In a couple of my recent posts, I’ve mentioned that Picasso spent his final years in a beautiful villa in Mougins. So here’s the property which has an interesting provenance and a surprising ending.
Despite being Spanish-born, most of Picasso’s adult life was spent in France, and in his later years, Mougins specifically. His home, the Villa Notre Dame de Vie, which he once labelled ‘the home of his dreams’, has since become a valued piece of Mougins history, despite now being privately owned.
Benjamin Seymour Guinness first spotted the spectacular Mas de Notre Dame de Vie property in 1925. It was then a “mas” (a traditional farmhouse) but Guinness, a banker and philanthropist descended from the banking arm of the Guinness family, and his artist wife Bridget converted it into a luxurious villa.
The warm-all-year-round climate and the gorgeous light of the surrounding area soon made Mougins a desirable destination for artists both amateur and professional. Of the former, Winston Churchill – a good friend of Benjamin and Bridget – became a regular visitor to their Mougins home, spending many a summer’s day and night sitting in their garden painting.
An artist of a different category altogether, Pablo Picasso, was also a friend of the Guinnesses and, like Churchill, became a regular visitor to their home. So taken was Picasso by Mas de Notre Dame de Vie that he eventually bought the house from Benjamin and Bridget’s son Loel.
Picasso’s time in Mougins coincided with the height of his fame and wealth. Although his productivity was slowing down, this period of time coincided with some important artworks from his ‘later period’. Amongst the famous pieces of work produced during his time in Mougins were: The Dance of Youth, 1961; Nu assis dans un fauteuil, 1963; The Chicago Picasso, 1967; and Femme nue au collier, 1968 which was a painting of his wife Jacqueline Roque.
Picasso died at his home of Notre Dame de Vie, Mougins in April 1973. During the evening he and Jacqueline had been entertaining friends for dinner, but he later fell ill. The cause of his death was fluid in his lungs which caused breathing difficulties and led to cardiac failure.
Although Jacqueline Roque was by all accounts not the easiest of women to be with, there is no doubt that she loved Picasso. Unable to cope with the loneliness of life without Picasso, she killed herself. Picasso himself produced over 400 drawings and paintings of Jacqueline during the 20 years they were together. He produced 70 portraits in one year alone. This was more than he had produced from any of his previous relationships, including his time with Dora Maar and Francoise Gilot.
After the death of Picasso’s wife in 1986, Mas de Notre Dame de Vie stood empty for 30 years. Since Picasso’s death, she had left everything untouched in the house – even his reading glasses were still in the same place.
A wealthy Belgian financier bought the house a few years ago and had the renowned interior designer Axel Vervoordt bring the house back to life while equipping it with modern amenities. Using source material from the many Picasso biographies, over 100 people worked for over two years restoring it to its full grandeur.
There was plenty to play with: 2,400sq m of floor space, 1,500sq m of which is the main house. The eight acres of landscaped gardens – now with an infinity pool, a clay tennis court, a gym, spa and hammam – have 500-year-old olive groves, water features, an orangerie and innumerable terraces. The property includes a house for guests and one for the caretaker. He had hoped to sell the property for in excess of US$150 million but was spectacularly unsuccessful and went bust.
Consequently, Picasso’s Mougins house was put up for auction again in 2017, with a starting price of US$20 million. Quite bizarrely, only one bidder turned up; Rayo Withanage, a New Zealand real-estate businessman, who proceeded to back out of the purchase before recommitting at a later date. While the house is now closed to the public, the nearby chapel (Chapelle de Notre-Dame de Vie), viewable from Picasso’s home, and which helped fuel his creative inspiration, remains open for exploring.
A big part of the appeal of this property is also how the small village of Mougins has become a destination in itself since Picasso’s death. When Benjamin and Brigid Guinness first invited Picasso to see the house in the 1930s, Mougins was very much off the French Riviera map. Now, though, it’s a gastronomic destination and has become a popular resting place for the acting elite attending the annual Cannes film festival. The Mougins Museum pays homage to the all artists who have been seduced by the area.
Over the years, Mougins has attracted many figures from art, design and music including Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Yves Klein, César Baldaccini, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Édith Piaf and Jacques Brel. Catherine Deneuve is also a regular visitor and Elizabeth Taylor used to host her annual AIDS gala in Mougins during the Cannes film festival.
The Notre Dame de Vie chapel just beside the property was first erected in 12th century and is now a listed historic building. It was this chapel that Winston Churchill used to paint time and time again when staying with Benjamin and Bridget Guinness. And the Guinness connection remains through a Guinness family tomb in the chapel’s garden where both Benjamin and Bridget are buried.
Perhaps no other small town boasts such a cultural guestbook as Mougins. And all because Benjamin and Bridget Guinness, on a car ride out of Cannes in the 1920s, fell in love with a dilapidated farmhouse that in turn seduced Pablo Picasso.