An essay on John Baxter’s French Riviera and its Artists.

From reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s romantic depictions in Tender is the Night to becoming hooked on the contemporary television series Riviera, I have been addicted to the tales of artists and writers living in the South of France for years. This book is an incredible feat by John Baxter, and one that has been written with the interests of a reader such as myself in mind. Everything I could possibly want in a book – history, art, literary figures, decadence, the turn of the twentieth century – is compacted into this slim volume, complete with photographs, novel covers and art prints. Baxter is a historian, flaneur, Parisian and author of The Most Beautiful Walk in the World.

This book is polished, sophisticated and written beautifully. The historian discovered extracts from F. Scott Fitzgerald commenting on how the decade before the popularity of the Cote d’Azur was revived, it barely saw a rich person passing through – and then, it changed to a luxury hotspot. The book details, of course, the life of Cezanné (dubbed the ‘father’ of Impressionism by many later artists who tried to imitate his natural affinity for capturing light). There are many references to great works of French art and literature, and I found myself scribbling recommendations in notebooks – Baxter is widely read, but the research he has done is worn in an engaging way.

There are beautiful depictions of the Murphys (the friends of the Fitzgeralds) and references to notions of French-ness throughout. It did feel a little as though Baxter could have delved deeper into opinions and criticisms on the Cannes Film Festival, the literary genres and artistic movements, to prevent this from presenting as a beautiful coffee-table book. But it’s totally useful as an introduction to the movements and genres, alongside more serious academic study. As I had been reading scholarly works on French novels, I learned recently that the French use the same word for two different meanings – the roman can mean ‘novel’ but also ‘romance’, which is of course problematic. The romance novel was superseded by the novel because the form of the novel represented reality, particularly in the realist genre of the nineteenth century (think of Zola, Balzac, etc). While the novel depicted everyday occurrences, the romances were about marvellous adventures. It would have been slightly better, I think, if the book had focused on depth and not breadth of the movements, but it is an enjoyable read that has obviously been bound and typed to a high standard, with even the font and layout bringing the book alive, looking like some sort of 1920s society column. I would like to enjoy this with a glass of wine, in the summer heat, transported from the pandemic to the South of France.

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