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
An exhibition devoted to Gustave Moreau, the symbolist painter who was Matisse’s teacher, is the most interesting of five other shows. It is a sign of Matisse’s greater fame that curators have searched for precursors of Matisse’s work in Moreau’s intricate, oneiric orientalist style.
Matisse often compared the discipline and practice required by music to that of painting. He likened the precision of drawing and engraving to musical composition. “All my colours sing together, like a chord in music,” he said.
The music exhibition opens with Sorrows of the King, on loan from the Pompidou Centre, in Paris. A collage four metres wide and three metres high, its bright colours, floating yellow leaves and dancing woman belie the title.
Matisse created the work just two years before his death. It represents Salomé dancing for King Herod. Some experts say the dark figure holding a yellow guitar at the centre was a final self-portrait.
Violins and pianos appear often in Matisse’s paintings. “In Nice in 1918 . . . he began studying the violin very seriously,” Matisse’s wife, Amélie, wrote. “When I asked him why, Henri answered, ‘I’m afraid of losing my sight and not being able to paint. If I’m blind, I’ll have to give up painting, but not music.’ ”
In Matisse’s paintings musical instruments sometimes seem aesthetic objects valued for their shape but detached from purpose, as with the lute in the bottom left of Matisse’s 1915 version of a 17th-century Dutch still-life, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In Matisse’s Interior With a Violin Case, also on loan from MoMa, we look out of the window of his Nice hotel room to the Baie des Anges. The empty violin case, like an open seashell on the yellow armchair, brings the azure sea and sky into the room.
Matisse listened to music on the radio while painting. A Provencal farandole dance tune went around and around in his head, he recounted, when he painted successive versions of his monumental Dance.
In 1929 Amélie wrote to the painter’s daughter, Marguerite (whom he had with the model Caroline Joblau), “Your father has the phonograph on . . . playing all kinds of jazz; the most suggestive tangos. He’s dancing the tango, Luxury Babe. He’s wearing his dressing gown and his black silk cap.”
Years later, while sketching the stations of the cross for the Dominican chapel at Vence, Matisse immersed himself in Bach’s St John Passion.
Before he married Amélie, Matisse wrote to her, “I love you a great deal, but I shall always love painting more.” He later described his work habits to an interviewer. “I go to bed at 10pm and I rise at 6am, partly because I want to use all the light possible.” He drank very little and indulged in “no excess of any sort”. His sole recreation, he said, was the violin.