You could not ever accuse the French of being afraid of colour. In Provence you discover that it is a perfect expression of their love of nature, because it is from nature the colours of Provence evolve.
My house here is painted out in fresh butter yellow, with raw-green shutters, and it sits full in the sun on the square where there is a green garden, plane trees, pink laurels, acacias. Inside it’s completely whitewashed and the floor is red brick. And the intense blue sky above…’*
The painter Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) took a room at the Hôtel-Restaurant Carrel in February 1888. He made several painting excursions around the village of Arles producing images of the harvest, the wheat fields and other rural landmarks of the area.
Van Gogh moved to Arles when he was ill and his works from this period of his life are richly draped in yellow, ultramarine and mauve.
His portrayals of the landscape surrounding Arles are of fields and avenues and they excel in their intensity of colour.
Like Claude Monet (1840-1926) in Normandy, the light in Arles excited Van Gogh.
However it was very different from the paler silvery iridescent sky Monet knew.
At Arles from the Yellow House he rented, Van Gogh found the countryside of Provence full of vibrant light and his appreciation for its beauty is seen in the range and scope of the work he rendered while he was there.
Provencal interiors are always warm and welcoming reflecting the needs, desires and the spirit and style of the individuals of Provence in a particular time and in a particular place.
The early houses of the countryside in Provence were built of stone.
They originally housed stock on the ground floor to protect them from the harsher elements, while the family dwelt above.
Dormer windows set into the roof led to a loft, where fodder and food was stored so it kept fresh and clean. This enabled the family and the stock to survive the harshest of winters.
After a time the occupants found that the fodder acted effectively as insulation helping to keep the family warm below.
And we thought insultation was a modern invention.
All the houses in Provence from pre Roman times until the twentieth century were constructed from local materials.
These were sometimes in character with their neighbors, but always in harmony with the land.
Wooden louvred shutters were kept closed in the sunny hours and only opened in the evening to let in the fresh, cool night air.
A ubiquitous pair of French doors, led into a courtyard where a grape vine covered the trellis providing both fruit and shade.
Roofs were usually made of terra cotta tiles hand moulded and produced from local clays. Many people love the old story that they were fashioned on the things of young women…! It has no basis in fact, but it is romantic.
The colours of the earth certainly give the rooftops of Provence’s villages a rich mosaic look, full of both texture and life.
Interiors all over Provence vary but usually all have the following features –
Staircases: these were simple affairs fashioned out of stone and terracotta tiles and in the last few hundred years had the added feature of a wrought iron handrail.
Hand Hewn Beams: Wood was always expensive and in short supply, because it was needed for the beams. These were hand made massive and sturdy, providing rustic charm while supporting the floors above.
Floors: Mainly tiled, the most popular being terracotta because local clay was always in abundance. Easy to maintain the floors were left natural or glazed and they came in all shapes and sizes.
Being of the earth and nature they had the advantage of remaining cool in summer and retaining the heat in winter.
Fireplaces: As in all the regions of country France these were for hundreds and hundreds of years, at the heart of the home. They were used as the cooking centre and main source of heat.
They symbolized security and well being, and often contained storage niches for condiments and pots.
An enormous fireplace in a farmhouse would have beehive shaped openings into which casseroles could be set with coals from the fireplace and cook slowly all day while the farmer, his family and workers tended the fields.
Ceramics: From the eighteenth century brightly coloured ceramic tiles adorned kitchen counters, bathrooms, walls and tables.
The first Faience production house in Provence was founded at the town of Moustiers in 1679 by Pierre Clerissy, a faiencier.
Moustiers is an ancient village that clings to the cliffs in Northern Provence and it is one of the greatest centres historically.
Clerissy was descended from an ancient Provencal family, who had been potting from the middle ages using hand throwing or hand modeling techniques and following artistic traditions.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries pottery produced in Provence was mostly blue and white, inspired by oriental porcelains coming in through the port of Marseilles.
It was during the eighteenth century that polychrome glazes were introduced revolutionising production. The abundant supply of clay in the region, which when covered with a white glaze, gave the faience a characteristic vibrant glow
Copper pots and pans: As in Normandy, they were an essential part of any Provencal kitchen.
Doorways: A special feature was a beaded curtain treatment for doorways, allowing air and some light in while keeping flies out.
And here in Australia we thought this was an ‘Aussie invention’ – we just made it from whatever was to hand, including plastic strips, corks and bottle tops.
Furniture: This evolved from the thirteenth century into a refined and distinctive style. The timbers used first were pine, then walnut, which dominated from the fifteenth century.
With a warmth to its lovely patina, walnut responded well to the chisel and awl. Even though walnut trees were plentiful during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were highly prized, and often given as part of a bride’s dowry.
Other fruitwoods included olivewood and pearwood, which was often darkened to replicate ebony. There are also cherry, chestnut and mulberry, with willow for the chairs.
The English loved French walnut, but its supply was often disrupted by European wars, and they had to look to other markets for supply.
English eighteenth century furniture made from French walnut is highly prized and very expensive.
Designs were filled with sensuous movement by way of exquisite carving evoking a play of light and shade, with expressive lines and soft angles.
As always the function or purpose for which it was designed was the main factor. A panetiere (or breadbox) above a Petrin or dough bin with its urn and fruit basket motifs, were a traditional paring. Together with the Tamisadou they were an integral part of any country household.
The Tamisadou was an unusual piece of furniture like a two door cabinet, which had been created to refine and sift flour. Today originals are quite rare to find and unique to Provence
Chairs, were simply designed with rush seats and came in different designs suitable for different purposes.
Some had high backs and low seats, some were especially designed for wet nurses or nursing mothers while others were amply proportioned intended for grandmothers.
They were also made into banquettes holding three or four people, designed for chatting, traditionally placed near the fireplace, and sometimes decorated with hand painted flowers, and cushions of the colourful Indienne cottons (Provence 3).
Tables were rustic, solid, and functional, mostly rectangular with drawers or pull out slides, for feeding about twelve people in comfort, if not in style.
Smaller utilitarian tables for writing, gaming, sewing, halls or night tables were essential this one with a central X support and stretchers reminiscent of the Louis XIV style
During the nineteenth century richer households commissioned canopy beds (lits a l’imperiale) with silk curtains suspended from a dome attached to the wall.
Beds in Provence were mostly simple affairs, bedrooms not ever having been a major design focus. As in other regions of France the Amoire was a splendid piece of furniture, one of a families most cherished possessions,, whether in a humble or wealthy home.
The eighteenth century in Provence, as for the rest of Europe and Britain were glory years. The land rich, fertile and profitable, providing prosperity through active trade.
More sophisticated pieces of furniture were influenced by Paris fashions, appearing, as the Provencal furniture makers responding to the sinuous curves of the rococo, and the lyrical elegance of furniture of the Louis XV style.
The Residents in Arles, Beucaire and Tarascon in the Rhone region, could afford to pay more for fine furniture, produced by the local craftsmen.
Two styles particularly distinguish this area known as Arles and Fourques.
Arlesian pieces have their emphasis is more elaborate and ornate carving, with curved lines and lavish floral detail on delicate, low relief, such as garlands of roses, flower buds and olive branches and called fleuri, or flowered.
Fourques was a smaller simpler town which produced furniture with deeply sculpted curves and undulating moldings with little or no decorative motifs, and with less carved detail and ornamentation.
Louis XV designs were simplified with perfect proportions, and today are highly prized. Comfort and convenience meant comfortable well stuffed Bergere chairs with a detailed carving on the front apron and on the knee of the cabriole legs.
Louis XVI designs reflect the change to the neo classical style with their straight fluted legs that take their form from a column.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, design became exaggerated, losing some of its elegance, harmony and balance. Then the turn of the twentieth century saw mass production of furniture in the north marking the decline of the Provencal regional style and the demise of French provincial design in general.
Unpretentious, warm and welcoming, the interiors of Provence today reflect the heritage of Provencal life and the Provenceur’s enjoyment of the simple pleasures of life; the sharing of good food, the local wine and the art of good conversation.
The style of Provence in every domain represents a view of French country style, which has been transmitted internationally. This earthy, fertile, sunbaked region of France for many is the very essence and at the heart of French Country style charming visitors and influencing decorators worldwide.
This is something we can all share wherever we are in the world.
Provence, it is all about celebrating la joie de vivre, or the joy of life.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011-2014
*Vincent Van Gogh, Provence