American boat in the Port of Marseille by Felix ZiemThe painter Félix Ziem is relatively unknown today though Vincent van Gogh thought his brilliant blue skies the most beautiful in all of art. The work of this Mediterranean maestro is on view at the Musée Ziem in Martigues, where he worked and lived for several years.

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A precursor of the Impressionists, Ziem spent significant periods of his life in Provence, though he also seems to have been a loner with itchy feet and went on extensive travels, to Nice, Italy, notably Venice, Paris, England, Holland, Constantinople, Egypt and North Africa.

His most famous paintings are supersaturated in the fierce light of the Mediterranean. Think JMW Turner, without the rain, steam and fog.

Born in Burgundy in 1821, Ziem studied architecture, but moved to Marseille in 1839 after falling out with the management of the École des Beaux-Arts in Dijon.

There, he worked on the construction of the Roquefavour aqueduct, a massive project (which you can still see today from the Paris-Marseille TGV train).

He became interested in drawing and opened an art school on Marseille's Old Port. Then, seduced, perhaps, by the city's exotic, cosmopolitan vibe, he went walkabout for two decades.

Poissoniere aux Halles Puget by Felix ZiemIn 1861, after circumnavigating the world, Ziem established a studio in Martigues, a pretty little port on the Berre Lake and painted it many times. Some of these works are on permanent display in Martigues and it's partly thanks to him that this small town, rather presumptuously, calls itself "The Venice of Provence".

Tirelessly prolific, Ziem produced over 10,000 drawings and paintings before his death in 1911, both watercolours and epic oil paintings of the Venetian lagoon or of tall ships in Marseille (pictured top left: American Ship in the Port of Marseille / Navire américain dans le port de Marseille).

Ziem is probably best known today for these great marine landscapes. But he was also one of the first artists to discover L'Estaque, the port outside Marseille which inspired the likes of Paul Cézanne and Georges Braque at the end of the 19th century, and captured marvellously vivid genre vignettes such as this voluptuous, bolshy Fishwife at Puget Market, Marseille / Poisonnière aux halles Puget, à Marseille.

Where: Musée Ziem, boulevard du 14 juillet, 13500 Martigues. Tel (+33) 4 42 41 39 60.

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