If you visit Aix-en-Provence, you simply have to go to the Hôtel de Caumont. In the French context, a hôtel particulier is not a hotel, but a free standing house. You can visit this art center, located one minute from the Cours Mirabeau, any day. It is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. from October to April and until 7 p.m. from May to September.
While the Café Caumont opens from 11:30 a.m. until the same closing time. Located on the interior of the building, this café is a beautiful place with fountains and trees, overlooking the garden. From July to September they have an evening program with live jazz.
The gardens of Hôtel de Caumont are simply gorgeous! They were created in two levels, following the original plans designed by architect Robert de Cotte (the chief architect for King Louis XIV, the Sun King) in 1715. These “French Gardens” have a squared layout with a circular fleur-de-lis looking shape in the center. Benches were placed on either side to admire the panorama. At the far end there is a fountain called Fontaine des Trois-Tritons. It was sculpted out of stone, creating tritons (that look like dolphins). These mythological creatures were the allies of gods, such as Neptune. I visited in August and the lavender was blooming. It is such a nice place to spend some time.
While visiting the Hôtel de Caumont you can access the music room, which was dedicated to the playing of instruments. As music played a central role in the social life of the 18th century, all house owners in the Mazarin quarter had one to reflect their high social status. You can see a beautifully crafted harpsichord and a piano that was hand painted.
The other room that is open to the public was Pauline’s bedroom, a young lady who grew up in Aix-en-Provence. It is very Rococo with loads of gold in the walls, mirror and painting frames. It has a fireplace under the main mirror with a hanging portrait of Pauline. The canopy bed is quite girly and a chandelier drops from the ceiling.
History of Hôtel de Caumont
This prestigious residence in Aix-en-Provence is located in the Mazarin Quarter, which was established in 1646 as a luxury housing complex. Residents were parliamentarians and bourgeoisie who wanted to show off their wealth. The city was growing, so the Archbishop Michel Mazarin (brother of the Cardinal Mazarin) was put in charge of creating this new quarter which was laid out with a chequerboard pattern. The Place des Quatre-Dauphins fountain was set in the middle.
In 1715, François Rolland de Réauville, the Marquis de Cabannes, wanted to build a mansion that would stand out from all the other houses of the area. However, the house would not be completed until 30 years after his death. In 1758, the house was sold to François Bruny de la Tour-d’Aigues, the richest ship-owner, merchant and banker of Marseilles. He called his mansion “Hôtel de Bruny”. His son Jean-Baptiste inherited the residence in 1772. As an art collector, he filled the mansion with numerous artworks, which was a precedent to its current state as an art centre. The mansion was also a party place for the elite.
After Jean-Baptiste’s death, the mansion was given to his son, who died shortly after, and then to his daughter, Pauline. She married Marquis de Caumont and the residence changed its name to Hôtel de Caumont. The marriage was a disaster, but she kept the mansion where she grew up. Pauline had no children, so the mansion was given to her cousin after her death in 1850, who sold the property.
Following this period, Hôtel de Caumont changed owners numerous times and the mansion lost its former glory. By the start of World War II, the mansion had been divided into apartments that were also used to shelter resistant fighters. The last owner of the residence was General Isenbart, who restored the property because he was in love with it and later, in 1964, sold it to the city of Aix-en-Provence. It was rented out to La Poste, the French postal service, and from 1970 to 2013 it was home to the National Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
The government of France recognized the house as a Monuments Historiques in 1925. Its staircase was classified as a first-rate decorative element. In 1990, the residence was listed as a historic monument. Culturespaces bought the property in 2010. A huge renovation process took place, costing 12.6 million euros, following the original plans that dated 300 years ago. The facade was renovated to the typical Aix Baroque style, as well as the interior plaster work. Archival documents helped reconstruct the landscape of the garden. Hôtel de Caumont, as we know it now, opened on the 15th of April 2015.
Caumont Art Centre
This art center in Aix-en-Provence has two annual exhibitions ranging from the great masters to contemporary artists. When I visited, during the summer of 2020, there was an exhibit of Joaquín Sorolla, called Spanish Lights.
This Spanish painter lived between 1863 and 1923. I really enjoyed his work of life in the Mediterranean. His style is composed of many strokes of light and fresh colors. Most of the paintings are of people in the ocean or portraits.
Previous exhibitions included JMW Turner, photographs of Marilyn Monroe, paintings of Impressionist Alfred Sisley, Picasso, Fernando Botero, Nicolas de Staël, Marc Chagall, a loan from the Guggenheim (New York), pieces loaned from the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein and Japanese prints. The next exhibition (2020-2021) includes masters of the Italian Renaissance on loan from the Collection Cini in Venice. It is the first time there 70 plus works will be exhibited outside of Italy.
A movie about the life of Paul Cezanne is broadcasted every 30 minutes in the Auditorium. The film is in French, but has English subtitles. It was done by Philippe Cezanne, the great-grandson of the artist and Denis Coutagne, an art historian from the Musées de France. It is possible to visit Cezanne’s Studio in Aix-en-Provence, but make sure to reserve since it is small and spaces are limited.