An Art Break; SOUTH OF FRANCE SPECIAL: Turn over for Cannes

Article excerpt


Francois-Marius Granet. A 19th century painter now considered a minor master. He studied under Jacques-Louis David, the most famous painter of the era.

He met Napoleon and the Pope, the Queen of Naples was his patron, he was decorated by King Louis-Philippe, a curator of the Louvre and Versailles museums - but, most of all, in no way related to me.

I thought he was, of course. Whenever I heard mention of the museum named after him in his home town of Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, I would say he was probably a distant relative.

And I believed it, too. It was all quite hazy but I remember once being told by a family member that our branch of the Granets originated from Aix. My loose logic concluded that, with our name being quite rare, we probably were related. It never crossed my mind to verify it.

But before I knew it, a visit was arranged for me to see the museum. My bold claim had to be backed up. Gulp. Six months of intensive genealogical investigations later, I'd traced my French family back 400 years from a town not too far from Aix, to one a bit further away. A rewarding experience, visiting some beautiful locations, but ending in the discovery that actually some of our Granets had moved to Aix, not from.

All hopes that good old Frankie-Maruis was a long-lost great-great-uncle, or something, were quashed. I now had to visit the Musee Granet feeling a fraud.

It was a beautiful October afternoon when I flew into Marseille. The bus for Aix didn't leave until the time I should have been having my appointment at the museum.

Luckily, the terminus was in the town centre, only a short rush through the sun-drenched streets to my hotel.

The manageress there was your archetypical frosty French matriarch, the kind their service industry surprisingly still tolerates, who made checking in frustratingly slow.

I was very late by the time I got to the Musee Granet. The curator's lack of enthusiasm for our rendezvous was palpable. She'd already told me by email that neither Francois-Marius nor any of his siblings had produced offspring and couldn't see any reason for our meeting. I futilely tried to justify my search but we both knew it was pointless. Ten minutes later, I was sent on my way with a large book on the artist as a softener. My dejection, though, was lifted after a scamper across town.

Not only did my meeting with the local genealogical association provide me with a warm welcome, but also hope.

Within minutes they informed me that Francois-Marius's grandfather had come to Aix from Bargemon - a village close to the home of my last-known ancestors. Maybe our family trees might, at some point, converge! The rest of my time in Aix was spent exploring its mellow charms at a more leisurely pace.

Once the provincial capital, it was sidelined after two revolutions - the French and the Industrial. It backed the bourgeoisie in the former and refused to take part in the latter.

Such flawed foresight virtually reduced it to a sleeping backwater. Only when the TGV line came in 2001 did it really return to national prominence.

Like most Provencal towns, Aix is a picturesque blend from medieval Mediterranean to contemporary France. The surrounding landscape, rugged and coarsely carpeted, props up famously azure skies. With three universities and several French-language schools, the town is overflowing with students, yet manages to retain a very relaxed vibe. …