Learning to See in the South of France

April 13, 2023 | By Jennifer Levin

Portia Abbott (SF22)

The first time Portia Abbott (SF22) painted with oils, she attempted to copy Vincent van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night. She blocked in the dark blue sky, the café’s orange walls, and the little white tables on the sidewalk.

“I’d used watercolors before. Those blend quite naturally, sometimes without even trying. With oil paints, the paint stays where it is unless you blend it,” Abbott says. “It was totally different because I had to start deconstructing colors a lot more than I had before.”

Abbott spent six weeks of summer 2022 in Aix-en-Provence, in the South of France, at the Leo Marchutz School of Painting & Drawing. The art intensive is one of several study abroad options coordinated through the St. John’s College Office of Personal and Professional Development. Santa Fe students are eligible to apply for the Global Pathways Fellowship, a competitive funding program that covers most of the cost of attending Marchutz. (Students are responsible for airfare.)

You don’t have to have art experience to go to Marchutz. You learn by doing, jumping into the process without the benefit of craft or theory lectures. The point is to learn to see anew.

“We focused on art as a form of seeing, but also that seeing is already a way of interpreting,” Abbott says. “When we see something, we’re already picking things out, focusing on certain things, and not noticing other things. It changed my perspective. It no longer seemed like I had to copy the painting perfectly, but that I was trying to express what I see in a certain way.”

German painter Leo Marchutz (1903–1976) went to Aix-en-Provence in 1928 to follow in the footsteps of Paul Cézanne. He moved there permanently a few years later. In 1972, he and two mentees founded a school that now attracts students from all over the world. Unlike many prospective applicants, however, Abbott never considered herself an artist, though she habitually drew throughout high school. “I always identified more as a writer than as an artist,” she says. “I got into art because I liked to draw my stories, to see my characters in a different way.” But after she began dabbling in watercolors during the pandemic, she decided to apply to Marchutz.

In France, Abbott lived with two Johnnies from Annapolis. “Every morning, we would walk to the studio down this long road through town,” she says. “Sometimes, we went to farmland where Cézanne used to paint.” These plein-air sessions occurred in a meadow in the shadow of Mont Sainte-Victoire, a mountain beloved by Cézanne. “It had a little cross at the top. The mountain is made of limestone, and everyone would be trying to capture the mountain, which is hard because it’s so many different colors,” Abbott recalls. “The dirt around there is quite red, and there are a lot of lavender plants, like in New Mexico.”

Abbott also went on field trips to Arles, the site of the yellow house featured in Van Gogh’s 1888 painting of the same name, and to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, home to the monastery-turned-asylum where he famously spent time following a mental health crisis. “Our teachers had copies of the paintings that he did there, so we would look at the painting and the place that was painted at the same time,” Abbott says. “We talked about what we saw, how we felt about it.”

Abbott spent most afternoons sketching, reading for a weekly seminar, and exploring the city of Aix-en-Provence. Johnnies study French in their junior and senior language tutorial, and Abbott practiced hers by ordering in cafés and asking for directions, and twice a week when she and her roommates had dinner with a host mother, Madame Barruol, who treated them to dishes from her family cookbook. One of her roommates spoke fluent French, so Abbott often spent those evenings listening to the two chat—when she wasn’t begging for recipes.

“It was incredible. The meals were multicourse. We’d start with the main dish, and then you’d have cheese, and then fruit,” says Abbott. “We had ratatouille, which made a huge impression on me because it was so simple and so good. She made these potatoes with garlic, and a lot of spinach salads with really tasty balsamic.”

The Marchutz program will change slightly in 2023, says Meg Williams, assistant director of the Santa Fe Office of Personal and Professional Development. Students will live with host families in homes located closer to the studios, which are now within the city rather than on the outskirts. But the program’s core remains the same: learning to paint by following in the footsteps of the masters and developing a sustained and intensive observation of the visible world.

“We spent a lot of time in the meadow. I usually painted this house that was near a telephone pole, with some trees,” Abbott says. “I often liked painting the same thing more than once because the first time, I would not be satisfied. I painted something until I liked it.”