In Strasbourg, the prefecture and largest city of the Grand Est region of eastern France and the official seat of the European Parliament. The city’s historic centre is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also home to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, a spectacular Gothic structure that is one of the world’s largest. The construction of the cathedral began in 1015 and it was completed in 1439. It is so large that it can be seen all across the plains of Alsace and as far off as the Black Forest. It was described by Goethe as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.”

Strasbourg Cathedral

The city’s Musée des Beaux-Arts is located in the Palais Rohan, the former residence of the prince-bishops and cardinals of the House of Rohan. It houses a fine collection of old master paintings, including works by Giotto, Botticelli, Carlo Crivelli, Filippino Lippi, Hans Memling and El Greco.

Giotto di Bondone ‘Crucifixion’ (c.1319 – 20)

Simon Marmion ‘The Christ of Pity’ (c.1460)

Botticelli ‘Virgin and Child with Two Angels’ (c.1468 – 69)

Hans Memling ‘Polyptych of Earthly Vanities and Heavenly Redemption’ (c.1485)

Raphael ‘Portrait of a Young Woman’ (c.1520)

El Greco ‘Mater Dolorossa’ (c.1590 – 1600)

Canaletto ‘View of Santa Maria della Salute, from the entrance of the Great Canal’ (c.1727)

The Isenheim Altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum, Colmar

In Colmar, in the Alsace region of north-east France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece in the Unterlinden Museum. Colmar is an ancient town and was recorded as being the location of an assembly held by the Carolingian Emperor Charles the Fat in 884. It was granted the status of a free imperial city by Emperor Frederick II in 1226. It has a fascinating history; amongst other things it was the birthplace of Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty which France gifted to the United States of America in 1886. Colmar has an extremely well-preserved old town, with numerous architectural landmarks.

Little Venice area, Colmar

The Unterlinden Museum contains a major collection of medieval and early Renaissance art, in which Martin Schongauer, who was born in the town in 1448, is particularly prominent. Other artists represented include Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Hans Holbein. There is also a modern collection with works by artists including Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Georges Roualt, Pierre Bonnard, Robert Delaunay and Otto Dix.

Martin Schongauer ‘Retable d’Orlier’ (c.1472)

Hans Holbein the Elder ‘Portrait of a Woman’ (c.1515)

Lucas Cranach the Elder ‘Melancholy’ (1532)

However, the most spectacular work in the museum and the reason for my visit is the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted by the German artist Matthias Grünewald in 1512 –1516 for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim near Colmar. The monastery was known for its care of plague sufferers as well as for the treatment of skin diseases, such as ergotism.The crucified Christ is depicted on the altarpiece with such a disease, indicating to sufferers that he understood and shared their affliction.

The altarpiece is a complex structure, with two sets of wings, meaning that three different configurations could be displayed. Except on holy days the wings were kept closed which meant that the usual view would be of the crucifixion, with Christ on the cross, his body covered with sores. The side panels depict Saint Sebastian pierced with arrows on the left and Saint Anthony on the right.

Mathias Grunewald ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ (1512 – 16) view with wings closed

When the outer wings were opened for particular holy days, especially those concerning the Virgin, four different scenes were revealed: on the left is the Annunciation set in a chapel, in the centre are a concert of angels and the Nativity, whilst the right-hand panel shows the Resurrection.

Mathias Grunewald ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ (1512 – 16) view with outer wings opened

When the inner wings are open, sculptures of Saints Augustine, Anthony and Jerome are visible, with Christ and the twelve Apostles below. These are flanked by paintings of, on the left, the Visit of Saint Anthony to Saint Paul the Hermit, and on the right, ‘Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons’. Saint Anthony has been beaten to the ground by the monstrous creatures but his appeals to God for help are answered by the arrival of angels.

Mathias Grunewald ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’ (1512 – 16) view with inner wings opened

The Beaune Altarpiece

In Beaune, in the Burgundy region of eastern France, to visit Les Hospices de Beaune, which was founded in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, the wealthy chancellor of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, as a hospital for the poor and needy. It is one of the finest examples of fifteenth-century Burgundian architecture, particularly noted for its ornate rooftops with coloured glazed tiles.

Les Hospices de Beaune

Inside, the original hospital layout has been preserved, with the fifty-metre-long Salle des Pôvres furnished with two rows of curtained beds. At the end of this ward is the Chapel, which enabled the bedridden to attend Mass from their beds, and this was the original location of the polyptych altarpiece by Rogier van der Weydon, the purpose of my visit.

Salle de Povres

The altarpiece, commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, was painted c.1445 – 50, and consists of nine oak panels with fifteen paintings, as six panels are painted on both sides. The six rear paintings, of saints and donors, were only visible when the altarpiece was closed.

The inside panels contain scenes from the Last Judgement, with the large central panel depicting Christ seated on a rainbow in judgement, while below him Archangel Michael holds scales with which to weigh souls.The left-hand panel depicts the gates of Heaven, with the entrance to Hell on the right. Between these, the dead rise from their graves and move to their final destinations.

Rogier van der Weyden ‘Beaune altarpiece’ (c.1445 – 50) front panels

The wings of the rear panels contain depictions of the donors, Nicolas Rolin and his wife, Guigone de Salins, kneeling in front of their prayer books. (Jan van Eyck had earlier portrayed Rolin in his ‘Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” (c.1435)) The two lower central panels portray Saints Sebastian and Anthony, whilst the upper panels show an Annunciation scene, the four central panels all being in grisaille, borrowing from the Ghent Altarpiece.

Rogier van der Weyden ‘Beaune altarpiece’ (c.1445 – 50) rear panels

Festival de Pâques, Aix-en-Provence

Time once again for the Aix-en-Provence Easter Festival, over two weeks of glorious music making in the south of France. Following the success of last year, once again several of the concerts are being streamed live to a wider audience.

The opening evening of this year’s festival saw Canadian conductor/soprano Barbara Hannigan leading the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. The concert opened with Hannigan singing Luigi Nono’s vocal work ‘Djamilia Boupacha’, in which Nono set to music a poem, ‘Esta Noche’ by Jesus Lopez Pacheco, about an Algerian girl who was brutally tortured by French troops and whose subsequent trial caused a worldwide sensation. Djamilia Boupacha became for many a symbol of Algeria’s fight for independence.

Hannigan then took up conducting duties for the rest of the concert, beginning with an excellent performance of Alban Berg’s ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra’, dedicated to ‘the memory of an angel’, with soloist Christian Tetzlaff. Berg was moved to interrupt the writing of his opera ‘Lulu’ to complete this commission after the death from polio of eighteen-year-old Manon Gropius, the daughter of architect Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, once Gustav Mahler’s wife. It was an extremely moving performance of the concerto, which combines the twelve-tone technique with a more tonal style, by the orchestra and German violinist Tetzlaff, which was much appreciated by the audience.

The second half of the concert was a sumpuous performance of Mozart’s ‘Requiem in D minor’, K.626, with the Choeur de Radio France joining the orchestra. Both the choir and soloists, soprano Johanna Wallroth, mezzo Adanya Dunn, tenor Charles Sy and bass Yannis François, were magnificent. I thought the Kyrie and Rex Tremendae were particularly notable.

The evening was an excellent start to the festival; with a packed hall proving that, whatever else is going on in the world, music, thankfully, never stops.

Charles Sy, Johanna Wallroth, conductor Barbara Hannigan, Adanya Dunn and Yannis François performing Mozart’s ‘Requiem in D minor’

Smetana, Bruch, Tchaikovsky

The second evening of the Aix festival, Saturday 9 April, saw the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice under Lionel Bringuier present a fascinating programme of Smetana, Bruch and Tchaikovsky.

The concert began with a rousing performance of Bedrich Smetana’s ‘Vltava’ (The Moldau) from his patriotic work ‘Ma Vlast’. The piece evokes the sounds of the river Moldou as it runs through the woods and meadows of thr Czech landscape. Instantly recognisable as Smetana’s best-known work it was sublimely played.

Lionel Bringuier conducting the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice

This was followed by Max Bruch’s ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 1’, featuring the festival’s artistic director Renaud Capuçon. The concerto is one of the best-loved works for the instrument, although it is also one of the most difficult to play. However, it was performed with great passion by the soloist as well as the orchestra.

The second half brought an extremely well-played rendition of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Symphony no. 5’. The first section of the opening movement was lively and spirited before becoming more tranquil before the second movement, beginning in B minor, brought a more sombre mood, although it was never gloomy. The third movement, a waltz, was elegently played, before the final movement began with a quite stately tempo but which then became more powerful before reaching the coda which, whilst thrilling, never went over the top. It was an excellent end to a thoroughly-enjoyable concert.

Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Tuesday 11 April brought the concert I had been most looking forward to – a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’. I was not disappointed – it was superbly played by the quartet of Renaud Capuçon, violin, Kian Soltani, cello, Pascal Moragues, clarinet and Hélène Mercier, piano.

The work was written by Messiaen in the most difficult circumstances imaginable – in Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner of war camp, during the winter of 1941. He wrote it for the only instruments available in the camp – piano, violin, cello and clarinet. Its eight movements are a mixture of solos and duets, one trio and in only four of the movements do all the instruments feature.

It is a deeply expressive work and the Aix quartet certainly did it justice. The final movement, ‘Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus’ for violin and piano was particularly beautifully played.

Renaud Capuçon, Hélène Mercier, Kian Soltani and Pascal Moragues

Postcards from the Dropt Valley

A delightful early spring day in the Dropt Valley in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France.

The village of Sauvetat-du-Dropt was originally a sauveté, a place of refuge created in the sixth century and protected by the church, where it was impossible for the authorities to pursue fugitives. The village has a remarkable Romanesque bridge with Gothic extension over the River Dropt that appears to go on forever and has a total of twenty-three arches.

A section of the bridge at Sauvetat-du-Dropt

The Church of Saint Eutrope in neighbouring Allemans-du-Dropt has a series of exquisite fifteenth-century frescoes. Rediscovered in 1935 and now restored, they contain scenes from the Bible, including the Last Judgement.

The fresco cycle in the Church of Saint Eutrope, Allemans-du-Dropt

‘The Morozov Collection – Icons of Modern Art’ in Paris

‘The Morozov Collection’ at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, is a companion exhibition to ‘The Shchukin Collection’ which was shown there in 2016. The brothers Mikhail and Ivan Morozov, like Sergei Shchukin, put together a vast collection of modern art from renowned French artists including Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Bonnard, Denis, Matisse, Derain and Picasso and these are displayed alongside works by Russian artists from the same period including Repin, Serov, Goncharova, Larionov, Malevich and Konchalovsky. The exhibition contains around two hundred masterpieces from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lent by museums in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Valentin Serov, Portrait of the Collector of Modern Russian and French Paintings, Ivan Abramovich Morozov, Moscow, 1910

Valentin Serov ‘Portrait of Ivan Abramovich Morozov’ (1910)

Auguste Renoir, Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary, Paris, 1877

Auguste Renoir ‘Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary’ (1877)

Paul Gauguin, Café at Arles, Arles, 1888

Paul Gauguin ‘Café at Arles’ (1888)

Paul Gauguin, Eu haere ia oe (Woman Holding a Fruit); Where Are You Going?, Tahiti, 1893

Paul Gauguin Eu haere ia oe (Woman Holding a Fruit) Where Are You Going? (1893)

Vincent van Gogh, The Prison Courtyard, Saint-Rémy, 1890

Vincent van Gogh ‘The Prison Courtyard’ (1890)

Paul Cézanne ‘Smoker’ (1891 – 92)

File:Cézanne, Paul - Still Life with a Curtain.jpg - Wikipedia

Paul Cézanne ‘Still Life with a Curtain’ (1892 – 94)

Paul Cézanne, Bathers, Aix-en-Provence, [1892-1894]

Paul Cézanne ‘Bathers’ (1892 – 94)

Edvard Munch, White Night. Aasgardstrand (Girls on the Bridge), 1903

Edvard Munch ‘White Night. Aasgardstrand’ (‘Girls on the Bridge’) (1903)

The invited work: Acrobat on a Ball, Picasso - Exhibition - Museo Nacional  del Prado

Pablo Picasso ‘Young Acrobat on a Ball’ (1905)

André Derain ‘Drying the Sails, Collioure’ (1905)

Maurice Denis ‘The Story of Psyche’, panel five: ‘In the Presence of the Gods Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche and Celebrates Her Marriage to Eros’ (1908)

Henri Matisse, Fruit and Bronze, Issy-les-Moulineaux, 1910

Henri Matisse ‘Fruit and Bronze’ (1910)

Valentin Serov, Portrait of Margarita Kirillovna Morozova, Moscow, 1910

Valentin Serov ‘Portrait of Margarita Kirillovna Morozova’ (1910)

‘Botticelli – Artist and Designer’ at Musée Jacquemart-André

Sandro Botticelli is rightly considered to be one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. The exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André celebrates the creative genius who developed a personal style that brought him enormous success in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century.

After initially training in a goldsmith’s shop, Botticelli entered the studio of Filippo Lippi where he learned the techniques of easel and fresco painting. Around 1467 he set up his own studio where he developed his own characteristic style which would attract the attention of the Medici family who favoured him with commissions. He also painted portraits on the walls of the Sistine Chapel and provided drawings for the first illustrated edition of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.

Sandro Botticelli ‘Giuliano de’ Medici’ (c.1478 – 80)

Sandro Botticelli ‘Virgin and Child’ (‘Madonna of the Book’) (c.1482 – 83)

Sandro Botticelli ‘Simonetta Vespucci as a Nymph'(c.1485)

Sandro Botticelli ‘Venus pudica’ (c.1485 – 90)

Sandro Botticelli ‘Crucifix’ (c.1490 – 95)

Sandro Botticelli ‘Michele Marullo Tarchaniota’ (1490 – 1500)

Sandro Botticelli ‘Madonna del Magnificat’ (1490s)

Sandro Botticelli and workshop ‘Virgin and Child and young John the Baptist’ (c.1505)

‘Soutine/De Kooning: Painting Embodied’

A fascinating exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie of around fifty paintings by the Russian-born artist Chaïm Soutine, who worked in Paris from 1913 until his tragic death in 1943, and the Dutch-born American Abstract Impressionist, Willem de Kooning.

De Kooning was heavily influence by Soutine after seeing his paintings in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1950 retrospective. The Orangerie exhibition highlights the association between the two artists, showing the influence of Soutine, especially on De Kooning’s ‘Woman’ paintings.

Hill at Ceret by Chaim Soutine | Chaim soutine, Chaim, Ceret

Chaïm Soutine ‘The Hill at Céret’ (1921)

Reproduction painting by Willem De Kooning Amityville 1971

Willem de Kooning ‘Amityville’ (1971)

Chaim Soutine | Portrait of Madeleine Castaing | The Metropolitan Museum of  Art

Chaïm Soutine ‘Portrait of Madeleine Castaing’ (1929)

Woman V, 1953 by Willem de Kooning

Willem de Kooning ‘Woman V’ (1953)

Chaim Soutine (1893-1943)

Chaïm Soutine ‘La Communiante’ (1924)

Willem de Kooning. Woman, II. 1952 | MoMA

Willem de Kooning ‘Woman II’ (1952)

Chaim Soutine (January 13, 1893 — August 9, 1943), Russian painter | World  Biographical Encyclopedia

Chaïm Soutine ‘Le Garçon d’étage’ (1927)

Chaïm Soutine ‘Enfant de choeur’ (1927 – 28)

Fichier:Chaïm Soutine - Le Petit Pâtissier.jpg — Wikipédia

Chaïm Soutine ‘Le petit Pâtissier’ (1922 – 23)

Woman 1953 by Willem de Kooning | Willem de kooning, De kooning, De kooning  paintings

Willem de Kooning ‘Woman’ (1953)