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Santons: A Provençal tradition with Maison Fouque

The handmade figurines are a tradition in Provence and Riviera Insider visited the workshop of the most famous Santon makers in the world.

3 generations of the Fouque family in the workshop, Mireille in the center. c. Maison Fouque

Each year, Santons make up a major part of the Christmas celebrations in Provence. These hand-painted figurines are so anchored in local tradition that one could almost forget where they came from, who created them and why. We went behind the scenes to discover what these legends are made of, in one of the largest santon workshops in the world: Maison Fouque in Aix-en-Provence.

Santons are small clay figurines, originally representing Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the whole manger with the angels, the Three Kings and many more characters added by the Provençal tradition through the years. In French, the word “santon” comes from the Provençal term “antoun”, which means small saint.

A family business, a family tradition

Maison Fouque, labelled “entreprise du patrimoine vivant”, is a family business that has been creating thousands of traditional santons each year since 1934.

“It’s a family story," recounts Mireille Fouque, the 3rd generation Fouque to work in the atelier. "My grandfather created the workshop in order to feed his children. He was a painter and my grandmother died young, so he had to care for his children alone. Then, in 1952 my father created new pieces. The most famous one is still the Berger Coup de Mistral. And in 1984, I took the lead of the Maison and I develop the international part of the family business. But we still create santons the same way my grandfather did [87] years ago.”

"Coup de Mistral" like the one gifted to Pope Francis I. c. Maison Fouque

Indeed, artists are busy year-round creating intricate, handmade santons in their Aix-en-Provence workshop. Today, Santons are known aroudn the world and they ship to collectors in New York, Tokyo, Rome, Geneva and Berlin. Last year, Monseigneur Christophe Dufour, Archbishop of Aix-en-Provence and Arles, gifted the famous figurine ‘Coup de Mistral’ to Pope Francis I. The famous Santon was then placed in the Vatican’s manger scene.

“Our team also created a very special manger for the Sainte-Rita church in Nice. It was composed of 40 of the rarest figurines from 30 to 50 cm high. It took a year to create such a manger and pieces like those are not shipped – people have to come to our workshop in Aix-en-Provence if they want one. They are very special," explained Mireille.

Celebrating its 87th anniversary this year, Maison Fouque saw four generations working in the family workshop. Each of them have created new figurines that completed the 1,800 characters already existing in the collection - the largest santon collection in the world. All year round, artists work to produce these wonders of art and craft, resulting in perfect figurines to the smallest details: creases in garments, accessories, facial expressions, posture – nothing is left to chance.

“We produce santons all year round so when Christmas comes we are ready to ship orders all over the world,” said Mireille. Just like the last 15 years, Maison Fouque will be present at the Foire aux Santons in Mouans-Sartoux, going on now until 24 December.

For collectors, the family creates new and exclusive santons each year to add their growing collection. in 2019, for their 85th anniversary, Mireille and her son created together two new pieces: La Bugadière et Théodore le Berger.

Don’t miss all their new pieces and many more at the Santon Festival in Mouans-Sartoux, where you can see first-hand the work of traditional Provençal art.

- Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle

*This visit to Maison Fouque occured in 2019 and the originally appeared in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2019 issue of Riviera Insider. Dates have been changed accordingly.

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