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 became one of the largest and most lavish of Aix's bourgeois houses. Today the Caumont Centre d'Art hosts major art exhibitions: click here to read about the current one. But it's 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 very lovely formal French gardens on two levels.

You can have lunch, tea or dinner, either here or in one of several dining rooms decorated in rococo style. They turn in the evenings into a bar, open even after the period rooms and galleries are closed.

These areas can be visited separately from the house and gallery rooms, under certain conditions (see below). The aim is to turn the Caumont Centre d'Art into a buzzing social hub. And, just a couple of years after it opened, in 2015, it has become, by a very long way, the most popular tourist attraction in Aix.

hotel de caumont gardenThere are good reasons. Apart from the magnificent setting, all the shows here are immaculately presented with tremendous attention to detail.

The galleries are specially decorated for each exhibition with motifs that echo and enhance the themes of the artworks, and these are hung with plenty of space to breathe.

There are always some added extras too: a film of some kind, a maquette or interactive display. And unlike many French galleries, the helpful explanatory panels are in English as well as French. No need to buy a brochure or audio guide!

The entrance fee is, admittedly, quite high (almost twice as much as the Musée Granet just up the road, for instance). But this really is a class act on every level.

The 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 contemporary art gallery, the Collection Lambert.)

Aix's Hôtel de Caumont went through various incarnations over the centuries. It was a centre for the Resistance during the Second World War and became the base of Aix's Conservatoire de musique et de danse in 1964. When the Conservatoire moved to a new building designed by Kenzo Kuma, the Hôtel de Caumont was purchased by Culturespaces.

hotel de caumont music roomThis 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 Hôtel de Caumont 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 reproduction wallpaper, plaster mouldings, wood panelling, fabrics, furniture and works of art. The whole project took 18 months to complete. But the wait was worth it: the restoration is truly fabulous.

Passing 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 pretty salons decorated in 18th century style and an outdoor terrace overlooking the gardens. The tea rooms / bar are located here.

On the first floor there is a music room, pictured above, 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 used 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.

alfred sisley hoar frostNewsThere are two big exhibitions a year at the Hôtel de Caumont. The current one celebrates Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), the consummate Impressionist painter and, 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 elusive play of sunlight, wind, rain and the changing seasons.

That delicate vision is on full display in this exquisite, shimmering, 1874 study of a late summer frost. © Museum Barberini, Collection Hasslo Plattner, Potsdam.

Sisley's father, a textile manufacturer, refused to support his son when he decided not go into the family business. Moreover Sisley fils specialised in landscapes rather than money-spinning society portraits.

So it was a struggle for him to make ends meet. Not for him the expensive European grand tour. He painted almost entirely within a tiny radius in the countryside near Paris.

Moreover much of Sisley's early work was lost in a fire during the Franco-Prussian war, few letters from him survive and he died relatively young, aged 59. So little is known about the man. No wonder he was overshadowed by contemporaries such as Renoir or Monet.

Though he was born in France, Sisley held British citizenship (his parents were British). He was influenced by Constable and Turner as well as his fellow French impressionists. He travelled to Britain occasionally too, and a handful of pieces in this exhibition were created there.

sisley hampton court bridgeThe bold perspectives and rich colours of a southern Wales coastline in Penarth or of a startling, foreshortened view under Hampton Court Bridge (painted in 1874) suggest Sisley was starting to evolve in new directions. © Kunstmuseum, Winterthur.

This superb exhibition also includes a specially commissioned short film interview with its incredibly knowledgable curator, MaryAnne Stevens.

Look out as well for a slide show of vintage photographs of the landscapes as they were when Sisley painted them and another slide presentation of his sketchbooks. It was previously at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut and is in Aix enProvence until 15 October.

There is also another small outdoor exhibition in the Caumont's Cours d'Honneur and gardens of futuristic steel sculptures by the modern Czech artist Vladimír Škoda. Until 3 September.

In the winter of 2017-2018 the spotlight falls on the contemporary Colombian artist Fernando Botero. In summer 2018 it's the turn of the Franco-Russian abstract painter Nicolas de Staël. 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, here to read about the summer 2016 exhibition of work by JMW Turner and here to read about the winter 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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