Jane Eakin Sylvie with grapesLike many villages in Provence, Ménerbes has been a magnet for artists, and its streets are still lined with galleries and studios. And more than in most villages, these creative visitors have left a permanent mark behind them.

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We look here at four artists who made Ménerbes their home. Two were American and found deep happiness there; two were French, of East European origin, and did not.

The American painter Jane Eakin (1919-2002) lived in Ménerbes for 40 years and now her blue-shuttered house in a steep, narrow street, the montée Sainte Barbe, has been turned into a charming museum, the Maison Jane Eakin.

Left much as it was when she was working there, the house is jam-packed with her sun-drenched paintings and personal effects and is convincing proof - if proof were still needed - of the tonic effect of moving to the South of France.

Eakin married a distinguished New York journalist, Robert Kleiman, who was based in Paris in the 1950s but, expected to give up painting and become a society hostess, Jane was ill at ease there.

After her divorce, she had a long relationship with the violinist and conductor Isaac Stern, but this too eventually ended when she was unable to give him children (the couple remained close, however).

Nude in an Orange Hat by Jane Eakin Eakin was understandably feeling low when a friend and neighbour, her fellow-artist Joe Downing, told her about the hill village in the Luberon where he had a house. She went down to see Ménerbes, and was sold.

She left the sophisticated and glamorous circles she had known in Paris to spend the rest of her life there as an active and popular member of the community. Pictured: Sylvie with Grapes (top left) and Nude in an Orange Hat (right).

When she died, Eakin left her house and paintings to the village she loved. About a hundred of her pieces are on display there in every available corner; the Town Hall owns about twice as many again, which are currently kept in store. Some members of the Jane Eakin Foundation which runs the museum, knew her personally and will be delighted to talk about her to visitors.

The ground floor of the Maison Jane Eakin has an introductory area with photographs and souvenirs in her former kitchen, filled with fruit and flowers just as the artist liked it. Next is a room of posters of her early exhibitions, simply marked Eakin in case anyone was still prejudiced against female artists. Her Paris paintings are here too.

These are unsurprisingly rather gloomy, but the later work on the upper floors - impressionist portraits and landscapes glowing with colour and light - shows how Eakin's art bloomed when she arrived in the South.

"I have hugged life to me and had the joy of feeling life hug me back," Eakin wrote the year before she died, and you can certainly see that in her art.

 

 

Her work wasn't just about an idyllic, almost fantasy vision of Provence. Other displays show Eakin's brief early flirtation with cubism or a book of wryly satirical New Yorker-ish cartoons about a woman's lot with the self-explanatory title I Do All The Work Around Here (and an introduction by Danny Kaye). Watch out, too, for vivid portraits of a watchful Jean Seberg, playing an artist in the 1963 film In the French Style and of a dowager-like Alice B Toklas.

Jane Eakin studio in MenerbesOn the first floor are Eakin's open-plan bedroom, an office with furniture brightly painted by her and the guest bedroom, now a screening room where you can watch a film (subtitled in English) about the artist. On the top floor her airy studio, pictured, overlooks the mountains.

This is a typical hill-village house, narrow, steep and troglodyte (built into the rock-face) and so the visit isn't suitable for anyone with restricted mobility. Eakin herself became bedridden and couldn't cope with the stairs at the end of her life.

The Maison Jane Eakin is open every summer from May to October and organises a lively programme of cultural events both at the house itself and at other venues in Ménerbes such as La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin. Website for Jane Eakin

Joe Downing (1925-2007) lived in Ménerbes even longer than Eakin. Born in the small town of Horse Cave, Kentucky, he served in Europe during the Second World War and settled in Paris and Ménerbes soon afterwards.

Downing first studied optometry and, after he decided to become an artist, specialised in brilliantly coloured abstract pieces that draw on that training to play with refraction, colour and light. Pictured: Untitled (1973), Musée Unterlinden, Colmar.

Untitled by Joe DowningHe also loved to paint on unusual surfaces such as old doors and windows, ceramic and terracotta tiles and even leather.

Different though their styles were in most other ways, his luminous palette was, like Eakin's, inspired by Provence, "Some artists paint death and violence - two facts of modern life," Downing said at the opening of one of his shows. "I paint the sunshine".

His work - praised by Picasso among others - hangs in galleries around the world, including the Smithsonian in Washington, the Museums of Modern Art in New York and Paris, the National Fine Arts Gallery in Sydney, Australia and the Musée Calvert in Avignon.

You can't see it in Ménerbes (unless there happens to be a special exhibition on) but Downing is honoured with a tiny garden in his name opposite the Dora Maar House.

Dora Maar (1907-1997) was one of Picasso's most influential mistresses and muses. But simply to describe her as that is to belittle a woman who was a successful and acclaimed photographer in her own right.

Dora Maar photographed by Man RayBorn Henriette Theodora Markovitch in Paris (her father came from the former Yugoslavia), Maar studied art. She became a busy photographer with her own studio, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jean Renoir, Man Ray and Georges Bataille. Pictured: Dora Maar photographed by Man Ray in 1936.

Her own work was inspired by surrealism and also political activism; she captured haunting images of the poor in Barcelona, Paris and London. Then she met Picasso in 1935.

During their nine-year relationship Maar photographed Picasso at different stages of the creation of his masterpiece, Guernica and was painted by him, often in tears as the model for his great Weeping Woman cycle. Their relationship was stormy.

Female bather by Dora MaarMany critics feel that Picasso wrecked Maar's career by encouraging her to give up photography, at which she excelled, and to focus on painting in a pale imitation of his own style.

Like Camille Claudel the sculptress and mistress of Auguste Rodin, she was overshadowed and diminished by her more famous lover. Maar realised this herself, once saying, "I wasn't Picasso's mistress, he was just my master." Pictured: Female Bather by Dora Maar, circa 1935.

When they split up she suffered a nervous depression, was hospitalised and psychoanalysed by Jacques Lacan, before finding comfort in the arms of the Catholic church. Perhaps out of vestigial guilt or an attempt to continue to control her, Picasso bought her a large, beautiful 18th century house, pictured below, in Ménerbes.

 

Maar divided her time between there and Paris, living as a virtual recluse while continuing to paint. The images she produced there were much bleaker than those of Eakin or Downing. After her death this house was bought by Nancy Negley, an American philanthropist and resident of Houston and Ménerbes, who established an art foundation there.

Dora Maar house in MenerbesAdministered by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Brown Foundation Fellows Program provides residences of one to three months for painters, scholars and writers and opens its doors to the public at intervals for them to meet the visiting artists. Website for the Brown Foundation Fellows Program at the Dora Maar House.

Finally the sad fate of the French-Russian painter Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955) further suggests that living in Ménerbes is not sufficient to lift your spirits. The abstract artist bought Le Castellet, the little château at the top of the village, in 1953 but didn't stay long and committed suicide two years later (the property is still owned by his family).

The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism en Provence includes more information about Ménerbes and other attractions in the area.

 

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