by Susan Manfull

Inconspicuously tucked in a corner in the back of Café Gaby’s busy terrace, one might think that local artist Gérard Isirdi would go unnoticed. On the contrary, by the time Lourmarin’s most famous artist has set up his makeshift easel atop a café table, attached his large canvas with a series of  large stainless steel clips, and arranged his paints, a hushed excitement has swept through Lourmarin’s three crowded cafés on Place l’Ormeau, palpable to any passerby.Tourists recognize Isirdi or quickly learn that he is the painter whose atelier is just a few doors away from Café Gaby on the same side of rue Henri de Savornin. Inevitably, they have already admired his captivating work, perhaps in the gallery—where they may have talked with wife Christine–or strolling by the windows of the gallery in his studio. Perhaps they purchased one of his large prints to hang on a wall in their home. Or a lovely gouache on paper or a luscious oil on canvas. Such is the enormous appeal of Isirdi’s art and of the quiet, reserved man himself.

Regarding the walls of our home, let’s just say, that family and friends are very familiar with Isirdi’s work.


Although quiet and reserved among most people, Isirdi has a commanding presence and when painting, a focused intensity about him. He is fascinating to watch, even for young children. Here, Isirdi paints at Café Gaby Photo by Susan Manfull

Locals may feign nonchalance and even indifference that they were in the presence of an internationally acclaimed artist. Isirdi, like other celebrities who regularly surface in Café Gaby—Peter Mayle, for example—is so deeply respected that, coupled with the French proclivity to be keenly respectful of privacy, he has earned the right to be ignored, one might say. But, if the occasion arises, locals will spring into action to protect the privacy of their patron painter (as I discovered last summer, but I am getting ahead of my story).

Gérard Isirdi, originally from Aubagne en Provence about 21 kilometers (13 miles) northeast of Marseille, was the 11th of 12 children in a family originally from Italy. It was just south of this city, in the village of Roquevaire, that Isirdi grew up and, at 12 years old, first experimented with painting. Roquevaire would be a fortuitous move for a young man who would eventually become a painter as the village is known as “la Cité des peintres.”

As a young adolescent boy, Isirdi worked with very rudimentary equipment in the basement of his childhood home, away from the eyes of his parents who neither encouraged nor discouraged young Gérard . (With twelve children, there was probably little time to encourage any endeavors!)

As Isirdi moved into his teens, his passion for painting continued to grow. At the same time, he began to realize that, without the means to pursue a formal education in art, he would need to develop his craft on his own. Toward this end, he studied painting with a group collectively called “Peintres de laVallée de L’Huveaune,” from whom he received much encouragement and with whom he exhibited his work. He often accompanied painters from Roquevaire, part of this group, out into the surrounding countryside and, to this day, Isirdi credits these pleinairistes with profoundly influencing his approach to painting.


Gérard Isirdi paints at Café Gaby Photo by Susan Manfull

When I asked Isirdi if his work was influenced by, for example, van Gogh—to my eye, there are similarities to van Gogh’s early and later work—or Picasso or Matisse—both of whom I see in some of Isirdi’s earlier work—he said no, adding that all the trends of painting were represented in the work of the painters of his village and that he was most influenced by the painters in that group.

“Les peintres qui m’influencèrent sont les peintres de mon village, où toutes les tendances de la peinture étaient représentées,” Gérard said.

In his twenties, he went north to Paris where he studied printmaking and by making prints for other artists, he was able to earn enough money to buy art supplies and more seriously pursue painting. In 1974, he traveled to Andalusia and Morocco where, unsurprisingly, he painted and in 1975, he had his first solo exhibition in Roquevaire. Shortly after that show, he studied in north central France in Rigny-le-Ferron with Arsène Sari, also one of the Roquevaire painters. He had another exhibition, under the tutelage of Sari, in the Museum of Arsonval.

In 1980, Isirdi discovered the Luberon where he lived for five years in the ruins of a troglodyte farmhouse. During this time, he moved from a brief period in which he flirted with a style he describes as “close to abstraction,” back to “nature” and experimentation with new perspectives. Not yet able to sustain himself as a painter, he also worked as a gardener at this time.  Isirdi describes this time as “tourmentée” (“turbulent”).


Gérard Isirdi paints at Café Gaby Photo by Susan Manfull

It was not until 1990 that Isirdi made the commitment to work fulltime as an artist. In 1991, when he was 41 years old, he set up his first studio in Lourmarin. In the same year, he was awarded “Le PrixAlbert Camus,” which Isirdi said he saw as a “sign of favorable destiny.”

“J’y ai vu le signe d’un destin favorable,” Isirdi said.

Indeed. He immediately had three major exhibitions: in Annecy (1993), San Francisco (1994), and Geneva (1998). We met Isirdi shortly after the Geneva show, on our first trip to Lourmarin. By this time, he was devoted to the character studies in Lourmarin’s cafes (especially Café Gaby) for which he has earned an international following. We, like so many visitors to Lourmarin, fell in love with his work.


Gérard Isirdi talks to Alex about art. Photo (c 2000) by WT Manfull

Our daughter Alex, around eight years old at the time, had been drawing from a remarkably young age and was immediately drawn to Isirdi. As luck would have it, he took an interest in her and her work and a friendship began that has lasted throughout the years. When we lived in Lourmarin and on later stays in the village, she had the opportunity to get together with Isirdi to talk about art and as recently as this past summer, she rendezvoused with him to seek advice about how to approach a large-scale oil she was working on (but here I am getting ahead of the story again!).As evidenced by the art on our walls and three books filled with reproductions of Isirdi’s work in our collection of art books, we are huge fans of his work. Such familiarity with his work has allowed us the great pleasure of seeing how it has changed across time and ultimately remained distinctly Isirdi. To me, he has a very recognizable style (possibly not as defined in his oils). Light and playful, his work seems effortless. In just a few strokes of the brush, Isirdi is able to capture the essence of whatever his subject may be, whether it is a field of lavender, a silhouette of Lourmarin, or the terrace of a café filled with people. I often find myself smiling when I look at his art, knowing his work is anything but effortless.


Interestingly, Isirdi said that he feels he has not adopted a particular style of painting. Instead, he said, “I am very concentrated on what I see and I seek to show the truth in what I perceive.” In response to one of my questions about describing his own work, he said that he cannot define his painting as it would be like “trying to define my voice.” Continuing he said, “When I speak I do not think of the sound of my voice but instead the words I choose to use for honestly expressing my thoughts and feelings.”

Gérard Isirdi paints at Café Gaby Photo by Susan Manfull

I caught up with Isirdi in July at Café Gaby. He had settled into the very same corner where we had first seen him painting some 15 years ago and was in the midst of capturing the figures inhabiting the scene at Chez Gaby that morning. With such a vibrant, constantly moving scene at this popular café and with so many passersby, I wondered how he chose his subjects.“I observe what is around me and I wait to be inspired by what I see before I set about painting,” he answered and added “I cannot paint something that leaves me indifferent.”In observing Isirdi painting, it appeared that his brush (actually brushes!) was connected to his eyes, bypassing conscious thought. He agreed, adding, “You have to put yourself into the subject, trying to become a direct vector between the subject and the canvas, to become one with the subject.”


Once he starts painting, he explained, the painting itself guides him. “In those moments, I forget everything that surrounds me.” Actually, as I watched Isirdi paint, it was almost as if he were in a trance.

In still lifes or oil landscapes, Isirdi explained that he has more time for reflection in contrast to the café terraces where “the speed I have adopted gives a very spontaneous result.”

As I wrote above, the locals are very protective of Isirdi and the personal space he needs to paint. When I was taking photographs that morning in July, one of the café patrons ran over to his atelier to express his concerns about me to Christine: He was certain I was bothering Isirdi and she must stop me. Christine explained that I was working with their permission which allayed his worries (at least a little).


Christine Isirdi in Atelier Isirdi Photo by Susan Manfull

Christine is almost always in the gallery as, according to Isirdi, “She is dedicated to the sale of paintings and everything that involves my life as a painter.” Christine’s integral role in the success of Atelier Isirdi is clear to anyone who knows this successful couple; however, as much as they are business partners, they have always struck me as being soulmates. “Christine is the center of everything,” Isirdi acknowledged. “I owe her for my artistic success.”

Gérard Isirdi and Alex discuss painting. Photo by Christine Isirdi

Perhaps because Isirdi knows firsthand how tough it is to achieve artistic success on one’s own, he provided a long and thoughtful answer to my question about what advice he would give young artists. I think his sage advice applies to other endeavors fed by passion as well so, at the end of this article, I have included his original French answer and an English version.

Isirdi told me that he loves painting at Gaby’s. When I asked him if he had a “bucket list” of places he where he would like to paint, he said, “My dream would be to bring this atmosphere to other places like Aix, Marseille, St-Tropez, Paris Deauville, Trouville…but, I confess that my set-up is difficult to transport to places so chaotic and busy.”

He said that he feels fortunate that in the Lourmarin cafés have been so accepting and respectful. “I can melt into the background” he said. “It may seem that way,” I thought. “In any case, the source is inexhaustible, constantly renewed, regardless of the location.”

I put a plug in for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We have a few outdoor cafés frequented by colorful characters, and I am confident we can find an inconspicuous corner!


Gérard Isirdi paints at Café Gaby Photo by Susan Manfull

Isirdi’s Advice to Young Artists:

To a young artist I would say: Plant your easel anywhere. It is not the subject that is important, it is the action. The subject will impose itself on you, even without you having to look for it. Let come to you the truth. You may hear a voice that tells you to stay focused, humble, and simple. Distance yourself from your arrogance and indifference. Do not be too hard on yourself. Take your chances but do not become crazy. It is not to show off your suffering that is important but to show your joy, your enthusiasm, your love. Do not judge yourself too much.  Create a distance between you and your work. It is not a single painting for which you will receive recognition. What will become of this work, why it will recognized or whether they will discover a style–none of those things are in your control.

Adhere to the thought of Cezanne: “I am for thinking, yes, but with the brush in hand! ” It is in this way that to paint a bird you will have to (reference to Prévert: To make the portrait of a bird) enter the cage and become a bird yourself and why not sign with a feather of the bird. Yes, tell yourself that everything is easy, that your work is already in you, and that you simply have to show the work to the eyes of the world and convince them, this world, to appreciate your work. This philosophy will then be be the chariot for your work to which you must harness yourself with an invincible obstinacy. Stop believing that the dream is far away from you, or that it only finds itself in your sleep. It’s right there in its magnificence, in plain sight.

Conseils aux Jeunes Artistes d’Isirdi:
À un jeune artiste je dirais : Plante ton chevalet n’importe où.  Ce n’est pas le sujet qui compte c’est l’action.  Le sujet s’imposera de lui-­‐même sans que tu l’aies cherché. Laisse venir à toi la vérité.  Tu entendras peut-­‐être une voix qui te dira de rester concentré, humble et simple.  Eloigne de toi l’arrogance et l’indifférence.  Ne sois pas trop dur avec toi même.  Tente ta chance mais ne deviens pas fou.  Ce n’est pas d’exhiber ta souffrance qui compte c’est de montrer ta joie, ta ferveur, ton amour.  Ne te juge pas trop. Crée une distance entre toi et ton oeuvre.  Ce n’est pas une seule peinture qui te vaudra d’être reconnu. Quant à savoir ce que sera cette oeuvre, pour quelles raisons on la reconnaîtra ou on te découvrira un style, cela ne dépend pas de toi.

Adhère à cette pensée de Cézanne : “Je suis pour la réflexion oui, mais le pinceau à la main !”  C’est ainsi que pour peindre un oiseau il te faudra (comme Prévert, réf : Pour faire le portrait d’un oiseau) entrer dans la cage et devenir toi-­‐même un oiseau et signer pourquoi pas avec une plume de l’oiseau.  Oui, dis-­‐toi que tout est facile, que ton oeuvre est déjà en toi, qu’il s’agit simplement de la montrer aux yeux du monde et le convaincre, ce monde, de l’apprécier.  Ce sera là le chariot de ton travail auquel tu devras t’atteler avec une opiniâtreté invincible.  Cesse de croire que le rêve est éloigné de toi ou qu’il ne se trouve que dans ton sommeil.  Il est juste là dans le présent fleuri, au milieu de tes sens.


Atelier Isirdi is located at 4 rue Henri de Savornin in Lourmarin 84160
Telephone: +33 4 90 08 50 96
Mobile:  +33 6 82 23 28 73
Email:  isirdi@wanadoo.fr

In November, if you wish to visit the gallery, please call to make arrangements (and they will be delighted to meet you).

To read more about one of Isirdi’s most well known prints, “Homme au Journal” (in English, “The Man and The Journal”), read Jamie Ivey’s recent piece in his blog, Provence Guru http://provenceguru.com/exclusive-story-homme-au-journal/

I wholeheartedly suggest it’s time for a retrospective of Isiridi’s work to be exhibited in the château in the very near future.


  1. You have many amazing blog entries, yet I think this is my all-time favourite. I love Gerard Isirdi’s work and smile every morning that I wake to one of his prints. Learning of his work with your daughter Alex was delightful to envision. Reading his advice to young artists was thought provoking. I love the line, “enter the cage and be the bird.” I so hope to visit his atelier one day. Thank you for this wonderful piece.

  2. Gérard Christine Isirdi November 18, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Susan, quel travail magnifique, merci mille fois pour ce superbe article qui vient directement du coeur. Nous sommes très fiers Christine et moi. On vous embrasse tous les trois

    • Le plaisir était entièrement à moi. J’ai aimé apprendre plus au sujet des graines qui se sont poussées dans ton passion pour la peinture. C’était particulièrement amusement pour te joindre sur la terrasse de Gaby et pour apprécier une vue si près de tes mains au travail.

  3. Thanks, Susan, for this wonderful blog! It was wonderful to see him at work–his hands flying over the canvas with paint–now I see that image when I look at his work.
    I wonder if he misses the blue and white awnings of my Gaby of a few years ago.

  4. I am sorry we didn’t get to meet Isirdi when we were there – but I have always admired his work in your home! I also remember the story about you “bothering” him and how protective that ma was… His work – more than anyone else’s – reminds me of Raoul Dufy!

  5. The video of Isirdi working at the cafe is wonderful, especially peeking over his shoulder as he whisks over the canvas. Imagine seeing how other painters working in the south (Bonnard, Matisse, etc.) in a similar fashion would be today.

  6. Excellent Susan. I especially liked watching him paint. I have given many of his prints as gifts – they so capture the feel of La Provence – since first seeing his work chez toi. Next time I deserve a little treat will get one of my very own!

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