As a place to stroll down narrow, centuries-old streets or to shop for field-fresh food in near-daily markets, the city of Aix-en-Provence is without peer in Provence. Its dozen theaters show first-run films from around the world. And music fills its churches, its sparkling performance center and, often, its main street, Cours Mirabeau.
But when it comes to art, the birthplace of post-Impressionist Paul Cezanne has often seemed wanting. Cezanne’s atelier, or studio, welcomes tourists above the city. And further up the road can be found the site from which the master painted the dramatic Mont Sainte Victoire dozens of times. But precious little of Cezanne’s actual work can be found in his birthplace. Nor, until recent years, was there much else in the way of exhibits or museums to draw serious art lovers to this city in a region that has long lured painters because of its magnificent natural light.
That, however, is beginning to change. This May, a refurbished early 19th century hotel particulier, or mansion, opened as the Caumont Center of Art. It’s directly across the street from the popular international bookstore, Book in Bar, in the city’s Mazarin neighborhood. The museum and the beautifully refurbished mansion in which it is housed have created quite a buzz among locals already and with good reason. Featuring a special opening exhibit of the works the Italian artist Canaletto painted in early- to mid-18th century Venice, Rome and London, the center itself is something of a work of art, with its well-manicured garden, its outdoor cafe, and its high, chandeliered ceilings. For those wondering just who Aix’s favorite son Cezanne was, the museum shows a 30-minute film that offers a somewhat fanciful glimpse of the artist’s life and work.
I ended up visiting the Caumont three times during my two weeks in Aix, once to see the exhibit on my own, a second time to take our landlady from last year to lunch in its cafe (my shrimp salad was excellent), and a third to bring my Emerson College students. Canaletto’s large canvasses are enriched by a well-curated and organized exhibit, complete with music of the times, a discussion of laws intended to restrict Venice’s sumptuous lifestyle, and a room with sloshing water on the floor, walls painted with gondolas floating on the city’s canals, and a stereo soundtrack with the cry of birds and the shouts of gondoliers.
Sounds corny, I know. But the effect is delightful.
Nor is the Caumont a first, as Aix moves to expand its art offerings. Two years ago, the city opened the Granet Museum annex in the Chapel of the the White Penitants. It houses the personal collection of Swiss art dealer and collector Jean Planque, including more than a dozen of Picasso’s works, a single Van Gogh, a Renoir and more, including Planque’s own work. It’s a relatively small museum, but as with the Caumont, the space alone makes the visit more than worthwhile.
The opening of the Caumont now gives art lovers enough to fill an afternoon in with pleasure and further solidifies a sense that Aix is a city for the imagination, where a simple walk can take visitors through the centuries in a sort of time travel while at the same time remaining in the midst of creative and distinctly contemporary storefronts, some housed in buildings hundreds of years old.
It’s all part of what makes the city both eclectic and special. The Caumont, at 3 Rue Joseph Cabassol, just adds a bit to the excitement of being here.
The museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. through September when hours will be slightly curtailed. Admission is 11 euros, 8.50 for students. But it’s possible to enter the gift shop, gardens and cafe without paying. The current exhibit will remain on display until mid-September.