Chateau de la Napoule is not your typical French castle. In fact, the old medieval fortress in Mandelieu, France, shares neither the sophistication nor the glory of its famous sisters in the Loire Valley.
A Brief History of Château de la Napoule
Chateau de la Napoule was erected as a military fort in the 14th century, by the Countess of Villeneuve. Over the centuries, the castle survived invasions, looting, wars and revolutions. But it was not its turbulent history that made the castle famous. It was rather its unusual faith, which transformed it from an old military fortress into the art studio. The art studio of Henry Clews, Jr. But who exactly was Henry Clews?
Who Was Henry Clews Jr.?
Imagine being born in America at the turn of the 20th century into the wealthy family of a well established Wall Street banker. You have been bred to follow into your father’s footsteps, but soon after you finish your education you discover that finances are not your call in life.
You feel inexplicably attracted to art – to painting and sculpting. So, despite all the time and money invested in your education, you decide to try your hand at it. You go back to your beloved Paris and rent a studio in Montmartre, embarking on a new career as a self-taught painter and sculptor. That’s Henry Clews!
The Destiny of a Man: Henry Clews
It is 1901 and Henry Clews Jr. is now an expatriate living in Paris with his new wife, Louise Morris Gebhard. But life doesn’t go so well between the two. Henry’s fascination with the bohemian artistic life doesn’t seem to be in tone with Louise’s aspirations for the high society. So in 1910 he divorces her and returns to New York where his life is going to take a big turn.
While in America, Henry Clews meets Elsie Whelen Goelet, one of the most beautiful women in America. Henry and Elsie fall madly in love. Love at first site, you could say. But there is only one problem: Elsie is a married woman with two children. Not exactly the ideal situation!
After much hesitation and anguish, Elsie decides to leave New York, her husband and their children and follow Henry. So in 1914 Henry and Marie (as Henry renamed her) get married and move to Paris. They are in love. Sometimes they stroll for hours together, they laugh, they dine, they dance. They have a passion for each other and for the world of art.
The Destiny of a Castle: Chateau de la Napoule
It is 1918 and Paris is torn by war. Thousands of people are dying of influenza. Henry and Marie don’t have an easy life either. Their 3-year old son falls badly ill, so they are forced to move south in search of warmer weather.
While living in Antibes, the couple hears about an abandoned 14 century castle for sale in La Napoule. They fall in love with it and decide to buy it and turn it into the castle of their dreams. So Marie takes the task of rebuilding the castle stone by stone, according to their own plans.
But the restoration process would last almost 18 years. In the meantime Henry becomes more and more isolated from the world, locking himself in his own atelier at La Napoule. “Solitude is what I need, high walls and aloofness, a hidden corner to be alone with my dreams, away from humanity.” Henry starts associating himself more and more with Don Quixote, Cervante’s character.
Marie goes along with this new aspect of their life. Her purpose is to support her husband’s artistic efforts. But you may ask yourself: how did the handsome wealthy artist, once the beau of Rhode Island, turn into a secluded hermit? What made him want to live his life in isolation? Was it his disgust with the bourgeois society? Or it was perhaps his struggle to remain “pure” in a world where true nobility no longer existed?
A Quest for the “Truth”
In his quest for the truth, Henry Clews’ old obsession with Don Quixote grows even stronger. He begins to identify himself with the character. He even names his son “Mancha” and his valet “Sancho,” like in Cervantes’ novel.
His sculptures also reflect a very bizarre symbolism, like the Christ-like martyr called the God of Humormystics, a life-size bronze statue displayed in the castle’s courtyard. The inscription over the entrance of his fairy tale-lile castle reads: Once Upon a Time.
Chateau de la Napoule Opens to the Public
The Chateau de la Napoule remained the Clews’ home and studio until Henry’s death on July 28, 1937. After his death, Marie opened the château to the public.
Marie died twenty two years later. The two were buried side by side in a sealed-off tower named the Tower of La Mancha, at Chateau de la Napoule. The tower was named in homage to Henry’s lifelong identification with Don Quixote de la Mancha.
As per Henry and Marie’s wishes, the two tombs have been left half-open so that their spirits can escape and meet. At the top of the tower they built a secret room where they believed their souls would be reunited for eternity.
Rob+Ann at TravelLatte(.net)
What a great story! Oddly, I thought of Cervantes when I saw the statue in front – the style looks much like the artwork from the playbill when I first saw Man of La Mancha. (Coincidence?) While we weren’t aware of Chateau de la Napoule, we’ve been desperate to visit Antibes. One more reason just added to the list, and another reason we love the south of France!
I you like the French Riviera you will surely love La Napoule, Rob. It’s very close to Cannes and Antibes as well.
Loved reading this Anda, it’s so beautifully written (and very well illustrated!). I’ve never heard of the castle before, but now I want to see it, the scenery is gorgeous!
Thank you Vlad. I’d be curious to hear what you think about Château de la Napoule. Hope you’ll make time to go see it.
This is a very interesting story. You can accomplish a lot when you have a lot of money to spend on your dreams.
Yea, tell me about it, Rhonda. It’s sad to see how some people manage to live their entire life just for themselves.
What a romantic story! Sometimes you just gotta try your hand at a few different things before you find what you’re meant to be doing! Will have to add this castle to my France list!
I visited Château de la Napoule a few times over the years and every time I go I feel this is an enchanting place.
Great story, it almost sounds like a fairy tale. I am glad he had the courage to follow his heart rather than stay doing finances.
I’m glad you liked it, Anisa. Château de la Napoule is a very charming, yet unusual place to visit. It feels as if the spirit of this guy is still living within those walls.
Ah, La Napoule. Years ago while traveling in France, we stumbled onto La Napoule. It was closed, but we managed to explore the nooks and crannies of the courtyard, a side garden and the rocky shore and cavern below the castle. We felt it was “ours.”
Newly in love, it was like walking into a fantasy world. We came back the next day and got to go inside. Wow! Again, it was that feeling of “this is US.”
Today I am at our cliffside cottage overlooking the Pacifica Ocean in Baja, California. There are lava rock outcroppings that below. Short steps lead to a rounded out section surrounded by a low wall of stones that make a pattern like the stones of La Napoule. I am looking at it now, remembering our making love in the turret at La Napoule. I am thinking I could get some workers to build up those walls to make a turret for us out there. I have come back to La Napoule!
Oh, and I should mention we are going to have our first Airbnb guests this weekend. I call it Pelican Point, but maybe it should be called La Napolita.
I’m sure your bed-and-breakfast place is gorgeous. La Napoule definitely is a one-of-a-king place because of the beautiful story that stays behind it.
This is something that would be inspirational to F.Scott Fitzgerald right? wealthy East Coast kid, beautiful woman, obsessive love, running off to Europe etc. What a great story.
I found Henry Clews story very inspirational. Although in the end he clearly lost his mind, hid wife continued his legacy for as long as she lived. She was always his best supporter and she loved him dearly.
Elaine J. Masters
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. What a beautiful place and amazing history. Thanks for the details.
Thanks, Elaine. I found the history of this castle pretty fascinating.
Thank you, Justin. I appreciate you taking the time to read this story.
Oh, how I wish I could buy a castle I fall in love with! 😀
Beautiful location and fascinating story – I hope to visit it one day 🙂
Really interesting history and I am surprised I finished reading the whole thing despite me not being interested in history at all. Really cool place though! I would still love to visit.
looks like somewhere we need to put on our bucket list. Amazing story and well told with your words and pictures really made it come alive
Thank you, Mark.
What a gorgeous place with a fascinating story. Love your photos too Anda 🙂
I absolutely loved this castle, Lyndall. Besides charm, it has a beautiful story.
Southern France is so pretty. I also love a good story!
Thank you, Corinne. Château de La Napoule is one of my favorite places on the French Riviera.
Fabulous spot! Combines the charm of the rebuilt building, the original artwork, the beautiful grounds with an inspiring love story! And all this surrounded by a beach where you can see a gentleman in a suit with tie and handkerchief talking to a topless lady casually!
Thank you, Laz. Indeed, you can see almost anything on the topless beaches of Cannes…
Jessica @ The Dining Traveler
Beautiful photos. I love these chateaus in France. So much history on the walls.
Château de la Napoule is a great place to visit. Thank you for your nice comment.
What a fascinating story, and beautifully written and illustrated. Really enjoyed learning about this! Great place to visit.
Thank you, Sarah. I’m glad you like Henry Clews story. Chateau de la Napoule is an enchanting place.
Alyssa | Adjust Your Focus™
I agree with Sarah. Lovely imagery and beautifully written! I feel like I was right there (but of course, will have to see it in person myself one day).