An extraordinary story of how the legendary artist Jean Cocteau painted the rooms of a house on the French Riviera where he stayed for a holiday.
Jean Cocteau was born on 5 July 1889. He was a French poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright, artist and filmmaker. Incredibly popular, his friends and lovers included Pablo Picasso, Yul Brynner, Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Édith Piaf, and Colette. Margo Lestz investigates another of his friendships in the French Riviera when he became the artist who came to dinner and never left with a look at the house that Jean Cocteau painted…
What would you do if you invited someone to spend a week at your holiday home and he decided to redecorate it and then he decided to stay – indefinitely? Francine Weisweiller was thrilled.
In 1950, when Francine met Jean Cocteau, she was a 34 year old Parisian socialite bored with her bourgeois lifestyle. Cocteau was a 61 year old artist and writer overseeing the making of a film based on one of his books, “Les Enfants Terribles”. They were introduced by Francine’s cousin, who was an actress in the film and a friendship immediately bloomed between them.
When the movie was finished, Francine invited Cocteau and his 25 year old companion/adopted son, Edouard Dermit, to spend a week at her holiday home on the French Riviera. It was in the village of Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat which had once been known as Cap-Saint-Sospir after a sixth century monk who had lived in the area. Francine adopted the name and her villa became Villa Santo Sospir.
After just a few days of rest and relaxation at Santo Sospir, Cocteau was ready for another project. Since most of the walls in Francine’s newly acquired villa were bare and white, they reminded him of giant canvases and they called out to him to decorate them. He asked Francine if he could make a charcoal design over the fireplace, she immediately agreed and a drawing of Apollo, the sun god, appeared. Cocteau decided that Apollo needed to be flanked by two priests, one on each side. Then he took the advice of Matisse who said that if you decorate one wall of a room, you have to do the others. So he did all the walls in the living room. Then he did the doors. Of course the doors led into other rooms and the decorated doors made those walls look bare so he had to draw on them as well. And so it continued for six months all through the house.
The “tattooed” villa
To Cocteau the walls were like the skin of a person and he didn’t want to dress it but to “tattoo” it – and this villa got a full body tattoo. He worked his way around the house covering every wall with his art. He didn’t move the furniture, he simply drew around it or, in some cases, over it, making it part of the design. He did the entire house without sketches, drawing directly on the walls. First he drew his designs in charcoal. Then he used coloured pigments mixed with raw milk to make a tempera to highlight his lines.
The Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat coastline reminded Cocteau of Greece and most of the designs in the villa are inspired by Greek mythology with a little nod to local culture and the sea. For example, The Apollo over the fireplace has eyes designed as fish and the priests on each side are represented by Villefranche fishermen, wearing traditional hats and carrying their nets. You’ll also see representations of sea creatures and fougasse (a local bread) scattered along the walls.
Cocteau left only one wall “tattooless”. The dining room wall is covered by a tapestry representing the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. And it was designed by, who else but, Jean Cocteau. He had it made as a gift for Francine. His one week holiday had turned into a six month decorating frenzy. But even when all the walls were covered with his tattoos, Cocteau still didn’t leave. He found more decorating to do. He designed two mosaics at the entry of the house and decided that the tattooed walls made the ceilings look bare so then he had to do all the ceilings. He came for seven days and stayed almost eleven years.
It was an unconventional household, but they formed a seemingly happy family unit consisting of: Cocteau, the genius in residence, in his sixties; Francine, his adoring friend and patron in her thirties; Edouard, Cocteau’s companion and adopted son in his twenties; and Carol, the young daughter of Francine, who was seven when Cocteau arrived. Carol lived in Paris with her father where she was raised mostly by nannies but she counted the holiday time spent at Santo Sospir as her real family time. She adored Cocteau and looked at him as a friend and second father. At Santo Sospir, this little blended family painted, read and entertained other famous artists and actors, that is, when they weren’t travelling around on Francine’s yacht.
Cocteau’s one week stay ended 11 years later when he and Francine had differing opinions about her new boyfriend. Fortunately for Francine, she liked Cocteau and his art (because she ended up living with both for quite a long time). So let this be a lesson if you are thinking of inviting an artist for a visit. Be sure to check their portfolio first!
How to visit: The villa is now owned by Carol Weisweiller and classed as a historic monument. Tours are by reservation only. See the website for prices and contact information: http://www.villasantosospir.fr/
Other Cocteau sites in the area: The Chapel St. Pierre in Villefranche-sur-mer is the tiny but beautiful chapel of the fishermen of Villefranche. Cocteau decorated the inside and the outside. See this site for visit information.
In Menton you will find several Cocteau sites, including the Marriage Hall (salle de marriage), the new Cocteau museum and an older smaller Cocteau museum, the Bastion. See the Menton tourism site for information.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she likes to bask in the sunshine, study the French language and blog as thecuriousrambler. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.