La Colombe d’Or

Martine Assouline meditates on the Provençal Artists’ escape

In 1931, a smart and tasteful man established a restaurant in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a beautiful medieval hilltop village in southern France. The place only had three rooms but there was a view across the hills from the terrace, and the light of Provence, and, with many artists leaving Paris during the Second World War for Free France, little by little La Colombe d’Or became a favourite of painters and sculptors.

Paul Roux came to be friends with his new artistic clientele, which included Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Joan Miró. An aged Matisse would get his chauffeur to drive him to the hotel, just to have tea in his car with Roux. The artists came to be part of the fabric of the place and Roux started to collect, sometimes buying, sometimes taking a painting in exchange for room and board. Today the artwork there is incredible – paintings by Miró, Chagall, Matisse, some ceramics by Picasso and Léger, a mosaic by Braque and a Calder mobile by the pool; but for the family, building such an incredible collection came naturally.

I don’t remember when I first visited, but my husband, Prosper, and I came to know Roux’s daughter-in-law, Yvonne, who would tell us stories of that time – of a mobile that Calder installed in the house, for example. Calder had returned three months later to find it painted red, and asked Paul what had happened. “Oh, you know, it was white on a white wall, and nobody could really enjoy it, so we decided to paint it red.” The whole family is like that, crazy and charming at the same time.

When our son was born, Prosper and I wanted to start something that we could run from our apartment in Paris. We decided to make books, the kind we wanted to find in bookshops. Prosper has always been a very visual person – he was always taking photographs of La Colombe – and I write, so we started with the story of the hotel. It took some convincing but eventually the Rouxs agreed, and in 1994 we released our first publication as Maison Assouline. In the 25 years since, the book hasn’t been out of print and Maison Assouline has become an international publishing house with stores around the world. We still go to La Colombe d’Or – it’s now run by Paul’s great-grandson and is still this rare mix of calm and culture; a place with a real history where you can escape the bustle of the world around you. It’s a special place.

As told to George Upton