The French Riviera without art is like a Matisse without the sun. Each needs the other to make sense of itself.
So I get why the Instagrammers are outside Le Negresco, a hotel in Nice, clustering around a Niki de Saint Phalle supersize statue of Miles Davis. The jazz musician toots a note of fun at the entrance of the rosy-domed landmark on the Baie des Anges.
The sun is setting garishly on the statue’s mosaicked coat of many colors, while a six-foot, five-inch doorman in a frock coat and breeches opens my car door with a flourish.
“Is this place for real, or is it as camp as Christmas?” my husband, the photographer Don McCullin, asks rhetorically when we arrive. He knows I approve of hotels as theater, and Le Negresco trumps its competitors thanks to its extraordinary art collection.
Not even Château La Coste, with its fabulous land art, La Colombe d’Or, with dining rooms hung with works by Picasso, Chagall, and Calder, and Le Cap Estel, which is full of incredible contemporary masters, can rival Le Negresco’s stash. It covers five centuries of French-art history, teased out in 6,000 pieces from the likes of Renoir, Dalí, and Cocteau.
The hotel’s flame-haired owner, the late “Madame” Jeanne Augier, died in January 2019 at age 95. She was passionate about collecting both art and animals. She wanted her hotel to be a museum and was careful to set up a foundation that would care for the collection when she was gone, while plowing back profits into charities that serve abandoned animals and the city’s poor.
“Is this place for real, or is it as camp as Christmas?”
Her taste was certainly eclectic. In the main Salon Royal are more canapés for the eye—another Niki de Saint Phalle sculpture of the voluptuous, cartoonish bather Nana Jaune, who clashes with lime-green Empire furniture and a rare oil painting of the Sun King. (Its twin is in the Louvre, and its triplet is at Versailles.)
Kids race around in miniature collectible toy cars under Gustave Eiffel’s glass cupola, while one of two priceless crystal Baccarat chandeliers, originally commissioned by Czar Alexander II for the Grand Kremlin Palace, hangs overhead.
I recognize the salon’s details from a video for an Elton John song, “I’m Still Standing,” that I loved once. As décor goes, it is bonkers, but in the words of Picasso, who lived in Mougins, down the road, “Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”
Many of Augier’s rich and famous guests offered to buy the place over the years, but she refused. She reportedly even sent Bill Gates on his way. Le Negresco subsequently earned itself historic-monument status and a Michelin star or two for its restaurant.
The French revere their Michelin stars, although you can eat just as well in Le Negresco’s more casual Rotonde restaurant. There, carousel horses emerge, surreally, out of the gold-leaf walls, and the ceiling is an installation that changes from a starlit to a cloudy sky.
In the Riviera, at least, living well has always been the best revenge. Last year, the French government, intent on the economic revival of a region that brings in 11 million tourists annually, allocated $2.27 million to promote tourism on the Côte d’Azur.
The grande dame hotels have made many improvements over the past few years. Cannes’s Hôtel Martinez is dripping glamour after a 2018 makeover; the beloved and elegant Hotel Épi 1959 in St. Tropez is a perkier version of its original self. Even old-school La Voile d’Or, in Cap Ferrat, is planning a three-year renovation to enable it to achieve “palace” status.
But, for now, all eyes are on the new kid on the 70-mile coastal stretch: the Maybourne Riviera, a modernist architectural dream set into a spectacular, if controversial, clifftop location in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. After years of renovation, at a reported cost of $113 million, it’s no wonder there is so much talk of a Riviera revival.
Catherine Fairweather is a West Country of England–based writer