picasso harlequin reattuArles' gallery of contemporary art, the Musée Réattu, is housed in the 15th century Grand Priory of the Order of Malta in a superb location on a bend in the Rhône river. Its collection, too, is impressive.

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These two buildings were acquired in the 19th century by the artist Jacques Réattu (1760-1833) who transformed them into his home and studio. The complex became a museum in 1868.

The priory itself oozes with atmosphere, as you wander up and down echoing, Gothic stone staircases, through courtyards dominated by gargoyles, pictured below, and labyrinthine chains of galleries on three floors.

From many of the rooms, there are sweeping views across the Rhône. But what's inside?

The museum started life as a sort of shrine to Réattu himself. Born in Arles, he studied painting in Paris, where he got swept up in the fervour of the French Revolution which was to inspire his work.

Returning home, Réattu hoped to establish an art community in Provence. But he cut a lonely figure in Arles, where there was then not much of a cultural scene.

gargoyles musee reattuAnd he sold very few of his paintings, whose neo-classical style had fallen completely out of fashion. Most of those he did sell were later bought back by his daughter!

So, since Réattu also had a habit of leaving his work unfinished, you're highly unlikely to have seen any of it elsewhere.

But he beavered on determinedly until his death, after which his daughter gave around 800 of his paintings and drawings to the city. Some, but by no means all, of them are on display here.

The Musée Réattu also owns several fine genre paintings by Réattu's uncle, Antoine Raspal (1738-1811), which vividly capture everyday life in Arles in the 18th and 19th centuries.

antoine raspal sewing workshopThere were seamstresses in this family as well as artists, and he portrayed women in beautiful and elaborate traditional costumes.

Pictured, one colourful, highly detailed prize piece called Un atelier de couturières en Arles (The Couturiers' Workshop), circa 1785, shows the Raspals at work.

Réattu himself, by contrast, was drawn to big, allegorical and mythological subjects, a selection of which are on display in the museum's first few rooms.

One of his major projects was the Grisailles: eight monumental, monochrome paintings that imitated bas relief sculptures and had sonorous titles such as La Liberté et l’Egalité chassant de leur territoire les castes privilégiées (Liberty and Equality chasing the Privileged Casts from the Territory). Only six of these pieces survive today.

To our personal taste, Réattu's style is rather academic: of interest mainly if you're deep into French art history.

Certainly Vincent van Gogh was unimpressed when he arrived in Arles in 1888. He rather rudely dismissed the museum as "dreadful, a joke" in a letter to his brother Théo.

To add to its woes, the Musée Réattu lost many of its contents during the Second World War. But wait: the story doesn't end there. In the mid 20th century the museum went through a brilliant revival.

In 1965, at the urging of a visionary young photographer called Lucien Clergue, it started to cover photography – the first museum in France to do so. This is today one of the most impressive aspects of its collection.

miro sculpture arlesIt includes work by all the greats: Richard Avedon, Robert Doisneau, Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson and many more.

In 1970 Clergue went on to found the Rencontres d'Arles, a renowned international photography festival which takes over the entire city each summer.

Soon afterwards the Musée Réattu was given another huge boost. In 1971, inspired by Arles' links to van Gogh and by his passion for the bullfights he saw in the city, Picasso donated 57 drawings and two paintings to the museum.

Among them are a series of harlequins and musketeers, some Arlésiennes (women in elegant traditional local costumes) and a lovely portrait of his mother. Pictured top left: Harlequin à la batte (Harlequin with a Baton).

More recently the designer Christian Lacroix, who was also born in Arles, has deposited a long-term loan of 67 of his sketches, covering his entire career in fashion from 1987 to 2008.

Over the past few years many other leading contemporary sculptors, photographers and painters have donated works to the Musée Réattu - it receives between 30 and 50 such gifts each year.

There are now some 7000 pieces in its permanent holdings. Pictured, above, La femme à la chevelure défaite (Woman with Loose Hair) by Joan Miró in the museum courtyard and, below, a stunning odalisk by Ossip Zadkine.

So, although the museum doesn't own anything by van Gogh, apart from one of his letters to Paul Gauguin, its modern collection is now excellent for a museum of this scale.

ossip zadkine musee reattuThe Musée Réattu also stages several big exhibitions each year and has a lively programme of concerts, lectures, workshops and other events.

Where: Musée Réattu, 10 rue du grand Prieuré, 13200 Arles. Website for the Musée Réattu

Note that access to the galleries could be difficult for visitors with restricted mobility.

Insider tip for the Musee Reattu in ArlesIf you are planning to visit several sites, check out the combination tickets on sale at the Arles Tourist Office which will get you reduced-price admission (and free admission for an accompanied child under 18) to the city's main museums and monuments.

Photo credits (from top): © Succession Picasso, SJ for Marvellous Provence, Musée Réattu, SJ for Marvellous Provence, ADAGP Paris.


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