One cannot travel the French Riviera and not visit the small, picture-perfect historical town of Saint Paul de Vence. This small town has a rich artistic past, and even today continues to attract the artists. When visiting, follow the trail of the famous 20th century post-impressionists.

photo of Saint Paul de Vence at night
© Office de Tourisme de Saint-Paul de Vence – Photographe : Elisabeth Rossolin

Travel-French Riviera – Saint Paul de Vence & the Post-impressionists

In the beginning of the 20th century, the not-yet-famous post-impressionist artists, including but not only, Picasso, Chagall and Matisse fell under the spell of this beautiful town and made Saint Paul de Vence their home.

At around the same time, the son of a farmer, Paul Roux, opened a four bedroom inn in Saint Paul de Vence. Roux and his wife named their inn La Colombe d’Or. Unbeknownst to them, this new venture would one day become a famous artistic institution!

La Colombe-d'Or  - the post-impressionist trail French riviera
Outside dining at the “La Colombe-d’Or”
Photo by José-Arlindo S. DeSouza on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In 1940, the filmmaker Jacques Prévert while working in the cinema studios in Nice, stayed in at La Colombe d’Or. His work collegues joined him in this magical town using La Colombe d’Or as their base. Not long after Pablo Picasso came to Saint Paul de Vence and frequented the Inn as well.

Around this period, other postimpressionist painters, such as Dufy, Signac, Matisse Braque, Miro and Soutine also became regulars. The artists met at La Colombe d’Or to discuss art while eating their meals. Sometimes they were too broke to pay, so the artists bartered their artworks for meals.

This was the beginning of the incredible collection of drawings and paintings that Paul Roux accumulated. He decorated his restaurant with the artworks of these emerging but not-yet-famous artists.

Without realizing it, Paul Roux converted La Colombe d’Or into a world-wide famous museum and cultural center!

Other Artists drawn to Saint Paul de Vence

In 1949, the famous romance between Yves Montand and Simone Signoret started in Saint Paul De Vence! In fact, they met at the Colombe d’Or!

Marc Chagall and his wife Vava, in 1966 also became enchanted with this peaceful and beautiful town. The Chagalls built a large house, La Colline, outside the city walls of Saint Paul de Vence. They built their villa next-door to the house of the French art dealer, collector, lithographer, and publisher Aimé Maeght.

Marc Chagall - Les Amoureux de Venice
The Lovers of Vence – Marc Chagall Painting

Marc Chagall was extremely prolific during his years in Saint Paul de Vence. He hung out often with his artistic friends at La Colombe d’Or or at the Cafe de la Place. Chagall died in 1985 and is buried in the cemetery of Saint Paul de Vence, not far from the grave of Maeght.

In 1970, the American writer James Baldwin also moved to Saint Paul de Vence. He spent the last 17 years of his life here. Baldwin entertained many artists including Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, Bing Crosby, Miles Davis, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, to name a few. Baldwin died in Saint Paul de Vence but was buried in the USA

Yves Montand and Simone Signoret dining at the Colombe D'Or
Yves Montand and Simone Signoret dining at the Colombe D’Or
© Office de Tourisme de Saint-Paul de Vence – Photographe : Jacques Gomot

Not surprisingly, Saint Paul de Vence is one of the most touristy villages in Southern France!!

Top Places to Visit in Saint Paul de Vence & the Surrounding Region

The Town of Saint Paul de Vence

The walls surrounding the Saint Paul De Vence were built in the mid 15th century. Above the walls stands the gorgeous, historical, picture-perfect town in all its glory! This town is made up of just one street called Rue Grante. Jutting off this street are small charming alleyways enticing you, the curious tourist to explore and lose yourself! The art connection is still apparent and you will see many art galleries, statues & art shops selling art supplies for the budding artists currently living in this town. Dotted all over are hip cafes and restaurants!

Saint Paul de Vence town - the last home town of Chagall
Saint Paul de Vence Photo by Andrew on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On the southernmost side of the town is a terrace that offers exquisite views of Provence! Directly below is the cemetery where Chagall and Maeght are buried.

Foundation Maeght

Aimé Maeght, a Parisian art collector also moved to Saint Paul de Vence. Many of his closest friends were the postimpressionist painters who either lived here or visited often from nearby towns. In the 1960s he hired a Spanish architect to work together with Chagall, Braque and Joan Miró. He commissioned them to design a modern art building in a secluded location surrounded by nature.

Travel - French Riviera - Maeght Foundation
Musée de la Fondation Maeght
Photo by ID Number THX 1139 on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The walk towards the Foundation Maeght art museum from Saint-Paul de Vence is beautiful. The walk meanders through a pine forest scented with rosemary and thyme. For more information about this impressive art museum, click here

The White Penitents Chapel (The Folon Chapel)

In Saint Paul de Vence even a small religious chapel has been infused with art and beauty!

The White Penitents Chapel has a fascinating history dating back to 1581. The brotherhood of White Penitents were a group of pious individuals who believed that doing good deeds, would redeem them of their sins. They busied themselves with charity work. This included helping with the sick and the poor, providing shelter and and food to the poor pilgrims and lost travellers en route. This brotherhood continued their activites in Saint-Paul de Vence until the early 1920s. This chapel was their headquarters.

In 2005, the Belgian artist Jean-Michel Folon, who resided in Saint Paul de Vence, was commissioned to redesign the inside of the chapel. The only requirement was to reflect the foundation and beliefs of the White Penitents.

Folon accepted this project but died in 2005. However, a selected group of artists continued the project and finished Folon’s design. This chapel is gorgeous and full of light. The stained-glass windows, the stunning mosaics, sculptures and murals are magnificent. Don’t miss this treasure! For more information, press here.

La chapelle des pénitents blancs
The White Penitents Chapel Photo by Claude on Flickr

The Town of Vence (just to confuse us!!)

Vence is NOT Saint Paul de Vence! It is another gorgeous town in the area!!! Artists like Chagall, Matisse and DH Lawrence also hung out here. When you visit, you will understand why they and so many others were drawn to this place.

Explore this town and lose yourself in the small streets and alleyways. So many gems to discover. If you are here on a Tuesday, go shopping for fresh produce in the town’s market on the main square.

Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence (Chapelle Matisse)

A nun who looked after Henri Matisse when he was sick ten years before, asked Matisse to design the chapel.

Matisse, in his late 70s, poured his heart and soul into this massive project. He called this work his greatest “masterpiece”. Matisse designed everything inside the chapel, including the stone altarpiece, candle holders, crucifixes, and the priests’ vestments. He painted three large murals onto the walls and designed stunning stained glass windows. The windows glow with blue, green and yellow colors onto the chapel’s white walls. Press here for more information.

Travel - French Riviera - Chapelle du Rosaire - Matisse Stained - glass windows
The Stained Glass window in the Matisse Chapel
Monica Arellano-Ongpin  on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Visit the Nearby Musee Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer

Cagnes-sur-Mer attracted many 20th century artists such as Renoir, Modigliani, Soutine & others. There was so many of them at one time that the village was coined the “Montmartre de la Côte d’Azur”.

The impressionism painter, Auguste Renoir left the Parisian capital for Cagnes-sur-Mer in his later years. He suffered with rheumatism and sought out a quiet life in the sunnier South of France. He bought a farmhouse on a huge piece of land and continued to paint despite his disability.

His artist friends, like Picasso, Monet and Rodin, came to visit him here. Today his house is the Renoir Museum. The museum is set in a gorgeous garden full of centuries-old olive trees and sweetly-scented citrus groves. Check out the incredible views of the French Riviera below!! You can almost imagine Renoir plein-air painting these views from here! For more details, press here.

Renoir museum in Cagnes-sur-Mer
Travel – French Riviera – Visit Musee Renoir
By ClaireL28 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Gourdon

Gourdon is so gorgeous that it has been officially listed as France’s “Plus Beaux Villages”. It isn’t far from Saint Paul de Vence and the drive there is through some gorgeous scenery. The tiny town surrounds a castle. The castle itself is closed but its lovely gardens are open to the public. Stroll around this enchanting town and soak up the charm. The streets are dotted with quaint shops, cafes & restaurants. The street ends with a viewpoint over the valley, absolutely stunning!!!!

Gourdon village - Travel French Riviera
Travel – French Riviera – Gourdon Village
Photo by Pierre Metivier on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For more French Riviera Travel Tips in the footsteps of the Impressionists, check out the articles below