“Provence Style” Paintings Started in Aix-en-Provence, France

April 23, 2009



“Aix-en-Provence,” by Kevin Miller, 24″ x 24″ oil on board. (SOLD) In 1970 this was Kevin Miller’s first “Provence Style” composition

In 1969 I was a dirt-poor 20-year-old art student in Aix-en-Provence, France, attending classes at the “Ecole des Beaux Arts” and the “Institute des Etudes Francaises pour les Etudiants Etrangers” — the foreign students’ division of the “Universite d”Aix Marseille.” My long hair parted in the middle, wispy goatee, and wire rimmed glasses made me an easy object of ridicule for the sophisticated French students. I trudged through the streets in my long trench coat, enduring their cool sarcasm while reading Jean Paul Sartre in the original French and sketching furiously in a black book I carried. I still have that sketchbook to this day, 40 years later.

My dear old landlady was Madame Marbain, from whom I rented one room overlooking the “Place de l’Opera.” Her artist father had known Matisse, and she recalled sitting in the great master’s lap when she was a little girl. Eventually she married an artist herself. It was my great good fortune to find myself in her home, because she was well connected at the “Ecole des Beaux Arts,” and insisted that they admit me, when she discovered that I could draw.

One day I drew a very earnest self-portrait and showed it to her. She laughed uproariously and finally said, “Is that how you really see yourself? Well… It is the serious young men, like you, who grow up to be FUN old men!” She was uncommonly intelligent and had the infallible eye of a professional art critic. I always showed her my drawings and paintings, because in an instant she could put her finger on the weakness that still needed work, while acknowledging the strong points in the pieces as well.

 Madame Marbain could not pronounce the name “Kevin,” so she approximated the syllables with two French words and called me “Coeur-vin,” which means “Heart-wine.” She was my confidant, my teacher and my landlady, but she treated me like “Coeur-vin,” and I benefited enormously from her guidance, her discipline, and her love, all three in equal measure.


“Old Tree Town,” by Kevin Miller, 2003, 11″ x 14″ acrylic on canvas. (SOLD)

I was taking a sculpture class from a friend of Madame Marbain’s who was a professor at the “Ecole des Beaux Arts.” Our assignment was to copy a great mask by the French master Poussin. The 4’6″ tall professor seemed pleased with my work on the mask after her 10th tour of the class during which she offered critiques and advice to the students. So I decided that my copy work was done and it was time to alter the mask and make it my own. I deepened the eye sockets, added luxuriant hair and full lips — I romanticized it. The next time Madame Professeur came around, she flew into a screaming rage when she saw my mask. “How dare you presume to improve upon the great master Poussin!” she roared, and ripped off the nose. “Do you think you are better than one of the greatest artists who ever lived?” and she gouged out the eyes. At first I could barely breath for the shock, but then I found that my facility in French suddenly tripled in an instant and I had plenty to say to her. However, I don’t remember a word of it, because her very top student, a stunningly beautiful, tall, cool, young French woman, sauntered over to the scene of violent wreckage and conflict, looked down upon the little professor, and said matter-of-factly, “What are you doing?… His mask was better than Poussin’s.”

Then I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life: I left the class and never went back. I never went back to that sculpture class. I never went back to the figure drawing class where I had shocked the French students with my photo-realistic nudes. I never went back to the “Ecole des Beaux Arts.” I was young and stupid. I did not know what a remarkable opportunity I was privileged to enjoy. I did not understand the value of abusive criticism and I certainly did not yet know how to transform it into thick skin and inner resolve. But Madame Marbain and her friend the short professor and all the classes I took at both institutes, offered me the best and most intensive education of my life. Everything I experienced in Aix-en-Provence and Paris changed and influenced my life forever, and for the better.


“Victorian House,” by Kevin Miller, 2003, 11″ x 14″ acrylic on canvas. (SOLD)

One beautiful day I hiked out of town and sat down on a hillside to sketch the Provence countryside. When I returned to the United States I painted the oil painting, shown at the top of this posting, from that sketch. It was the first of many paintings in this style, which owes so much to Aix-en-Provence itself, and to Cezanne who lived in that region and became the father of cubism, in my opinion. Everyone likes to insist that Picasso and Braque invented cubism. But the roots of cubism are clearly visible in the landscapes of Cezanne, painted in those same hills that I was privileged to roam.

Decades later, my beloved octogenarian father surveyed the many paintings I had done over the years in this style and proclaimed it to be my “Provence Style.” The label has stuck, and I am happy with it. The painting shown above has hung in my parents’ living room for nearly 40 years and it still does.




6 Responses to ““Provence Style” Paintings Started in Aix-en-Provence, France”

  1. rita said

    enjoyed reading this!

    • kevinmillerart said

      Thanks Rita, several people have written through other avenues that they enjoyed reading about the roots of the “Provence Style” paintings, and my adventures as a student in Aix-en-Provence in 1969 and ’70. Best wishes!

  2. Jinny Baeckler said

    Kevin! I have been researching a St. Louis artist namedHarry ( Ary) Marbain, who met his future wife at a pension for artists in Aix-en-Provence in the twenties, run by her father. They came to America/St. Louis in 1937, together with an eleven year old daugther–Francine. I believe that after some time here, Marie and Francine both returned to France. Marie Louise died in Nice in in 1996. Would your “landlady” have been either Marie Louise or Francine? Ary eventually married Sheila Oline, and set up a print studio in NYC–Maurel Studios–which became quite famous. In any case, your work is GREAT…and I’m very glad to have found it!

    • kevinmillerart said

      Yes! My French landlady was Francine’s mother. We all knew her as Madame Marbain. When I and several other students rented rooms in her large apartment at 38 Rue de L’Opera, Aix-en-Provence in 1969/70 we also got to know her daughter Francine who lived a few blocks away. In fact, Madame Marbain and I visited Francine together several times. I absolutely adored Mme Marbain, but she was a very strict landlady. She had rigid rules about showering: Turn on the water for one minute to get wet. Turn off the water. Lather up with soap and shampoo. Turn the water on for one more minute to rinse off the lather. She would stand outside the bathroom listening and timing the two periods during which the water was running. If we left it on for more than the allowed minute each time, she would rap on the wall and admonish us to turn it off! But I owe my experiences and education at the Ecole des Beaux Arts to her. She was well connected there. One day she marched me down to their offices and simply demanded that they let me in… And they did! They clearly knew her very well and respected her wishes, to my good fortune.

      • MORAND said

        I lived close to Aix en Provence. I’ve found some paintings signed Marbain and dated between 1929 and 1932. Do you know if Marie has painted in her life? I really want to know more about this artist…
        Thank you.

      • kevinmillerart said

        Hello Marc, I’m sorry that I did not see your question until now. As far as I know Mme Marbain never painted in her life. Her husband was a painter, and the paintings signed “Marbain” may be his work. The dates you see on the paintings would make sense for his period of productivity. Unfortunately I do not know any more than this about him or his work. Although Mme Marbain did not paint herself, she had an excellent eye and could always identify a weak spot in any of my own work. Her father was also an artist, but I do not know what his surname was. He knew Henri Matisse and used to take his daughter to visit the master when she was a little girl. She told me about sitting in Matisse’s lap and talking with him during those visits. Good luck with your research on the paintings. – Kevin Miller

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