Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté
Like every visitor to Nice, Matisse fell in love with the town as soon as he arrived. In Nice on Christmas Day 1917, a few days before his 48th birthday, he would have experienced the same sharp intake of breath, tasting the sweet and salty warm air of the Mediterranean coast. A lifelong love affair between the painter and the city was born on this day.
“When I realised that every morning I will see this light, I couldn’t believe my good fortune” he wrote in 1918. As we arrived in Nice on Christmas Eve, 101 years after Matisse’s first visit, we felt the same: struck by the luminosity of the city on this winter day, the blue of the sky like sapphires reflected in the scintillating mirror of the sea. A painter’s paradise.
In the distance, we could see the mountains’ peaks covered in snow, but down here on the cafe terraces of the Promenade des Anglais, people were shedding jackets and squinting through their sunglasses. It is here, at number 27, that Matisse rented the long and narrow room with a large window – a view over the bay of Nice and “entirely fantastic and incredible” blue of the sea. These youthful exclamations came from a middle-aged Matisse, in Nice to recuperate from a nasty winter cold.
While it is easy to imagine Matisse painting in front of a sea facing window, the image of the quinquagenarian painter paddling on his canoe around the port stretches the imagination. Yet he was the proud winner of a medal from the Club Nautique de Nice, for the diligence of canoeing a few times a week, every week in all weather.
The Red Villa on the Hill
Not as fit as Matisse would have been, I am breathing laboriously after half an hour of climbing Cimiez on foot. The neighbourhood, East of the Centre of Nice, is home to many spectacular mansions, a monastery, a palace built for a queen, Roman ruins...I am looking for a Museum. Several time I think – I hope – I arrived. Is that it? Not, just a sumptuous villa surrounded by orange trees. This one? A cosmetic surgery clinic. The climb has its rewards: the gardens are colourful, even on this December day, the views down towards Nice spectacular.
When I suddenly come face to face with Villa des Arènes, it is at once recognisable as a Matisse Museum: the classic symmetrical facade, the Pompeian (Matissian?) red of the villa housing the museum. Villa des Arènes was built between 1670 and 1685 for Jean-Baptiste Gubernatis, consul of Nice, who converted the existing, modest 1622 house into a Genovese villa, with windows decorated in trompe l’oeil; he called it Gubernatic Palace. In 1823 the palace became property of Raymond Garin de Cocconato, who changed the interior and exterior of the villa and adapted it to the comforts of a 19th Century bourgeois residence, which it remained for one hundred years. Following the last sale , Nice Municipality acquired the villa in 1950 in order to prevent it being demolished by developers.
Several rooms are arranged to follow Matisse’s career more or less chronologically; from his relatively late start as a twenty year old student in Gustave Moreau’s workshop to the monumental compositions commissioned by Californian villa owners in the 1950s. It is in Nice that Matisse created most of his work and as expected the Museum focuses on his achievements while a resident of this city,
A slowly ascending career
Legend has it that it was an attack of appendicitis when he was 20 years old, and his mother’s gift of a paints box that lead a convalescing Matisse to “a kind of paradise” he experienced while painting. Following years of competent, but traditional still lifes and landscapes, Matisse had the chance to encounter Australian impressionist John Russell, who introduced him to colour. For Matisse, born and raised in Northern France, the first contact with the light of the South was a revelation which led Matisse to painting: Impressionist, Fauvism, Modernism, Post-impressionism - the search for the best way of expression through colour.
At Gertrude Stein’s studio in Paris, Matisse met and became friends (and rivals) with Picasso as well as André Derain, Henri Rousseau and Guillaume Apollinaire. Gertrude’s sister in law and her friends became major patrons and collectors of Matisse paintings. He would have become quite well off, were it not for the expense of indulging his admiration for the work of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne, which he purchased to display in his home.
From 1917, Matisse relocated permanently to Nice. It is clear what the main attraction was.
What fixed me on this place were the great reflexions of coloured light, the luminosity of the day.
The rooms he inhabited were decorated with colourful rugs, flowers and objects; models reclined on stripy recamier, wearing red and gold shalwars – the influence of his interest in oriental culture. His interiors become more theatrical: furniture, objects, textiles, nude models and odalisque are representative of his Nicoise period. Some contemporary critics found his oriental odalisque paintings too decorative and lacking in depth.
But he was achieving recognition and financial success; his work displayed a new wave of energy and simplification of line and shapes. He became interested in the architectural aspect of painting, in conveying the feeling of space. In 1933 he completed a large mural for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. The three panels of La Danse, 13 metres long and three metres high, were produced in a workshop in Nice, rented for this project.
Following an operation that confined him to a wheelchair, Matisse started to explore paper collage, which he referred to as “painting with scissors”. His Blue Nudes and the limited edition book Jazz reflect the artist’s ability to bring a sense of colour and geometry together to create a new medium, playful and powerful.
Le Regina, colline de Cimiez
Not far from the Matisse Museum, on the same colline, is the Belle Epoque Le Regina. Built in 1897, the Hotel Regina was a 400 room edifice with all mod cons, constructed especially to receive Queen Victoria. The architect Biasini was helped by Gustave Eiffel to complete the couronne on time. Victoria loved it and returned several times, bringing the royal aura to Nice. The building became a military hospital during WWI then a commercial hotel, which went bankrupt in 1929. It was then converted into apartments and sold piecemeal.
Matisse purchased an apartment and moved in it in 1938. It was a long way, geographically, from Le Cateau-Cambresis, but socially Matisse never strayed too far from his bourgeois values. Here, at Le Regina, on the four walls of his studio, he created a paper cut swimming pool, complete with blue bathers and divers. “I like looking at it, because I always liked the sea, and as I am not able to swim any more, I surround myself with the ocean”.