National Marc Chagall Museum in Nice, inaugurated in 1973 on his 86th birthday.

The museum was built to feel like home, surrounded by a garden in green, white and blue — Chagall’s color (he was known to say, “Je suis bleu”) — to let the colorful paintings inside shine.

In the exhibit space, vibrant, saturated yellows pop against the space’s white walls, natural light shining through the windows. There are gods, angels and couples floating in the sky, and a bouquet so dazzling that Anne Dopffer, the museum’s director, described it to me as almost psychedelic. The backroom holds the crimson “Song of Songs” series, dedicated to Vava, where lovers float and fly into soft pinks and deep reds.

Dopffer recounts how Chagall was extremely involved in the creation of the museum and how he decided himself on which pieces would be included and where they would be placed. They haven’t been moved since. The frames, though, had to go.

“He liked very simple frames, but usually they were nailed into the painting,” she said, pointing close to the right-hand edge of “Adam et Eve Chassés du Paradis Terrestre.” “So we changed the frames, because it’s better for the conservation of the work.” The nail marks are still visible.

Chagall worked until the last day of his life, March 28, 1985, when he died of a heart attack in his home. He was 97 years old.

However, Meyer describes how “because he was working continuously, he never thought of his life ending. Therefore, nothing was prepared,” she said.

The mayor offered a place for Chagall in the village cemetery, which the family accepted.

Chagall was already famous by the time of his death; Meyer recalls how the funeral drew people from all over the area. “As the village is small, you can imagine, one has quickly the feeling that it’s full, because . . . as soon as you have two cars or 100 people, you have the feeling that there are thousands. Of course it was an event, yes,” she said. Isabelle Maeght was also present.

Lily Radziemski for The Washington Post

Chagall’s gravesite in the village cemetery.

Chagall drew much of his inspiration from his Jewish faith, but was deeply connected to the spiritual aspect of religion as a whole, famously believing the Bible to be the greatest source of poetry of all time. Nonetheless, it’s curious to find him buried in a cemetery that bears a cross at the entrance. But according to Meyer, this wasn’t a renouncement of the Jewish religion.

“It’s a choice, because he was a citizen of the world,” she said. “He looks and belongs to the sky.”

Radziemski is a writer based in Paris. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @lilyradz.

Please NotePotential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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If you go
Where to stay La Colombe d’Or Place du Général de Gaulle
011-33-4-93-32-80-02 Artists such as Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall gathered at La Colombe d’Or after its opening in 1920. Its swimming pool looks out onto the hills surrounding Saint-Paul de Vence. Reservations must be made by phone or in writing by mail. Rooms vary from about $290 to about $500 per night, depending on the season. Where to eat Le Café de la Place Place du Général de Gaulle
011-33-4-93-32-80-03 Enjoy a drink or snack at the casual Café de la Place, another regular haunt of Chagall’s, overlooking the local marketplace and pétanque players. The croissants are flaky, buttery and fresh. Café Timothé 4 Rue du Bresc
011-33-4-89-15-70-74 Tucked away on a side street off Rue Grande, hidden amid shrouds of plants and flowers, Café Timothé serves up locally sourced organic meals and creative cocktails. Try the prosecco with a dash of homemade lavender-and-ginger syrup as an apéro. What to do “In the Footsteps of Marc Chagall” Tourism Office
2 Rue Grande
011-33-4-93-32-86-95 Take a walking tour through the village to learn more about Chagall’s life in Saint-Paul de Vence, often against the backdrop of spots where the artist used to paint. Be prepared for hills. Tours about $8 per person; private tours with two-person minimum about $16 per person. Fondation Maeght 623, Chemin des Gardettes
011-33-4-93-32-81-63 Walk from the village via the Chemin Sainte-Claire, or pick up a free shuttle at the post office at the foot of the Chemin running continuously back and forth throughout the day. Visit 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in July and August and until 6 p.m. during the rest of the year. Information — L.R.

Source: WP