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Apart from enhancing your UV exposure, 20th-century art is one of the main reasons to come to the French Riviera and Provence. It was here that Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Dufy, Chagall, Cocteau, Léger, Soutine, Signac, Giacometti, Gauguin, and Van Gogh all altered the course of art history.
Today, you can embark on your own voyage of discovery by exploring the Côte d’Azur’s “Modern Art Road,” which you can now track along the nifty new “Painters’ Trail”, comprising 60 lecterns marked with famed paintings set on the spots up and down the French Riviera coast where they were created.
As a veritable “museum without walls,” the entire region is crammed with a host of pop-up Monets, virtual Dufys, and 3-D Braques, as well as some of France’s best museums and monuments of modern art. Here is a town-by-town breakdown of where to go and what to see.
Through his long life Picasso called many Riviera towns home—Cannes, Antibes, Vallauris, Golfe-Juan, and St-Paul—but it was the chic hilltown of Mougins where he spent the last 12 years of his life, moving into the converted priory of Notre-Dame-de-Vie. While his converted priory of Notre-Dame-de-Vie is still private, you can visit the adjacent Chapelle, which Winston Churchill once painted.
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In Vallauris—the “town of a thousand potters”—Picasso’s Man with Sheep statue anchors the Place du Marché, while nearby is the Musée National Picasso on Place de la Libération, a vast decorated chapel and “temple of peace” which rivals Guernica for impact. Visit the Galerie Madoura to see the artist’s witty and charming ceramic artworks he created 1947–49.
Picasso lived or worked on the Riviera for five decades and his presence still resonates through the absolutely beautiful backstreets of Old Antibes, where he left a striking collection of work at the seaside Château Grimaldi, now the Musée Picasso. After lunch, head out to ritzy Cap d’Antibes to the gorgeous Beach de la Garoupe, which the master often painted.
Ferdnand Léger planned to create a monumental sculpture garden in the relentlessly picturesque medieval village of Biot, but died just a month after buying the land. In 1960, his widow established instead the Musée National Ferdnand Léger, whose 350 artworks capture the sparkle of this master of Neo-Plasticism.
In Cagnes-sur-Mer is the Villa “Les Collettes,” the last home of Auguste Renoir. He painted his final Impressionist paintings in two glassed-in studios, but you can best channel his spirit in his magical garden here. Right up the hill is Haut-de-Cagnes, a village whose once-upon-a-timeliness enchanted many artists, including Soutine and Modigliani.
Hilltop St-Paul-de-Vence was rediscovered in the 1920s when the artists Signac, Modigliani, and Bonnard met at La Colombe d’Or, an inn whose legendary charm remains intact. After posing oh-so-casually under the Picassos in its dining room, visit the Fondation Maeght, a modern art mecca where you can stroll through Joan Miró’s Labyrinth sculpture garden and view rooms hung with Chagalls, Braques, and Giacomettis.
Stroll the stone ramparts of medieval Vence, then head out to its New Town to exult in the beauty of Matisse’s famous Chapelle du Rosaire, created in 1947. With its black-and-white tile drawings of St. Dominic, the Virgin and Child, and the Stations of the Cross, shimmering stained glass, color-rich chausables, and hand-sculpted crucifix, this is Matisse’s last testament.
A banquet of museums entices the art lover to Nice, including the Musée Matisee, the Musée National Message Biblique Marc Chagall, and the Musée d’Art Moderne, but don’t forget to stroll to Matisse’s favorite spots—the elegant Promenade des Anglais, Jardin Albert Premier, and enchanting Cours Saleya marketplace.
“The Prince of Poets,” Jean Cocteau covered Villefranche-sur-Mer’s Chapelle Saint-Pierre in 1957 with his fanciful curlicues, angels, and eyes, while more of his work can be found nearby in Menton in the seaside bastion fort that is now the Musée Jean Cocteau and the pretty Marriage Hall of the town Hôtel de Ville.