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 the bleakest times – during two world wars and the arrest of his wife and daughter by the Gestapo – Matisse never allowed his troubles to diminish the luminous joy of his creations. “Sometimes I say to myself, ‘What a beautiful day! How I’d like to take a little trip, not far from here, to see Rouault or Bonnard!’ ” he wrote. “But I think of the colour that would dry on the canvas. I’m chained to the work-in-progress and if I walk away I’ll be remorseful. I cannot go to sleep at night without preparing the work for the following morning. I am one with painting, like an animal with the thing it loves.”
Matisse had used paper cut-outs to organise his compositions in the 1930s, but after his 1941 cancer operation he turned the practice into a new art. He called it drawing with scissors. For him it resolved the challenge of reconciling line and colour.
Matisse spent four years on the bright collages for the art book Jazz. Only 270 copies were printed, in 1947. The chromatic syncopation and improvisation of Matisse’s collages were somehow evocative of the music brought by American GIs: the music of liberation. African-American musicians played in the first international jazz festival in Nice, in 1948. Perhaps not by chance, the most emblematic image, Icarus, shows a black man with a beating red heart, floating against a blue sky studded with yellow stars.
In retrospect Matisse regarded his work on Jazz as preparation for the chapel at Vence, which he considered his masterpiece. His friend and rival Picasso was so jealous of the jewel-like space, with its frescoes and blue, green and yellow stained glass, he said, “Matisse doesn’t believe in God any more than I do. How could he do such a thing?”
Amélie asked Henri to choose between her and Lydia Delectorskaya, the orphaned Siberian beauty, 40 years Matisse’s junior, who was their domestic before she became his assistant and model. Matisse chose his wife, but Amélie was so jealous she left anyway, after 40 years of marriage.
By all accounts Matisse’s relationship with Delectorskaya was platonic but close and tender. “Matisse said he came eventually to know her face and body by heart, like the alphabet,” Hilary Spurling writes in her excellent biography of Matisse.
The day before Matisse died Delectorskaya came to his room with her wet hair wrapped in a towel. He drew her portrait with a ballpoint pen. Assessing it at arm’s length, he said, “It will do.” It was his last work of art.