“Do you want to stay in our château in Provence for a couple of weeks in exchange for a painting?”
That was the question I received when Angela called one Sunday afternoon.
She went on to tell me about a house in the South of France, the pool, the village, Ridley Scott and Peter Mayle, but I didn’t need a whole lot of convincing. I was hooked right away.
I did not know Angela, we have never met, and I probably would have thought this whole thing was a scam if it weren’t for Tracey Norvell, a mutual friend in the art world. My name was on a list of artists that might be available for commission work, and I was the fortunate one that got the call.
Artists have been drawn to Provence since ... forever. Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, Signac, Matisse, just to name a few. It’s a magical place and of course I wanted to take this job.
I received a photo where the painting was to be hung, and the wall measurements. Angela requested a still life featuring local, Provencal items, including pottery. She was also partial to the color red. That was pretty much what I had to go on, and my goal was to merge her affinities with my painting style.
The château was outside of Menerbés, a village in the Luberon valley. We didn’t know a whole about where we would be staying or what it looked like. Angela’s son Sanders named the home La Maison de Famille, or The Family House, and it turned out to be perfect for our family visit. Everything about it was lovely and the views were beyond expectations!
After getting settled, the work began in earnest. I explored the house looking for a table or shelf where I could stage the still life. I also was watching the light and made notes on what I liked, where, and the time of day.
I fell in love with an antique desk that was in the corner of one of the rooms. The rich burl wood was beautiful and there was a marble top with abstract shapes and textures that would be a fun challenge to paint and add to a rich composition. The desk was too big and heavy to move anywhere, so this would have to be the spot. It was also rather tall, but I would figure out a way to make it work.
All the towns in Provence have their own market day at different times during the week. My plan was to visit as many as I could and gather elements that would make an interesting composition.
For a still life painter like me, Provence proved to be a gold mine of wonderful things to paint. Walking through the markets, I was literally overwhelmed with the inspiration I found everywhere. Picking up one object I would start envisioning a painting, only to turn a corner and find some other amazing baubble that deserved attention.
With the help of my astute wife I was able to stay on task and bring together more than enough for a great painting.
I found the Provincial linen table runner and antique pot in Bonnieux. The peonies were from Goult. The cutting board is made of local olive wood, and was purchased from the market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Famous for antiques, this town had unique things I wish I could find in the States.
The bottle of Armagnac was found at the house, I loved the look of it, and hopefully its inclusion adds a special personal touch. Armagnac is a distinctive kind of brandy produced in the Armagnac region in Gascony, southwest France.
The old books were found in the upstairs library. I changed them to be by Proust, which fit the French theme perfectly. À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) is probably his most famous work.
The black truffle cheese, baguette and red pear were from Ménerbes, our favorite of all the towns we visited, and the village upon which we watched the sunset every evening.
I purchased more than I would need at the markets, and tried various things over several days. For example, I had other flowers in mind, before finding out that Angela’s favorites were peonies. Red peonies if I could find them.
As I mentioned, the antique desk is quite tall, and I had to bring in a table and ladder to get my eye line correct. Eventually I got everything just right…
This Provencal Life is one of the largest still life paintings I’ve ever done. After living in the intended room, and seeing how high the ceilings were, I realized I was going to have to paint larger than anticipated in order for it to really work properly in the space.
. . .
My time in Provence was nothing short of life-changing, and I am forever grateful to Angela for giving me and my family the opportunity. It is my wish that every artist could experience the combination of dappled light, mistral winds, and delightful food and wine that somehow usurp your daydreams, knowing that one day, you must return!