By James G. Wills

I’ve been intrigued for a long time by France’s special appeal for artists.

In An American In Paris, Gene Kelly’s character is in Paris because, for him, France is the place to be for an aspiring artist. Picasso came to France from from Spain, changing styles in creative bursts from the somber Blue Period to the harlequins, acrobats and colors of the Rose Period and, along with Georges Bracque, inventing cubism. Van Gogh came from Belgium, where he painted in dark colors, and in a few years he was capturing the light and landscapes of Provence on canvases that exploded with color. Chagall came from Russia, and as he was learning French and absorbing the sights and sounds of Paris, developed his whimsical style with its wonderful floating figures.

 

Monet, Sisley, Renoir — like Dumas’ three musketeers — these three fought the establishment of their time, changing how people thought about light, color and art in general as they pioneered impressionism.

Just what is France’s appeal for artists?

I put the question to Judy Elias as she and her husband John joined Phyllis and me on our terrace for a Moroccan dinner accompanied by a Pomerol wine from Bordeaux. An artist from Houston and Kiawah, where she is a member of the Art Guild, Judy is represented by Charleston’s Atelier Gallery on King Street.

“It is magic,” she said. “There is a mystique about going to paint in this country. Wherever you are in France, you can find something gorgeous to paint.”

Judy was in France for the month of June attending workshops. She had spent ten days near Avignon attending the workshop of a master of composition, Ian Roberts. She did two paintings a day, one with morning light, the other with afternoon light. It was eight-to-eight work — a real “boot camp.”

Phyllis empathized with that. Also a member of the Kiawah Art Guild, she has taken workshops from Herdin, a German painter of still lifes in the style of the Dutch masters who for years had a studio and gallery in Sarlat. He too was an exacting instructor. Phyllis likes to recall how he sometimes broke the tension in classes by taking his guitar in hand singing a song — one he’d composed. We have two of his paintings on Kiawah, along with a selection of Phyllis’ still lifes he helped inspire.

In a few days Judy would be attending a second workshop near Gourdon and painting en plein air in a number of villages nearby. After a day of sightseeing in Dordogne, she had already seen many prospective subjects she wanted to paint.

Dordogne has attracted quite a number of fine painters who have made their careers here. Phyllis and I thought it would be fun — and instructive — to find out why they came and what caused them to stay.

For Alain Falconnet, whose first career was in Paris creating jewelry, Dordogne’s strong appeal was its tranquility, its woods and its greens, which he finds challenging to paint. He returns to a scene during a period of several days at the same hour to capture on canvas the light that captivates him. We bought one of his paintings years ago because it evokes so well the cliffs and pastoral settings of the area. Alain has been painting here for nearly 40 years.

Belgian native Mi Desmedt discovered the Dordogne while vacationing here and like Alain was drawn by its peaceful settings. She felt accepted from the beginning not only by the locals but by the other artists as well. Mi captures landscapes in limited-edition etchings whose colors she changes slightly so none is exactly alike. She also does oil and acrylic paintings and has shown in galleries from Carmel to the Netherlands.

British watercolorist Guy Weir came to Dordogne 42 years ago, charmed by an agricultural way of life which hadn’t caught up with modern times. He recorded that way of life in his paintings. Today he still paints locals and the countryside of Dordogne. He also sketches and paints subjects from his extensive travels, such as tribesmen he has encountered on trips to Africa. He, like Mi, emphasized the welcoming environment for artists here.

Pascal Magis, perhaps the area’s best-known artist, was native to the region, and died in 2011. He started out as a designer and weaver of tapestries, but found them too time consuming and switched to painting canvases. His niece Celine Magis runs the Atelier Pascal Magis Gallery in Meyrals, where the artist loved to greet visitors — we were among them some years ago. The gallery exhibits his work as well as that of artist friends. His big bold abstracts are widely exhibited in Europe.

All of these local artists found their own magic painting in Dordogne.

We are looking forward to seeing the paintings from Judy Elias’ month of creativity in France. When she returns home she’ll take some of France’s magic with her.

 

Jim Wills is a retired corporate and international lawyer living on Kiawah who has e-published three books in Amazon’s Kindle program. They are available through Jim’s blog, http://jwillsbooks.wordpress.com/

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