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


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.

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.

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.

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