We arrived in Nice for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday just as a summer-long tribute to Matisse was drawing to a close. Nice 2013: A Summer for Matisse brought together many of the city museums to celebrate the artist who chose to live in Nice for more than thirty years. 2013 also marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Musee Matisse in Nice.
The Bay of Nice, 1918
Next door to our b&b on the Promenade was the Hotel Beau Rivage, the place where, on Christmas Day in 1917, Matisse first took a room in Nice and where he made the first of the countless paintings he produced during the forty-odd years he lived in Nice (with only a short period in nearby Vence during the war to escape the threat of bombing) until his death in 1954 at his last home, the Hotel Regina on the heights of Cimiez.
The view from our terrace was almost identical to that of The Bay of Nice, 1918 (above), so that set me off in search of the views that Matisse painted while in Nice, and particularly those he made while living on the Promenade. Many such paintings in these years share something with works from all periods of his career: they depict a view through an open window.
The Open Window, 1918
Matisse had been drawn to Nice – like countless other artists – by the beauty and light of the Cote d’Azur:
When I realised that I would see this light every morning, I couldn’t believe my luck. … The sea is blue, but bluer than any one has ever painted it, a colour entirely fantastic and incredible. It is the blue of sapphires, of the peacock’s wing, of an Alpine glacier, and the kingfisher melted together; and yet it is like none of these, for it shines with the unearthly radiance of Neptune’s kingdom; it is like nothing but itself, its colour is so rich and deep you would think it opaque, and yet it gleams, it is translucent, it shines as if it were lit up from below.
Matisse first came to Nice in December 1917 at the age of 48 to recuperate from bronchitis he had caught whilst visiting his eldest son Jean who had been posted as an aeroplane mechanic to the airfield at Istres on windswept salt marshes thirty miles west of Marseilles. After organising food and clothes parcels for Jean, Matisse decided to journey along the coast to the sheltered Bay of Nice where he felt he could cure his illness with a few days rest and clement weather. He arrived on Christmas Day and took a room overlooking the sea front in the Hotel du Beau Rivage, then a modest hotel, located on Quai du Midi (now Quai des Etats-Unis).
Hotel Beau Rivage today
However, the weather in Nice was as dreadful as it had been at Istres: biting cold, high winds and driving rain. Matisse was sorely tempted to pack his bags and return home: ‘It’s freezing in this pig of a place’, he wrote to his wife Amelie. The cold made it difficult for Matisse to paint; his chilled hands could hardly hold a paintbrush and, on his infrequent painting sessions outdoors, he resorted to wearing sheepskin foot-warmers to stave off the cold. When it snowed on his birthday, 31 December, he bought a new canvas and stayed indoors, painting his room at the Beau Rivage in sunshine reflected off snow and sea. To Amelie again he wrote:
From my open window you can see the top of a palm tree – white lace curtains – coat-rack on the left – armchair with white lace cover on the back – on the right a red table with my suitcase on it – sky and sea blue – blue – blue.
My Room at the Beau-Rivage was the result:
My Room at the Beau-Rivage, 1918
Soon after his arrival in Nice that winter, Matisse painted The Violinist at the Window, effectively a self portrait of the artist alone in a room while his wife and three children remain in Paris. The painting displays two elements that Matisse returned to repeatedly: the motif of the window and the theme of music. Music was dear to Matisse: he played the violin every day, and it’s in this respect that The Violinist at the Window can be interpreted as a self-portrait, with the artist playing before a window which for him represented painting.
Violinist at the Window, 1918
After a month of downpours, Matisse had made up his mind to leave Nice and return to Paris. But the next morning the weather was magnificent: clear, silvery and soft in spite of its amazing brilliance. The north wind had driven the clouds away and brought with it such luminosity of light that Matisse was captivated. He was overjoyed and resolved to stay in Nice. Long afterwards he recalled that fateful decision:
Me, I’m from the North. What made me stay was the great coloured reflection of January, the luminosity of the days.
Matisse and Chekhov are remembered as residents of Hotel Beau Rivage
Matisse’s room at the Hotel Beau Rivage was so long and narrow that there was room for only a shabby armchair between the bed and the window. But, though small, the room at the Hotel Beau Rivage was flooded with the Nice light, being dominated by a floor-to-ceiling window through which sunlight poured.
Matisse settled down to a daily routine. He rose early, walked to his studio and worked throughout the morning, either painting or drawing in his studio with the light streaming though the window. A short break for a frugal lunch was followed by more work, a session playing his violin in the hotel room, or a perhaps a visit to Renoir in Cagnes-sur-Mer with a roll of canvas under his arm. A simple supper and an early bedtime ended his working day.
Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage)
Matisse always had a penchant for producing paintings in series, and at Beau Rivage he attempted to capture the essence of a light-filled room in a series of canvases painted in the winter and spring of 1917-18 that included Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), The Open Window (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), and Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage). The predominant use of black and grey in the latter he felt enhanced ‘the silver clarity of the light in Nice.’ Matisse considered it to be a particularly important work and later commented that in this canvas he had used black to paint light.
The Painter in the Olive Grove, 1922
In April, Matisse was forced to find accommodation elsewhere when the hotel was requisitioned by the American army. He moved into a rented apartment in a villa on Mont Boron, the pine-shaded parkland created in 1860 on the Chateau promontary between the Old Town and the Port. His rooms faced west with panoramic views along the coast to Cagnes-sur-Mer and across the old town to the Estérel mountains beyond. Here he painted Les Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus trees), Mont Alban landscape, La Villa bleue (Blue Villa), and Plage à Nice vue du Château (The beach at Nice seen from the Chateau).
Blue Villa, Nice, 1917
Mont Alban Landscape 1918
Eucalyptus, Mont Alban, 1918
This was a peaceful interlude for Matisse as he painted the wild roses, cypress trees, umbrella pines and Eucalyptus trees that grew in abundance on the hillside. But his stay at the villa was short-lived. Anguished by the German advance that threatened Paris, he returned to the capital at the end of June to be close to his family.
Self Portrait, 1918
On 11 November 1918, the night the armistice was signed, Matisse, among those rejoicing in a cafe in Paris, brought out his violin and played a wild fandango on a cafe table. The following spring Matisse returned to Nice and took a room at Hotel de la Méditerranée at 25 Promenade des Anglais,not far from the Hotel Beau Rivage. The hotel is longer there – it was demolished in the 1930s.
At the Hotel de la Mediterranee, Matisse again had a view of the bay and the promenade. His room was small, but had large windows overlooking the Baie des Anges. It was decorated in a nineteenth-century Italian style, there was a pretty wrought iron balcony, long curtains, and wooden shutters to filter out the light. Once more he was facing the sea, in a room flooded with silvery light; once more he pared his life down to nothing but painting: ‘I’m the hermit of the Promenade des Anglais,’ he wrote to Amelie.
Young Woman Playing the Violin, 1923
Interior with a Violin Case, 1919
Interior at Nice, 1919
Interior at Nice is representative of the paintings in which Matisse used the hotel as a backdrop. In these works, all done in the naturalistic style to which he had returned around this time, Matisse often included the figure of a young woman. Often, as in this painting, Matisse – the supreme colourist – would evoke the warmth and shimmering light of an afternoon in Nice with a warm, silvery palette and loose, fluid brush strokes.
Interior with Black Notebook, 1918
Matisse would spend each winter at the Hotel Mediterranee – from October to May – for the next five years, producing a steady stream of noteworthy paintings and drawings. On 2 January 1919 a freak storm broke over Nice which would generate one of Matisse’s most iconic Nice paintings. In her biography, Matisse The Master, Hilary Spurling writes:
Seas pounded up onto the front, pouring across the promenade and turning the street into a rushing grey river. Winds tore off the hotel shutters, smashed the windows and shattered a big mirror in the entrance hall. ‘It’s so extraordinary that I haven’t enough eyes to take it all in, ‘ Matisse wrote to his wife next day, painting the scene from his window with hands that still shook from elation and shock. The luminous rain-washed atmosphere after a storm always exhilarated him. The main reason he gave afterwards for coming to Nice was the Mediterranean sunlight: clear, silvery and soft in spite of its phenomenal brilliance. He said he couldn’t believe his luck when he first realised he would open his eyes every morning on the same light.
Tempête à Nice, 1919
Hilary Spurling notes something else that drew Matisse to Nice – its sense of ‘being somehow insulated from the rest of Europe’:
To a Parisian, the town was the an outpost at the back of beyond. … Nice – culturally isolated, physically intact, geographically cut off from both France and Italy by mountains and sea – seemed to have slept through the war. ‘Nice is so utterly Nicois‘, Matisse told his son Jean. ‘I feel myself a complete foreigner here’.
Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Méditerranée), 1919
Vase of Flowers in front of the Window, 1924
Spurling adds that, for Matisse, his sense of unreality was heightened by the old-fashioned decor of his hotel room:
Pink-tiled floor, rococo plaster-work and an Italianate ceiling lit from below by sun reflected off water, intensified and directed through shutters like stage lighting. Its artificiality (‘Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious.’) served his purpose as much as its anonymity.
Woman on a Sofa, 1920-22
Nude seated at Window, 1919
Matisse’s model at the Hotel Mediterranee was Antoinette Arnoud, 19 years old, pale, slender and supple. Over the next two years she would feature in a steady stream of paintings, dressed or undressed, reading or lounging, sometimes with a vase of anemones or carnations, or with the oval dressing-table mirror reflecting the sea and sky beyond the window. Hilary Spurling writes that in one series of paintings:
He posed Arnoud on an upright chair in the open door of the balcony wearing a fashionably short, loose tunic, with a green umbrella, mauve stockings and big, dark bows on her chunky high heels. In the most extreme of this sequence, Woman with a Green Parasol on a Balcony, light spills and splashes in streaks of muted grey, blue and black paint, enveloping an almost geometric composition – the highly-stylised woman, the doorway, the balustrade, vertical strips of the beach and the sea beyond – in an austere, self-sufficient space of its own.
Woman with a Green Parasol on a Balcony, 1920
Another important painting from the Hotel Mediterranee years is French Window at Nice, which shows Arnoud against blue shutters, flanked by tied-back curtains and the room suffused with a soft light.
French Window at Nice, 1921
Woman Reading at a Dressing Table (Interior, Nice) 1919
Young Girl in a Green Dress, 1921
In 1921, perhaps tired of hotel rooms and frustrated by the restrictions imposed by hoteliers (every day he played the violin lengthily and loudly), Matisse rented a two-room flat on the third floor of a house on Place Charles Félix. The building is still there, at the top end of the Cours Saleya, the marketplace between the Promenade and the Old Town.
1 Place Charles Felix at the top end of Cours Saleya
The house, known as Caïs de Pierlas Palace, had been built at the end of the 17th century and originally housed the Ancien Senat, a meeting place for the courts, before being acquired in the 18th century by the Caïs de Pierlas family, who decorated its façade with bas-reliefs (seen in the photo below). Matisse rented an apartment on the third floor in 1921, and then leased the entire fourth floor in 1926. 1 Place Charles Felix was Matisse’s home until 1938, with the third-floor apartment serving as his art studio. The high ceilinged rooms were spacious and lined with pretty white false mosaic tiles. His studio looked out through a vast picture window, with a panoramic view of the sea, the city, and the busy marketplace in the plaza below.
1 Place Charles Felix
In Matisse The Master, Hilary Spurling conjures a vivid picture of Nice during the time that Matisse lived on Place Charles Felix:
For the better part of the next two decades Matisse’s existence outside the studio would be largely confined to an area roughly a mile square, bounded to the east by the rocky outcrop of the castle hill, to the south by the beach with fishing boats drawn up on the stones, and to the north bythe art school on the far side of the river Paillon, where washerwomen still worked along the banks. He walked a daily beat between his lodgings in what had once been the senate house, a shabby but imposing eighteenth century building with plaster mouldings lime-washed in soft ochre, through the market on the Cours Saleya to the Cafe Pomel under the pink arcades of the Place Massena.
It was like another country after the late-nineteenth-century new town he had left behind on the promenade des Anglais. As the postwar tide of fashion receded from Nice, its imperial winter pleasure grounds stood , empty, its sumptuous palaces, like the Villa Liserb at Cimiez, went on sale, and its seafront hotels began shutting off wings or closing down altogether. ‘It feels to them as if the end of the world has come,’ Matisse said of the staff at the Hotel Mediterranee. He encountered the new breed of gamblers, profiteers and speculators only on rare forays to the Casino, where he went to write letters after dinner within earshot of croupiers calling 10,000 francs a throw (‘It’s shameful considering the way things are going this year,’ wrote Matisse, revolted by the ostentation of the women’s jewels in the harsh climate after the war). He felt far more at home, as he always had done, among people whose idea of riches was 100 sous a day ( five francs, or roughly twenty cents in American money). The melancholy stagnation of the visitors’ quarter contrasted sharply with the noise and activity on the steep twisting lanes behind his new flat, where the native Nicois lived jammed together in tall old houses with no piped water, sanitation, gas lighting or heating. There were cages of canaries and bedding hung out to air at the windows. Shopkeepers sold chickens, wine, olives and groceries in dark, narrow, windowless hutches opening off the sunlit street like an Arab soukh. Painting was a job like any other to the flower-sellers, fishmongers and cafe waiters who were Matisse’s neighbours on the market place.
Woman at a Window, 1921
Seated Woman, Back Turned to the Open Window, 1922
Flowers in Front of a Window, 1922
Matisse painting at his third floor studio window, Place Charles Felix
It was at Place Charles Felix that Matisse embarked on the controversial series of odalisques, or imaginary harem views in which the viewer’s attention is deliberately scattered across patterns of fabric and décor that prevent the eye from settling in any one place. The odalisques were painted against deliberately theatrical backgrounds of screens and fabric hangings.
Odalisque with a Tambourine, 1926
Henri Matisse in his apartment at the Place Charles-Felix, 1934
In the photograph above, Matisse relaxes in his studio in 1934, beneath his painting Interior with Dog, made that year. I came across this witty poem by Michael Salcman that comments on the painting, and, obliquely, the business of the odalisques:
The Dog Speaks
– Interior with Dog by Matisse, 1934
I’m only half~asleep so I know you’re standing there
wondering if I’m asleep. Nope.
It’s not easy to rest under this table –
for one thing, there’s a strong downward slope
and gravity’s got me half tipped out of my basket
like an apple by Cezanne.
Talk about a flat world!
For another, I can’t get away from these colours,
the red floor tiles, orange table leg
and pink wall burning on my lids like the sun.
Then again I’m never alone; the kids think a grey dog is cute
and l am the only dog in the room. I was bribed
(that’s my excuse) with a bone
and a bowl of fresh water. Really.
I wish you wouldn’t stare – it’s extra hard to to be an icon
when you’re not an odalisque and have no hair.
Here’s the inside dope. He wore a vest when he painted them
but saved his housecoat for me. I liked sitting for him
he was never rude and spared me his violin
I think I look very dignified, not naked, just nude.
Interior with Dog, 1934
While we were in Nice recently, we went to an exhibition at the Palais Lascaris in the Old Town that went under the title, Matisse: The Jazz Years. It presented selections from his book Jazz, and placed it in the context of Matisse’s love of the rhythmic and improvisational elements of jazz. At Place Charles-Felix, in the evenings, he would listen to jazz on the radio or on his phonograph – which provides a context for Interior with Phonograph:
Interior with Phonograph, 1924
Interior, Flowers and Parakeets, 1924
It was at Place Charles-Felix in 1935 that Matisse made a painting that marked a significant step in a journey towards simplification and abstraction he would as he approached his final years – and which featured a new muse, his studio assistant and, ultimately, lifetime carer. Lydia Delectorskaya, the Siberian blonde who, orphaned at a young age, had fled Russia in the tumultuous post-Revolution years, made her appearance in Pink Nude, in which the Intricate patterns and naturalistic figures of a decade earlier are discarded in favour of plain forms and stylised surfaces.
In the autumn of 1938, Matisse moved to the Hotel Regina in Cimiez, the Nice suburb on the heights overlooking the city. He took possession of a huge, high-ceiling studio, thirty feet square, made by knocking together two reception rooms. His suite included an aviary containing nearly 300 birds, tended by a birdman who came in daily. There was a handsome dining room with a patterned marble floor which Matisse had designed himself, and another room with a view north to the Provencal mountains.
Matisse’s studio and apartment at the Hotel Regina
Matisse in his bird room at the Hotel Regina by Henri Cartier-Bresson
Interior with an Etruscan Vase,1940
Still Life with Sleeping Woman, 1940
A year later, another world war brought soldiers to Nice. A company of Morrocan soldiers were stationed in the Hotel Regina, sleeping in the colonnaded hall, washing clothes in the gutters, and hanging them out to dry on the wrought-iron balustrades. Another year on, in August 1940, the people of Nice gloomily expected Italian Fascist forces to occupy the town, so Matisse set about dispersing his pictures, putting his record collection in storage, and starting to sell off his birds.
Hilary Spurling records that, alongside the fears of war and the threat to Jews from the Vichy government, Matisse felt he was ageing, drastically:
‘I watch myself changing rapidly, hair and beard growing whiter, features more gaunt, neck scrawnier’ [he wrote]. A permanent haze of collective foreboding polluted the air in Nice. He had reduced his life to eating, sleeping and working, completing that autumn a beautiful, spare, meditative painting in a stripped-down style. … The Dream is built around a sleeping girl, whose image had accompanied Matisse in his mind’s eye throughout … twelve months and forty sessions.
In 1943, following air raid on Cimiez, Matisse left the Hotel Regina for Villa ‘La Rêve’ at Vence, which would remain his main residence until 1949. He returned to his old studio in Nice in January 1949, the start of his 80th year. He needed a larger space in which to work on the full-size designs for the stained-glass windows for the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence.
Matisse outside Hotel Regina, 1949
Matisse draws a head for the Chapelle du Rosaire in his studio Hotel Regina, Cimiez, 1950
In his last years, Matisse worked mainly from his bed, placed in the studio (described by one visitor as ‘a gigantic white bedroom like no other on earth’). He was suffering from cardiac fatigue, insomnia, breathing difficulties and a severe deterioration in his eyesight. Yet these were years of great productivity, in which Matisse started work on the immense cut-paper compositions, larger in scale than any canvas he had ever painted, that define his closing years. Typical of these works is The Creole Dancer, created in 1950, a copy of which for a long time now has hung in pride of place in our home.
The Creole Dancer, 1950
The summer of 1952 was particularly hot in Nice, and Matisse set about creating an aquatic world to refresh himself mentally: he decorated the walls of his studio with a large fresco in gouached cut-out paper: La Piscine, which depicts swimmers basking in the waves. In the Musee Matisse a couple of weeks ago we saw the stunningly beautiful ceramic version of the cut-out, recently donated to the Museum.
La Piscine decorates the dining room at the hotel Regina, 1952
Another large work on dispaly at the Musee Matisse, Fleurs et Fruits, created two years before his death, illustrates the new direction that Matisse was taking through its scale and creation of endless space:
As if I was going to produce a large-scale composition […]. As if I had my whole life before me… at least a whole other life … in some paradise where I would create frescoes.
Fleurs et Fruits, 1952 at the Musee Matisse
Matisse did not cease to pursue his artistic vision in his last years, producing masterpieces such as The Sorrows of the King, and the series of Blue Nudes.
In his final years, the bond between Lydia Delectorskaya and Matisse proved to be unbreakable. She stayed by his side until his last breath. Hilary Spurling describes their last tender moments together, as the artist made a final sketch of his muse and devoted carer:
Matisse died on November 3, 1954. He was 84. The day before, Lydia had come to his bedside with her newly washed hair wound in a towel turban, accentuating the classical severity and purity of the profile Matisse had so often drawn and painted. He sketched her with a ballpoint pen, holding the last drawing he ever made out at arm’s length to assess its quality before pronouncing gravely, ‘It will do.’
Matisse at work at his paper cut outs in his studio at Nice, 1952
Matisse is buried in the cemetery of the Franciscan monastery on the hilltop at Cimiez. Today, not far from the Hotel Regina, the Musee Matisse one of the world’s largest collections of his works in the 17th century Villa des Arènes.
Musee Matisse with Hotel Regina beyond