hotel de caumont exteriorAn elegant 18th century hôtel particulier in Aix's historic and aristrocratic Mazarin Quarter, the Hôtel de Caumont has been converted into a sumptuous new gallery space under the banner of the Caumont Centre d'Art.

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The first stone was laid on this site three centuries ago, in 1715, and it was to become one of the largest and most lavish of Aix's bourgeois houses.

But the Caumont Centre d'Art is really much more than an art gallery. The house itself has been stunningly restored: it's one of very few 18th century hôtels particuliers in town which is open to the public.

And, unusually for a private residence right in the heart of Aix, it has large and lovely formal French gardens on two levels.

There's an auditorium and several tea rooms decorated in rococo style, which turn in the evenings into a bar, open even after the period rooms and galleries are closed.

These can also be visited separately from the house and gallery rooms, under certain conditions (see below). The plan is to turn the Caumont Centre d'Art into a buzzing social hub. And, just a couple of years after it opened, we've been impressed how it has already hugely enhanced Aix's cultural scene, becoming one of the city's most popular attractions.

hotel de caumont gardenThe Hôtel de Caumont was originally conceived by Robert de Cotte, the chief architect for King Louis XIV, the Sun King. (It's not to be confused with the building of the same name in Avignon, now the home of that city's own art gallery, the Collection Lambert.)

In Aix the Hôtel de Caumont went through various incarnations in the course of the centuries and was a centre for the French Resistance during the Second World War.

Eventually it became the base of Aix's Conservatoire de musique et de danse in 1964. When the Conservatoire moved in 2010 to a brand new building designed by Kenzo Kuma, the Hôtel de Caumont fell vacant and was purchased by Culturespaces.

This private foundation runs a small but select portfolio of museums and monuments, mainly in the South of France (they also include the hugely popular Quarries of Lights near Les Baux de Provence, that village's Château and the Roman amphitheatre in Orange).

The building had greatly deteriorated over the years, and so Culturespaces instigated a massive, 12.6 million €uro refurbishment programme.

It involved extensive work on the façade and the total remodelling of some of the salons with immaculate reproduction wallpaper, plaster mouldings, wood panelling, fabrics, furniture and works of art. The whole project took 18 months to complete. And the wait has been worth it: the restoration is truly fabulous.

hotel de caumont music roomPassing through the exterior Cour d'Honneur, where visiting noblefolk descended from their carriages, you go into the entrance with its sweeping staircase guarded by two enormous caryatids.

On the left is a large book and gift shop. On the right are three pretty salons decorated in 18th century style and a gallery overlooking the gardens. The tea rooms / bar are located here.

On the first floor there is a music room, pictured, and the bedroom of Pauline de Caumont (1767-1850), the lady of the house and the inspiration behind its bright, light and very feminine decor.

The other rooms on the first and second floor of the Hôtel de Caumont are plainly painted for use as exhibition spaces. They alone are surprisingly large - 400 square metres / 4,300 square feet - and can accommodate very substantial shows.

In the auditorium, a specially commissioned 28 minute film about Aix's very own great artist, Paul Cézanne, is screened throughout the day. Music recitals are also held there during the year.

To complement Aix's Musée Granet, which tends to focus on more contemporary art, the emphasis at the Caumont Centre d'Art is on painters from the 14th to the 19th centuries for the main shows, though it brings in modern artists for some of the smaller events.

alfred sisley hoar frostThere are two big exhibitions a year: one in summer devoted to an individual artist and one in winter of work from major private collections.

This summer's big show, which runs from 10 June-15 October, celebrates the Impressionist Alfred Sisley (1839-1899). Once again, the Caumont has a real feast in prospect for art lovers, with some 60 works on display.

They demonstrate Sisley's mastery of plein air (open air) landscape painting and his brilliance at capturing the play of sunlight, wind and the changing seasons, as in this gorgeous, shimmering, 1874 study of a late summer frost. © Museum Barberini, Collection Hasslo Plattner, Potsdam.

Sisley lived in the North of France and mainly worked on the outskirts of Paris. But, though born in Paris, he held British citizenship (his parents were British) and some of the pieces in the exhibition were created at Hampton Court and on the south coast of Wales.

His work is influenced both by his fellow French Impressionists and by the British tradition of Constable and Turner. Archive photographs of the real landscapes reveal how Sisley transformed them in his art. This show was previously at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The galleries of the Caumont Centre d'Art are currently closed while Sisley is being set up. But there is a small outdoor exhibition in the Cours d'Honneur and gardens of futuristic steel sculptures by the modern Czech artist Vladimír Škoda. Until 5 June.

In the winter of 2017-2018 the spotlight falls on the contemporary Colombian artist Fernando Botero. No-one can claim the Caumont is not adventurous and ecletic!

Click here to read our review of the inaugural, summer 2015 event at the Caumont Centre d'Art, an outstanding show dedicated to the Venetian artist Canaletto, here to read about the winter 2015-2016 exhibition of pieces on loan from the collection of the Princes of Liechtenstein and here to read about the summer 2016 exhibition of work by JMW Turner and here to read about the winder 2016-2017 show of photographs of Marilyn Monroe.

Where: The Caumont Centre d'Art, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, 13100 Aix-en-Provence. Website for the Caumont Centre d'Art.

The all-inclusive entry price includes access to the period rooms of the Hôtel de Caumont and to the art exhibition, as well as to the tea rooms / bar and gardens.

If you just want to enter the tea rooms during the day you have to buy a ticket for the gallery. Alternatively, you can purchase an annual pass to the café and bookshop.

Once the gallery is closed in the evening, there's free access for all to the tea rooms, which morph into a cocktail lounge. Cosy in winter, open on to those glorious gardens in summer, it's a great place to stop by for a drink.

Photo credits (from top): © defrance.de, C Moirenc, C Michel, all for Culturespaces.

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