The schedule at Art in Provence combined leisurely tourism with earnest artmaking. Every morning, after a continental breakfast in the dining room amid the cackle of les belles dames de Virginie, we boarded a couple of vans to head out for some ravishing spot within an hour or so of the château. It might de Dieulefit (“God made it”), the nearest sizable town, where we perched on campstools and sketched or painted the old stone buildings with their overflowing window boxes and crooked shutters. Or Puygiron, a medieval walled town where a few families still lived full time. Or Grignan, which boasted a Renaissance castle that once housed the daughter of the famed 17th-century scribe Madame de Sévigné, who sent her offspring long letters, as many as 20 pages a day, over a 30-year period (we had to read excerpts in French in high school….so I could say my expensive education was really paying off in tourist dividends, even if I couldn’t remember what mère et fille had to say to each other). Or we simply ventured out into the countryside to massacre on paper or canvas the gentle rolling mountains, fields of lavender, and those blue-green twisty cypresses that so beguiled van Gogh.
Everyone else seemed to aspire to a Bob Ross-type realism (remember him from the PBS series The Joy of Painting? he of the alla prima technique and the permed hippie hair?), but I was working only in charcoal and pastels because they were a lot easier to transport overseas, though many in the class came loaded with paintboxes and all sorts of accoutrements like palettes and brushes and special mediums (easels were provided for those who wanted one). I quickly decided to aim for a style somewhere between Paul Cézanne and Joan Mitchell, recording my impressions with lightning speed while others toiled to cram in as much detail as possible. Scarlett was on hand to help fix problems of perspective or advise on color strategies, but I think she sensed a little hostility from my direction and gave me a wide berth. Perhaps I once or twice cracked jokes about lopping off my ear or writing to my brother Théo….
The best part of these outings, for a happy sloppy hobbyist like myself, was lunch. Hans, the founder and major domo of this art-vacation enterprise, arrived around one p.m. every day with an SUV filled with baskets and shopping bags for un déjeuner sur l’herbe incroyable: ratatouille, baguettes baked that morning, sauçissons, foie gras, quiche Lorraine, fresh fruit, pastries, and salads composed from tender local herbs and lettuces. And the cheeses, oh the cheeses, which he set out every day on big platters and served with a running commentary on their qualities and origins, because this was surely his greatest passion—the food, wine, and produce of Provence, not the idiots who came here to bumble about the countryside, most no doubt at the expense of indulgent husbands who would also have to pay for matting and framing when the ladies returned with new trophies for over the sofa or the mantelpiece.
The names of the provençale cheeses still roll trippingly off my tongue, even if I seldom go out of my way to track them down: bleu d’Auvergne, Comté, Mont d’Or, Morbier, Reblochon, Beaufort. And when I do encounter one of these—in Trader Joe’s, say—I grab it and try to remember a time when lunch was something more interesting than leftovers or Lean Cuisine. I am always hoping a sniff will transport me back to the French countryside, but it turns out cheese doesn’t seem to work as well as a madeleine did for Proust.
After lunch came a nap whenever possible, a couple more hours of dabbling in a shady spot, and then back in the vans to the château. For dinner, we were on our own. Some people had cars, and we set off in groups to forage for a light meal or settled for croques monsieurs at a little local café. Here is where we got to know one another better, and when the women learned I wrote for ARTnews, I was treated with a deference that would have been more appropriate toward Sir Kenneth Clark or Robert Hughes. No, no, I would say, I’m mainly just a reporter and reviewer, but somehow I got stuck with the label “critic” and just hoped Scarlett would never find out. What if she tracked me down to New York and wanted an introduction to galleries that might show her work? How could I politely tell her, as a professional, that it might be a good idea to stop painting pickaninnies.
The other students were a diverse bunch—mostly rich wives on the lam, as I had guessed, but also a pair of lesbian math teachers from the Midwest, and one retired research chemist who probably didn’t much appreciate my remarking that I’d never heard of an artist who retired to take up chemistry. Why was it always the other way around? Imagine a sculptor with a pension who decides to go for an MBA.
After six days of this I was more than ready for Tom, who showed up in a white Mercedes convertible and immediately made me feel as young and footloose as Jean Seberg in Breathless. “Let’s just give this a couple of nights, so you can recover from jet lag, and then let’s get the fuck out of here.”
He was no Jean-Paul Belmondo, but that night he looked damn good.
On Sunday, the day after Tom arrived, Hans announced at breakfast that the hotel chef had received a special shipment of seafood from Marseille and was going to cook a huge bouillabaisse. (We didn’t even know there was a hotel chef. After a drink at the bar on Saturday, which took half an hour to arrive, and a look at the premises, Tom christened the place Le Château Fawlty Towers.) We gathered with the ladies at seven in the dining room, where a waiter filled champagne flutes with Prosecco and provided a couple of bottles of wine for each table, along with breadsticks and butter. This was an unexpected lagniappe, as nothing was said in the information sent to us about dinners of any sort.
There was an expectant, happy hum to the group. Even Scarlett, who usually made herself scarce in the evenings, joined one of the tables. As the only male diner in the bunch, Tom was the object of great curiosity, and to my eyes was looking quite handsome in his immaculately pressed shirt and khaki pants. I would learn that he was expert at packing—no real surprise there.
We drank and chatted and waited. The breadsticks quickly disappeared. Fresh baguettes and sweet butter arrived at each table. And we waited. After an hour, we made polite inquiries into the arrival of the bouillabaisse, in French and English. “Bientôt tres bientôt!” Our waiter opened the wine bottles and brought fresh glasses. Soon we were tearing into the baguettes, guzzling the vin ordinaire. We inquired of our by now heavily sweating waiter if perhaps “une petite salade” was a possibility. He mumbled something in French and disappeared into the kitchen.
Les belles dames de Virginie turned frisky. One tossed a chunk of bread at another. Soon everyone was tearing off bread and merrily throwing morçeaux to the diners at other tables. “Here, catch!” I took half a baguette and playfully brought it down on Tom’s head. He was not amused. “This is just a bunch of menopausal horseshit.”
I smacked him again, but by then I could see he was getting seriously annoyed. I leaned close and whispered in his ear. “I’m sorry. My hormones are raging. My appetite is out of control. I will make it up to you, mon petit choux.”
Around 9:30 or 10:00, the bouillabaisse finally arrived, and as I recall it was truly superb, brimming with shrimp and cod, mussels and tomatoes, fragrant with garlic. What took so long we were never told. Perhaps the chef had lost his Julia Child video and had to make it all up from scratch. Perhaps there was no chef and it was miraculously transported by Hans from a restaurant in Dieulefit when it became clear we would destroy the dining room if left unfed.
By the time we were done we didn’t care. We slept the sleep of the deeply sated and headed off the next day for more adventures in Provence. As for my week of drawing en plein air, I still have some of those pastels, somewhere in storage, and if I get up there in the next few weeks I will dig them out for you.
Top: A typical street and storefront in Dieulefit.