The House where Picasso lived

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.

Trip to Mougins

Mougins is without doubt one of the loveliest places to visit on the French Riviera. Only 15 minutes by car from Cannes, this charming medieval village is set among pines, olives and cyprus trees, and surrounded by forests.

As soon as you arrive, the charm of Mougin’s narrow streets, bordered by colourful flowers and superb ancient houses starts to seduce you. Picturesque doorways (and doors) with each stone carefully restored, beautifully designed window-frames…… there are delightful details everywhere you look plus, until the end of September, an open air exhibition of animal scupltures by Davide Rivalta, scattered thoughtfully throughout!

Like many of the medieval villages around here, Mougins had been occupied since the pre-Roman period before being eventually absorbed into the spread of the Roman Empire. In 11th century the Count of Antibes gave the Mougins hillside to the Monks of Saint Honorat (from the nearby Îles de Lerins just off the coast of Cannes) who continued to administer the village until the French Revolution. During this period, Mougins was a fortified village surrounded by ramparts. Parts of its medieval city wall still exist as well as one of the three original ancient gate towers (Porte Sarrazine). Viewed from the air, the village resembles a snail, its inner core being the earliest dwellings which date from 11-15th centuries.

On the outskirts of the village, large luxurious properties (aka property porn) hide behind magnificent Mediterranean parks and gardens. Once we’d parked the car, we started our stroll in Place des Patriots, with a statue of Commandant Lamy, one of the village’s famous sons who gave his name to the capital of Tchad, “Fort Lamy,” now “N’djamena”. We stopped to admire the view, which spreads from the Esterel hills to the bay of Cannes and includes the Grasse countryside and the Mercantour hills.

Heading past the various art works, including two magnificent lions and a massive head of Picasso, past the newish Musée d’Art Classique de Mougins – more of which tomorrow –  we head up the hill past the Tourist Office (formerly Picasso’s studio) and the old public wash house (Lavoir) built in 1894, now an art gallery. On the ramparts, across the way, is the former municipal slaughterhouse. The square itself is constructed on what was once Sainte-Anne’s cemetery with a chapel of the same name, which has since been destroyed.

We headed towards the fountain that marks the intersection of avenues de la Victoire and du Commandant Lamy. On the left, restaurant “Au Rendez-vous de Mougins” (a former Hôtel de France) was readying itself for re-opening on 2 June. The restaurant’s first floor contains a room with vaulted ceilings which served as the 15th century court room because a 1438 charter stipulated that the village’s inhabitants would be tried in their own village. On the right, next to the restaurant “Le Bistrot” is the old post office. The building first served as a stable for the olive mill’s horses. The last olives were pressed in 1918 and the site was then converted into a house, whose most famous occupant was Christian Dior.

At the far end of the square, there’s the Town Hall, built in 1618 as the chapel of the White Penitents, it has been used for weddings and by the city council since 1954. It also houses the Espace Culturel and Gottlob Museum., which hosts exhibitions throughout the year. From there, we could easily see the facade of number 41 decorated by the talented painter and portraitist Paul Daemen, who spent his last years in Mougins.

At the corner of rue du Badier and rue des Migraniers is the former home and ceramics workshop of Maurice Gottlob, a rural policeman and well-known regional artist. We followed the wall round to the place du Lieutenant Isnard where the distilleries were once located.  We took a left turn onto the rue des Isnardons, which is flanked on its west side by the cultural centre “Le Vaste Horizon.”

This was where Picasso pitched up one fine morning in 1936 and fell in love with Mougins. Paul Eluard, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and Rosemonde Gérard soon followed his example, and together they shaped the future of artistic expression. Allegedly, Picasso painted every wall of his room, only to face the wrath of the hotel owner who made the unknown painter cover over his work with white paint the next day. This didn’t discourage Picasso, who much later settled permanently in Mougins, next to the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Vie, where he lived out his last days.

Heading back on ourselves, we take a street incorporated into the fortifications that surround the village, admiring the many art galleries as we once more cross the place du Lieutenant Isnard and rue du Colonel Roustan. During the Middle Ages, this was the end of the route from nearby Grasse, later named after Colonel Roustan, a Mougins hero who lived in the “Santa-Lucia” villa. This villa was also home to such celebrities as Roland Petit, Zizi Jeanmaire, Yves Saint-Laurent and Paul Anka. We then wend our way upwards to place des Mûriers, walking beside the rempart’s remains and watchman’s round tower to reach yet another square.

Number 36, the house where Commandant Lamy was born. there’s an artist’s studio next door. To the right, on the rue du Moulin, is the old oil mill, which was once called the “Moulin Isnard.” It was later converted into a restaurant by the master chef Roger Vergé, latterly of Moulin des Mougins. The decorator Roger Vivier, who also designed the coronation shoes worn by Queen Elizabeth II, oversaw the restorations.

Further along, on the placette de l’Église, we found the only entrance to the village, which is still standing today, Porte Sarrazine. The adjoining house, which I’d previously visited, is now a photography museum, largely thanks to the donations of André Villers. Temporary exhibitions are shown on the first floor. On the second floor, there’s a permanent collection of antique photography equipment, as well as photographs taken of Mougins in 1900. The third floor houses a collection of photographs of Picasso taken by the great contemporary photographers J.-H. Lartigue, R. Doisneau, E. Quinn, D.D. Duncan, S. Roth, L. Clergue, Otero, Denise Colomb, and of course André Villers.

Next up is the church of Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur, the oldest part of which was probably the former lordships’ chapel of Sainte-Marie. It was built in three phases, starting in 11th century and finishing at the beginning of 19th century. The nearby narrow street once housed many artisans including, famously, the goldsmith Bernardin Bareste. In 1666, he was the only craftsman of his kind in the region and made gold coins for the abbey of Lérins.

All too soon we were back at the car after a splendid trip down memory lane. We couldn’t remember the last time we’d visited but it certainly hadn’t been so blissfully empty!

Must see: Picasso and Paper

When I lived in London I was a friend of The Royal Academy meaning I could access the museum whenever it was open, along with enjoying a huge range of benefits. I made a point of seeing all its exhibitions, even those which might not have held much appeal. I could see the exhibitions as many times as I wanted and it would often take me a couple of visits to see all the more popular exhibits.

All clouds have silver linings! It’s most unlikely that I would’ve managed a trip to London to see this exhibition at The Royal Academy but I don’t have to because, while the museum is closed, thanks to you know what , the exhibition can be viewed on line here

If you live in the south of France, the influence of Pablo Picasso is hard to ignore. There’s the museum in Antibes, the first of many dedicated to the artist and while it offers only a snapshot of his work, it’s a glimpse of a summer holiday. This was Picasso at his happiest, and as he put it himself:

If you want to see the Picassos of Antibes, you must see them in Antibes.

Picasso also lived in nearby Vallauris, where he learnt the art of decorative ceramics. In 1952, he painted his famous mural on war and peace to decorate the chapel there.

I’ve also visited the Photography Museum in the Old Town of Mougins, founded in 1986, dedicated to the works of photographer André Villers (1930 – 2016). A personal friend of Picasso, Villers portrayed – along with many celebrated artists of 20th century – the last twelve years of Picasso’s life in a number of famous black-and-white pictures.

And, as if there weren’t already enough museums (and exhibitions) dedicated to the life and works of Pablo Picasso, there’s a new one opening in Aix-en-Provence and it’s slated to have the largest collection of his works in the world, many of which have not previously been exhibited nor published so it’s bound to cause much excitement when it opens next year.

Picasso not only lived a long and full life but he was also a prolific artist. Wherever he went, whatever he did, he left a paper trail of sketchbooks, studies, oils and gouaches, pencil and ink, crayon and charcoal drawings, prints (woodcuts and linocuts, lithographs, etchings, engravings) and other works on woven papers, Japanese papers, watermarked paper, embossed papers, newspaper, wallpaper, hotel headed notepaper, menu cards, wrapping paper, back of fag packets, napkins, indeed any old scraps of paper and card that came to hand. He accumulated paper, squirrelled it away, and never threw anything out. He was a hoarder of the highest order – most certainly he’d never been Kondoed.

Picasso was alert to all of the papers’ qualities as he folded, glued together, cut and tore, basted in ink and washes, drew on and rubbed into them. Paper for him was just another a medium (like paint, clay or plaster) to be manipulated. And as he worked he was always finding, losing and refinding his subjects, whether it was a fish or a faun, a woman or a guitar, a portrait or a skull. The multiple transformations he performed in his art evidence his unnerving vitality and confidence.

What this exhibition provides is but one more overview of his entire career, taking us from his very earliest cut-out paper figures of a characterful, squat little terrier and a dove, made when he was eight or nine, to a skull-like self-portrait, drawn the year before he died. Somewhere along the way those earliest, cut-out little creatures return, in scissored paper shapes cut by an adult: a cuttlefish, a feather, light bulbs and a fishing float, and nasty little paper faces and skulls whose eyes and mouths have been burned through the paper, most likely with the tip of a lit cigarette.

The variety of works in The Royal Academy exhibition range through all the periods of Picasso’s development and each section of the show is accompanied by key paintings and sculptures. But the exhibitions’s real pleasures lie in the variety of the individual works, such as the wonderful tiny card and string guitars. Even his poems are drawn as much as written. He just couldn’t seem to stop himself.

There’s a local (to me) story locally that once upon a time, the owner of a cafe asked if Picasso might do a little doodle, on a paper tablecloth or the menu as a memento. The artist shrugged and said he’d just like to pay for the meal – he didn’t want to buy the restaurant!

Picasso was no shrinking violet and had a real sense of his own worth.


Header Photo © David Parry/Royal Academy of Arts © Succession Picasso/DACS 2020 Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and the Cleveland Museum of Art in partnership with the Musée national Picasso-Paris

A visit to the Musée Picasso in Paris

On our most recent trip to Paris we once again stayed in the Marais (3rd and 4th arrondissements) and used this as our base for visiting pastures old and new. One of my favourite buildings in the area is the one which houses many of Picasso’s works which were donated to the state in lieu of payment of death duties (Dation Picasso). The property, like many in the area, has an interesting story to tell.

History of Hôtel Salé

This is just one of many museums dedicated to the works of Picasso described as being, “the grandest, most extraordinary, if not the most extravagant, of the grand Parisian houses of the 17th century”. Hôtel Salé was built by Pierre Aubert, an important Parisian financier, advisor and secretary to the King. Aubert collected tax on salt on behalf of the king hence the house’s name, Hôtel Salé (meaning “salty” in French). He was a “middle-class gentleman” seeking to assert his recent social advancement.

He chose a site in an undeveloped area where Henry IV of France wished to encourage construction with the building of the Place Royale and chose a young unknown architect called Jean Boullier de Bourges, who belonged to a local family of stonemasons, to design his edifice. It took three years to complete and in the final days of 1659, Aubert moved in.

The Hôtel Salé comprises two corps de logis, two lines of rooms which extend the building’s surface area.  Its footprint is asymmetrical: the façade giving onto the courtyard is divided in two by a perpendicular wing that separates the main courtyard from the rear courtyard. The courtyard, following a wide curve that flatters the façade, is punctuated by seven open bays to emphasise the central avant-corps on three levels.

The front of the building is typically Baroque in style with an immense pediment emblazoned with acanthus, fruit and flower motifs while the façade overlooking the garden is much less ornate. My favourite bit is probably the central staircase which has been entirely restored to its original condition. It is based on the stair plan designed by Michelangelo for the Laurentian Library in Florence. Instead of a closed staircase, two Imperial flights of stairs are overlooked by a projecting balcony and then a gallery.

The staircase’s sculpted stucco is divine. It’s allegedly a physical translation of Hannibal Carache’s paintings in the Farnese Gallery”  with eagles holding a lightning bolt, cupids adorned in garlands, Corinthian pilasters and various divinities vying for attention.

Sadly, Monsieur Aubert was unable to enjoy his sumptuous surroundings for very long. In 1663 he was brought down by the same scandal that ruined Fouquet. The house then passed through numerous hands including the Embassy of the Republic of Venice. In 1790, the house was used during the French Revolution as an ecclesiastical bookstore. It changed hands again in 1797 and stayed in the same family until 1962.

The City acquired the house in 1964 and the property was granted Historical Monument status on 29 October 1968. From 1974 to 1979, the hotel was restored and returned to its former spaciousness, After extensive renovations, the Musée National Picasso was inaugurated in October 1985. Its most recent renovation was completed in 2014.

Acquisition of  Picasso’s Works

Picasso once said “I am the greatest collector of Picassos in the world.” By the time of his death in 1973, he had amassed an enormous collection of his own work, ranging from sketchbooks to finished masterpieces. The “Dation Picasso”  contained work by the artist in all techniques and from all periods, and it’s especially rare in terms of its excellent collection of sculptures.

These works have been supplemented by donations from his heirs and acquisition of a number of other works through purchases and gifts.  Today the Musée Picasso has over 5,000 of his works of art including 3,700 works on paper, ceramics, sculptures in wood and metal, and paintings. This is complemented by Picasso’s own personal art collection of works by other artists, including Renoir, Cézanne, Degas, Rousseau, Seurat and Matisse.

Guernica Exhibition

On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of its creation, the Musée Picasso, in partnership with the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (owner of the painting), has dedicated an entire exhibition to the story of this exceptional painting,  one of Picasso’s most famous works.

Picasso painted Guernica in 1937  in reaction to Nazi Germany’s devastating casual bombing of the Basque town Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The painting shows the tragedy of war and the suffering it inflicts upon individuals, particularly innocent civilians. Its lack of colour only intensifies the drama. Guernica is a mural sized canvas (3.5m x 7.8m) painted in blue, black and white oils.

Interpretations of Guernica vary widely and many contradict one another. Picasso was particularly provocative in his explanation of the painting. Many have read much into the mural’s two dominant elements: the bull and the horse, important characters in Spanish culture. However, ignore the theorists and just enjoy the painting. The loan from the museum in Madrid includes numerous sketches, thoughts, newspapers excerpts and after-thoughts of Guernica which gives it a contextual setting.

Aside from Guernica, there are plenty of other works by Picasso to enjoy, including some which he collected from his contemporaries all displayed in the wonderful Hôtel Salé. Don’t forget to explore the gardens afterwards.