In Aix-en-Provence, where a stroll along the narrow streets of the historic center reveals a gem of French Baroque architecture at every turn, the Hôtel de Caumont still stands out as a unique treasure.
That was exactly what François Rolland de Réauville, Marquis de Cabanes, had in mind when he commissioned Robert de Cotte, the principal architect of King Louis XIV (think the Royal Chapel of the Versailles Palace and Grand Trianon) to design a mansion that would befit his position as President at the Court of Auditors of Aix-en-Provence. The first stone was laid on April 4, 1715, in the center of the fashionable new Mazarin district.
A Baroque Masterpiece Reborn
Construction was to span three decades and ownership change a couple of times until the end of the century when the superb mansion became the property of Pauline de Bruny, Marquise de Caumont. Born in 1767, during the reign of Louix XV, she had grown up at the court of Versailles and acquired its taste for luxury. The mansion, by now known at Hôtel de Caumont became the setting for lavish receptions, plays and concerts. Then the aftermath of the French revolution extinguished high society life.
Fast-forward a century and a half during which the property experienced varied fortunes, including serving as a sanctuary for members of the French Resistance during the Second World War. It was then purchased from its last private owner by the city of Aix in 1964 to house the Darius Milhaud National Conservatory of Music and Dance. Finally in 2010 the mansion, by now a historic monument since 1987, was acquired by Culturespaces, a foremost private organization for the management of French monuments and museums.
The Caumont Art Center
Several years of planning, 18 months of intensive work and 12.6 million Euros later, the newly minted Caumont Art Center was revealed in all its restored eighteenth century glory on May 6, 2015. The ground floor with its soaring central foyer houses to its right a remarkable bookstore and gift boutique reminiscent of the libraries and cabinets of curiosities that were de-rigueur in such homes at the time. To the left, the inviting formal dining room leads to the upper terrace of a classic jardin à la Française (formal French garden). The grand three-story central staircase of the 2,500 square meter (27,000 square foot) mansion leads to Pauline’s recreated apartments that mark the entrance of two stories of temporary exhibit spaces.
Turner and Color
The current exhibition, on view until September 18, 2016, is a breathtaking retrospective of the giant of nineteenth century English painting, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). This exceptionally rich exposition of over 120 watercolors, sketches and oils includes over thirty paintings from London’s Tate Gallery that were bequeathed to Britain by the artist, as well works from the London Royal Academy of Arts, the Oxford Ashmolean Museum and the Dallas Museum of Art, plus a number of rarely if ever seen pieces from private collections.
Here the exploration of Turner’s works adopts a unique new point of view. Although still mainly chronologic, it invites the viewer to discover the evolution of this self-taught genious’ relationship with color, from his early days influenced by the great colorists of the past, from Rembrand to Poussin and Titian to Claude Lorrain, to his ground-breaking use of newly synthesized pigments (such as the whole range of yellows that had just become available through the isolation of the metal Chromium).
Journeys around Europe
An important section illustrates Turner’s journeys around Europe through his travel sketches and watercolors as well that the ensuing paintings. Another thread of the exposition follows his relationship with the coastal village of Margate in Kent, which he had discovered as a child. He would then pass most of his later years there and realize his most incandescent color experimentations. It is especially eye-opening for me to detect in his bold use of color the seeds of the Impressionism movement that would flourish a few decades later.
After a dazzling afternoon in the company of Turner, I linger in the mini-Versaille vignette of the Café Caumont. The weather being its usual Provence gorgeous, I forgo the elegant eighteenth century atmosphere of the dining room for tea-time on the upper terrace, in the shade of a white canvas umbrella within earshot of a discretely gurgling fountain.
Good to Know
- Getting There – Aix-en-Provence is easily reached by train, with several direct TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours). The Aix TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. The Marseille–Provence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TVG station.
- Getting Around – To explore the historic city, walking is definitely the way to go. Road signs at the approaches to Aix direct motorists to large facilities where they can park their vehicles for a nominal daily fee that also includes free round trip bus tickets to the center of town for all their passengers.
- Each year, the Caumont Art Center features two large-scale temporary exhibitions. In parallel, a 20-minute film depicting the life of native son Paul Cezanne (1839–1906) is shown at intervals throughout the day in the basement projection room. From May to September, Café Caumont also features occasional Jazz evenings performances.
- Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, Aix-en-Provence. Caumont Art Center. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01. Open daily from May 1 to September 30 from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, with late opening hours on Friday until 9:30 pm during temporary exhibitions, and from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. From May to September, Café Caumont remains open from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm from Tuesday through Saturday and offers a wine and light snacks menu. It’s the perfect place to stop for a drink in a serene al fresco atmosphere just minutes away from the bustling Cours Mirabeau.
- If you miss this landmark exhibition, which was realized in cooperation with the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, don’t despair. After Aix-en-Provence, the exposition will be on view there from October 8, 2016 to January 8, 2017.