Seeing the light: what Henri Matisse discovered in Provence
Born in cool northern France, the artist decided to call Nice home after realising the difference its light could make to his work. Now the city is celebrating him
At home: Henri Matisse in Nice in 1949. Photograph: Gjon Mili//Time Life/Getty
Collage: a detail of Sorrows of the King. Photograph © H Matisse Estate
Henri Matisse, the son of a merchant family from cold, grey Picardy, in northern France, was pulled inexorably south by the promise of art and light. While serving as a law clerk in the town of Saint-Quentin Matisse attended drawing classes at a textile-design school from 7am until 8am each day. When he finally left for art school in Paris, his father, who wanted him to be a lawyer, was broken-hearted.
By a quirk of fate Matisse began and ended his artistic life in bed. When he was recovering from appendicitis at the age of 21, Matisse’s mother gave him a box of paints. More than half a century later, in 1941, he underwent an operation for cancer of the intestine in wartime Lyons. “Give me three or four years to live, I beg of you. I need it to finish my oeuvre,” he told the doctor.
Matisse lived for 13 more years, wearing a metal corset and producing some of his finest work in bed, cutting gouache-painted paper, then directing his assistant, like an orchestra conductor, to arrange the shapes on the walls.
Matisse had sojourned on the Mediterranean coast early in the century, first at St Tropez, then at Collioure. He imitated the impressionists: Van Gogh, Signac and, especially, Cézanne. He shifted from pointillism to fauvism, avoided cubism, and was in his late 30s before he began painting in the style that was recognisably his own: simplified, monumental nudes; decorative, flat-surfaced interiors with arabesque motifs and open windows, often with a female model.
Matisse moved to Nice in 1917 and, with some exceptions, stayed there until his death in 1954.
“When I understood that I would see this light every morning I couldn’t believe my good fortune,” he said.
When the city asked Matisse to design a poster promoting its charms he suggested his Still Life with Pomegranates, with a plate of fruit, open window and palm tree. “Nice. Travail. Joie. H. Matisse,” he wrote beneath the painting.
Matisse lived surrounded by plants, flowers and cats in the Victorian-era Hôtel Régina, which had been converted to apartments, on the heights of Cimiez, overlooking Nice.
Fifty years ago the city inaugurated the Musée Matisse, in a 17th-century villa opposite the Régina. To celebrate the anniversary the city has organised A Summer for Matisse, eight exhibitions that run across the city until September 23rd.
Matisse and music
Only three of the exhibitions are specifically about Matisse. The finest, Matisse: Music at Work, at the Musée Matisse, demonstrates the importance of music in the painter’s life. At the baroque Palais Lascaris, in the heart of the old town, you can see Matisse’s illustrations for Jazz, the artist’s book he created for the publisher Tériade, in the 1940s. Posters for Matisse exhibitions are at a third venue.