Is there something in the air in the Midi—the south of France—that has inspired so many artists to greatness? Yes, there is: the sunlight. The region claims to enjoy roughly 300 days of sunshine annually, and the architects of Marseille’s new buildings incorporate sunlight into their designs like a construction material. The way it bounces off the Mediterranean and the hilly landscape makes even the most mundane surroundings vibrant.
In L’Estaque, a modest fishing-village suburb of Marseille, Paul Cézanne was dazzled by the light playing off red roofs in counterpoint to the blue sea and the bright white limestone hills. He produced around 20 L’Estaque canvases. Pierre-Auguste Renoir raved about the quality of the light there as well, and it was during sojourns in L’Estaque in the early 1900s that Georges Braque and his colleagues painted fauvist landscapes of riotous color.
Slightly inland, visitors to the city of Aix-en-Provence will feel like they are living in a Cézanne painting when they walk among the yellow stone buildings lit by that same Midi sun, backgrounded by the sky and the plane trees lining the boulevards. These colors—ocher, blue, and green—are closely identified with Cézanne and, indeed, with Provence.
Even Vincent van Gogh, not known for his sunny outlook, is nevertheless recognized for his experiments with light-drenched color, many of them produced in this region. Near the end of his life, from his confined vantage point at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, he found contentment painting the scenes that were visible to him, such as the sun blazing above a wheat field, illuminating those colors of Provence.