Late in the afternoon of the first day of my trip to WW1 sites in Flanders and the Somme, I was in the little village of Ors where Wilfred Owen is buried and where his platoon spent their final hours before being mown down by German machine gun fire. The nearest town is Le Cateau-Cambresis and, since it is the place where Matisse was born, and since it has a museum devoted to Matisse, I had to go.
I hadn’t expected much of a museum in a small provincial town. But I was wrong. Housed in a former archbishop’s palace that in Matisse’s day had been transformed into a cotton mill, the museum is excellent. In ten beautifully-presented rooms, key episodes from the the life and work of the town’s most famous son are illustrated through an astonishing collection of Matisse’s work. I quickly learn the reason for this: the museum was established by Matisse himself in November 1952, and he also defined the way his works should be arranged. The museum owns more than 170 works by Matisse, and now has the third largest collection of his work in France.
The Musee Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambresis
The collection has grown from initial donations by the Matisse family, enhanced and by later purchases. It now includes 28 paintings and paper cut-outs, 21 sculptures and a superb collection of sketches and prints. In each room the museum has displayed work by other modern artists that reflect the influence that Matisse had on 20th century art. So, for example, to illustrate the summer of 1905 that opened Matisse’s eyes to the light and colour of the south- a summer spent with Andre Derain in Collioure on the Mediterranean coast – Derain’s painting ‘Port de Collioure: Le Cheval Blanc’ hangs alongside some of those made by Matisse on the same trip. Most astonishingly, in the room that presents examples of Matisse’s preparatory work for the chapel at Vence, there hangs a Rothko – ‘Light Red Over Black’ from 1957, its shimmering tones there to complement the vibrant colours of Matisse’s most spiritual work.
Matisse was born in the house on the left (demolished in 1918)
Le Cateau-Cambresis is a small town situated at the edge of the high plains that stretch from the valley of the Somme some twenty miles to the west. It lies at the foot of wooded hills that rise to meet the Belgian border. Matisse was born here in his grandfather’s cottage on 31 December 1869. Hilary Spurling brings it to life in the opening volume of her Life of Henri Matisse:
Matisse was rooted in northeastern France, on the edge of the great Flanders plain where his ancestors had lived for centuries before the convulsive social and industrial upheavals of the nineteenth century slowly prised them loose. His father’s family were weavers. Henri Emile Benoît Matisse was born in a tiny, tumbledown weaver’s cottage on the rue du Chêne Arnaud in the textile town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis at eight o’clock in the evening on the last night of the year, 31 December 1869. The house had two rooms, a beaten earth floor and a leaky roof. Matisse said long afterwards that rain fell through a hole above the bed in which he was born.
Matisse’s ancestors had lived in the area for centuries. His father, a grain merchant who sold grain for cattle feed, came from a family of weavers – one of the traditional occupations of the region – while his mother was the daughter of a long line of well-to-do tanners. Matisse grew up in nearby Bohain-en-Vermandois which, like Le Cateau, had in the 19th century become a centre for the industrial manufacturing of textiles. Hilary Spurling describes the sort of place Bohain was when Matisse was young:
Henri Matisse was born just as the accelerating juggernaut of industrialisation and deforestation reached top speed in his native region. When his family settled on the rue du Château, Bohain was already halfway through its transformation from a sleepy weavers’ village deep in the ancient forest of the Arrouaise to a modern manufacturing centre with ten thousand clanking looms installed in the town itself and the villages round about. The population, which had taken forty years to grow from two to four thousand before the large-scale installation of steam machinery in the 1860s, would very nearly double again in the twenty years before Matisse finally left home for Paris.
The town’s principal product was textiles but sugar-beet output also doubled in the first ten years of his life. Energetic clearance meant that the last pockets of surrounding woodland were cut down to make way for beet plants in 1869, the year of Matisse’s birth. The windmills and belfries that traditionally dotted the rolling flatlands of the Vermandois were far outnumbered in his childhood by the smoking chimneys of sugar refineries and textile mills. The streams on these chalky downs–Bohain stood high in the centre of a triangle marking the sources of the Somme, the Selle and the Escaut–ran with dye and chemical refuse on leaving the towns. The streets of Bohain were slippery with beet pulp in autumn, and the air was rank all winter with the stench of rotting and fermenting beets. Visitors from the outside world in the 1870s and 1880s were shocked by the drabness of the town itself, and by the stark, treeless outlines of the newly denuded land round about. “Where I come from, if there is a tree in the way, they root it out because it puts four beets in the shade,” Matisse said sombrely.
Then and now: the family home of Henri Matisse, at 26 rue du Château, Bohain
There’s a reminder in Hilary Spurling’s book that Matisse experienced the invasion of his country three times in his lifetime, the first occasion when he was two years old:
In his own childhood, the invaders were Prussian. German soldiers (who occupied Bohain three times in Matisse’s lifetime) marched past the seed-shop on the rue du Château for the first time on New Year’s Day, 1871, the day after his first birthday. The whole region had been waiting for them in a state of increasing tension since the Emperor’s catastrophic defeat at Sedan four months earlier. Prussian troops had already bombarded and captured the local market town of St-Quentin sixteen miles away. After a brief flurry of sniper fire, Bohain responded, as the town always had done to foreign occupation, with grim resignation. The population retreated behind sealed doors and windows for nearly three uneasy weeks while French and German forces massed for the battle, which took place on 19 January in the snow just outside St-Quentin. The citizens stood on their town walls all day, watching the heavily outnumbered French army suffer yet another decisive defeat, and barricaded themselves in their cellars as the survivors withdrew in silence through the streets that night. A few hours later, when the fleeing French soldiers stumbled into Bohain–filthy, famished and exhausted–they found the inhabitants waiting for them in the snow with food and lanterns to light their way.
Bohain textile designs: catalogue published in 1883
The first room in the Musee Matisse evokes his early years in the north. There’s a hat and a violin that once belonged to the young Matisse, and there are samples of the textile patterns woven in Bohain, which Matisse would have seen as a child growing up in a textile town. These were luxury cloths, sent to Paris for followers of high fashion. The patterns made a deep impression on the young boy, and turn up in many of Matisse’s later paintings, their memory even perhaps influencing the cut-outs of his final years.
Henri Matisse, ‘The Breton Weaver’, 1895
Again, Hilary Spurling provides a vivid account of life in Bohain in these early years, and the impression made on the young Matisse:
Long after the neighbouring towns had switched to mechanisation, a high proportion of the men of Bohain kept their handlooms, working either at home or in back-street workshops crammed with anything from three or four to twenty times as many looms. There were half a dozen of these weavers’ and embroiderers’ workshops in and around the rue Peu d’Aise. “My cradle was rocked to the clicking rhythms of running shuttles. . . . Clickety-clack! . . . Clickety-clack!” wrote Emile Flamant, another painter born in Bohain in 1896. Matisse himself was just old enough to remember the vogue for Kashmir shawls which had brought Bohain its first taste of prosperity in the 1850s. “In the old days they used to make woven Indian shawls. It was a time when people still wore shawls on their backs, as in old Flemish paintings, decorated with palmettes and fringed edges,” Matisse said, describing a simple weaver’s dwelling like the one where he was born. “A peasant’s house consisted of a single big room with a bed, a table in the middle and a loom in the corner, a Jacquard loom.”
It was Parisian high fashion that lay behind Bohain’s astonishing economic turnaround after the defeat of 1871. By the time Henri was ten, all but a handful of the town’s forty-two textile workshops had switched to furnishing or dress materials, working directly for the big Paris fashion houses that supplied modern department stores like the Cour Batave. This was the basis of the town’s booming economy during Henri’s childhood and adolescence, when the luxury textile trade exploded “like fireworks” in an unprecedented display of creativity and invention. Throughout the time he lived there, the weavers of Bohain were famous for the richness of their colours, for their imaginative daring and willingness to experiment. They worked to order for the top end of the market, supplying handwoven velvets, watered and figured silks, merinos, grenadines, featherlight cashmeres and fancy French tweeds (cheviottes fantaisies) for winter and, for summer, sheer silk gauzes, diaphanous tulles, voiles and foulades in a fantastic profusion of decorative patterns, weaves and finishes.
Descended from and surrounded by these weavers, Matisse grew up familiar from infancy with the sound of clacking shuttles and the sight of his neighbours loading and plying coloured bobbins, hunched over the loom like a painter at his easel day in, day out, from dawn to dusk. Textiles remained ever afterwards essential to him as an artist. He loved their physical presence, surrounding himself with scraps and snippets of the most beautiful stuffs he could afford from his days as a poor art student in Paris. He painted them all his life as wall hangings, on screens, in cushions, carpets, curtains and the covers of the divans on which he posed his models of the 1930s in their flimsy harem pants, their silk sashes and jackets, their ruffled or embroidered blouses, sometimes in haute couture dresses made by Parisian designers from the sort of luxury materials still produced in those days for Chanel in Bohain.
Throughout the single most critical phase of his career, in the decade before the First World War when he and others struggled to rescue painting from the dead hand of a debased classical tradition, textiles served him as a strategic ally. Flowered, spotted, striped or plain, billowing across the canvas or pinned flat to the picture plane, they became in Matisse’s hands between 1905 and 1917 an increasingly disruptive force mobilised to subvert and destabilise the old oppressive laws of three-dimensional illusion. On a purely practical level, he resorted as a painter to old weavers’ tricks like pinning a paper pattern to a half-finished canvas, or trying out a whole composition in different colourways. He stoutly defended the decorative, non-naturalistic element in painting, and he made luxury–in the old democratic weavers’ definition, “something more precious than wealth, within everybody’s reach”–a key concept in his personal system of aesthetics. In this, as in his unbudgeable determination, Matisse remained a true son of the weavers of Bohain, whose fabrics astonished contemporaries by their glowing colours, their sensuous refinement, their phenomenal lightness and lustre.
Henri Matisse, ‘The Reader’, 1895
In 1887 Matisse went to Paris to study law, returning to Le Cateau-Cambrésis to work as a court administrator after gaining his qualification. His discovery of his true vocation came about in 1889 as he was convalescing after an attack of appendicitis and his mother had bought him a paintbox to while away the hours. He said later, ‘From the moment I held the box of colours in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves’. Two years later, he returned to Paris to study art at the Academy, but left after a year, frustrated by the academic and perfectionist approach of the tutors.
Influenced by Cezanne, from 1892 to 1897 Matisse trained with Gustave Moreau, an artist who nurtured more progressive leanings. The second room focuses on this period and includes his ‘First Still Life: Orange’, painted in 1898 during his honeymoon on Corsica: the first sign of a developing passion for colour and of the impact of the Mediterranean light.
Henri Matisse, ‘First Still Life: Orange’, 1898
But there are paintings here from 1902-1903, one of the darkest periods in Matisse’s life when he was forced to return to Bohain and nearby Lesquielles St. Germain. His wife, Amélie, had a gift for designing, making, and modelling hats for fashionable clients, and ran her own shop in Paris, its income supporting Matisse as he embarked on his career as a painter. In 1902, however, disaster struck when Amélie’s parents were disgraced and financially ruined in a spectacular scandal, as the unsuspecting employees of a woman whose financial empire was based on fraud.
Thanks to his early years in a lawyer’s office, Matisse was able to assist in organizing his father-in-law’s defence. But the ordeal took its toll, and his doctors ordered Matisse to go to Bohain and take two months’ complete rest. Amélie had lost both her hat shop and their Paris apartment. Henri, Amélie and their three children returned to Bohain, having nowhere else to go. Hilary Spurling believes that memories of their public disgrace nurtured a ‘suspicion of the outside world’ that would always mark the Matisse family. From that point on,the Matisse family formed a kind of hermetic unit which revolved around the artist’s work and profession.
Henri Matisse, ‘L’Allee a la Riviere’, 1903
Henri Matisse, ‘Lesquielles St Germain’, 1903
Henri Matisse, ‘Countryside, Lesquielles St Germain’, 1903
Henri Matisse, ‘Banks of the canal, Lesquielles St Germain’, 1903
The next room brings together paintings made between 1905 and 1914, the Fauve period of ‘the revelation of light in nature’.
In the summer of 1905, together with Andre Derain, he goes to Collioure and paints freely – paintings of pure colour. ‘Rue du Soleil in Collioure’, painted that summer, breaks free from the constraints of drawing and realism. Next to it is Derain’s ‘Port de Collioure, le Cheval Blanc’, painted in the same summer.
Henri Matisse, ‘Collioure: Rue du Soleil’, 1905
Andre Derain, ‘Port de Collioure, le Cheval Blanc’, 1905
There are two portraits of his daughter Marguerite, one painted in 1906 is expressionist, while in a large painting of 1914,Marguerite is portrayed in a fur hat painted in washes of transparent and light blue.
Henri Matisse, Marguerite, 1906
In December 1917, Matisse left Paris for Nice and this significant moment marks the opening of the period covered by the next room, ‘1918-1939, Nice and Tahiti: the light of the tropics’. In Nice his principal subject remained the female figure or an odalisque dressed in oriental costume or in various stages of undress, depicted as standing, seated, or reclining in a luxurious, exotic interior of Matisse’s own creation. These paintings are infused with southern light, bright colours, and a profusion of decorative patterns, evocative of the Bohain pattern-books of his childhood. There is a self-portrait painted in 1918, soon after his arrival in Nice.
Henri Matisse, ‘Self-portrait’, 1918
On his trip to Tahiti in 1930 he discovered the golden light of the tropics. On his return, he painted ‘Window in Tahiti’, a large gouache, striking in its pure colours. ‘The light of the Pacific, of the Islands’, he wrote, ‘is a deep golden goblet into which one peers’. This special light led him to experiment with the sensation of confusion between the spaces of sky and sea, as illustrated in the later compositions from 1946-1947, ‘Océanie, le Ciel’ and ‘Océanie, la Mer’ (which appears in a later room) in which fish, coral and birds mingle.
Window at Tahiti, 1936
Another room is dedicated to the 1940s when Matisse took refuge in Vence, the start of a particularly productive period of drawings and paintings. Three striking paintings here are ‘Interior with Bars of Sunlight’, completed in 1942, a geometrical arrangement of coloured bars and rectangles, ‘Pink Nude, Red Interior’ from 1947, with a sumptuous red background and array of richly patterned fabrics, and ‘Two Young Women, Yellow Dress and Tartan Dress’.
Henri Matisse, ‘Interior with Bars of Sunlight’, 1942
Henri Matisse, ‘Pink Nude, Red Interior’, c.1947
Henri Matisse, ‘Two Young Women, Yellow Dress and Tartan Dress’, 1941
In the next room, ‘The sculptor of light’, the display overlaps with the exhibition at Tate Modern that I have booked to see on as I pass through London on my way back home. Here are examples of work completed by Matisse during the last ten years of his life: maquettes and models for the Vence Chapel, examples of his monumental paper cut-outs.
Musee Matisse: ‘Vine’, 1953, with examples of gouched paper cut-outs from the same period
‘Vine’ (1953) is a cut-out design for a stained-glass window in blue, pink, yellow and green gouache. Oceania, the sky, Oceania, the sea given by the descendants of the painter. These white forms on a beige background are the first monumental achievements made with the technique of paper cutouts and were born in 1946 memories of the trip Matisse in Tahiti.
Musee Matisse: ‘Oceania – Le Ciel’, 1946
And here is the paper cut-out original of ‘Oceania: The Sky’ from 1946, donated to the museum by Matisse in 1952. In it, Matisse recalls the lagoons and colours of ‘the other hemisphere’ he discovered in 1930 on his voyage to Tahiti, from which he returned with photographs, drawings, and memories that would nourish his work to the end. Matisse finished composing the two panels ‘Oceania, the Sky’ and ‘Oceania, the Sea’ on two walls of his bedroom in his Paris apartment in autumn 1946. Forms from the marine world that he had seen swimming in the lagoons of the Pacific islands are cut out in white paper and dance against a beige abstract background. Matisse once said of these works:
These successive flights of doves, their orbits, their curves glide in me as if in a great interior space. You cannot imagine to what degree, in this period of paper cut-outs, the sensation of flight that comes over me helps me to better adjust my hand as it guides the path of my scissors.
As I moved on from one room to the next in this small museum, I was continually amazed by the importance of the works on display. My next encounter was with the original plaster casts of the four monumental sculptures of a woman’s back which Matisse worked on from 1909 to 1930, and which are now considered to be one of the great achievements in 20th century sculpture.
Probably influenced by Cezanne, Back I, 1909; Back II, 1913; The Back III, 1916; and Back IV, 1930 reflect Mattise’s quest to capture the essence of the human form. With each subsequent stage in the Back series, Matisse became bolder in reducing the form of a woman’s back to essential shapes, until he arrived at the radical simplicity of Back III and IV, in which he has reduced the figure to just a long tail of hair connected to the vertical spine, the curve of the hip, and an arm gesture. In an article for the Guardian, Matisse’s biographer Hilary Spurling wrote:
These four monolithic female figures, made at intervals between 1909 and 1930, remained virtually invisible almost to the end of the artist’s long life. He showed Back I at the two notorious exhibitions that first made modern art a sensation before the first world war: the second Post Impressionist show in London, and the Armory show in New York. Otherwise, none of the Backs was seen again in public until after the second world war (by which time Back II had gone missing, resurfacing only after its creator’s death in 1954). Their secret history is as hard to explain as their strange, powerful, mesmeric presence.
I remember seeing the bronzes at Tate Modern, one of the few museums that possesses a complete set.
Henri Matisse, Self portrait, 1900
As if this wasn’t enough, on another floor is the Drawings Cabinet, a darkened room in which the museum displays the only set of drawings and prints personally chosen by Matisse to reflect each period in his career. It is must be one of the most impressive rooms of Matisse’s work that you could find anywhere. There’s a self portrait from 1900, and many other drawings and etchings from other periods.
Henri Matisse, Nadia with Serious Expression, 1948
Henri Matisse, Katia Large Head, c. 1950
Amongst the latest works are several aquatints, executed in thick black brush strokes, from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Facial features are conveyed with just a few strokes of a broad brush against the white of the paper. Each face is carefully composed within a space determined by the sheet of paper. A model – Katia or Nadia – is portrayed, sometimes with a frown or a smile, sometimes serious or distant, viewed in profile or head on.
Musee Matisse: part of the drawing cabinet display
And there’s still more. In 1950, Matisse was visited by his three grandchildren, Gerard, Jacqueline and Claude. As they watched, he drew their portraits on the ceiling of his studio, using charcoal tied to a fishing rod 2 metres long. The ceiling was offered to the museum by the Matisse family. Alongside is a photograph by Helene Adant of the work in situ.
These are my grandchildren. I try to represent them and if I succeed, I feel better. Also, I designed the ceiling to have on the eyes, especially at night.So, I feel less alone.
Musee Matisse: the ceiling portrait of the three grandchildren
Another striking recreation is a reconstruction of a corner of the dining room from the Tériade villa in St Jean Cap-Ferrat, which was decorated in 1952 by Matisse with ‘Tree’, a work of painted ceramic tiles. It was donated by Alice Tériade, the wife of Efstrathios Elefheriades (aka Tériade), the art editor, publisher of Jazz, and founder of Verve, the magazine for which Matisse contributed many designs. In the years when ‘Tree’ adorned the wall of the villa in St Jean Cap-Ferrat, the Tériades allowed only a few close friends and artists see it.
Musee Matisse: Reconstruction of the dining room in the Tériade villa (‘Tree’, 1952)
So, finally, to a room that contains Matisse’s preparatory work for what was probably the crowning achievement of his career – his designs for the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence. From 1948 to 1951, Matisse worked on the chapel for the Dominican Sisters. ‘This chapel is for me the culmination of a lifetime of work and flowering of a huge, sincere and hard effort,’ he said in 1951. ‘I would like all who enter feel relieved of their burdens. I created a spiritual space’. The museum display includes studies for this major work, including the designs in white and gold for the priest’s robes, a study for the head of Saint Dominique, and two models of the chapel, including the first version which utilised the ‘The Bees’ (Les Abeilles) for the design of the stained-glass window to the side.
Musee Matisse: Vence chapel maquette, first version, ‘Les Abeilles’
Musee Matisse: Vence chapel maquette, final version
Alongside the maquettes are displayed photographs by Helene Adant of the work in Matisse’s studio, and of the interior of the completed chapel at Vence.
Henri Matisse’s chasuble designs for the Vence chapel by Helene Adant
Chapel of the Rosary Vence by Helene Adant
There was one last thing I hoped to see in Le Cateau-Cambresis, though I wasn’t sure whether it was possible. The ‘Bees’ design for the first version of the Vence didn’t go to waste, but was eventually realised in 1952 as a stained-glass window in the nursery school in the town which bears Matisse’s name. On enquiring at the museum, I was told that the window (only rarely opened to public view inside the school) was visible from the street, so I went to take a look.
The Henri Matisse nursery school in Le Cateau-Cambresis: stained-glass window, ‘Les Abeilles’ (‘The Bees’)
And there it was. This was a great moment for me, even if the full impact of the stained-glass could not be experienced from the street. It really should be seen from inside,with sunlight pouring through from outside. But you must be a toddler of Le Cateau to have that privilege. To the right of the window is a bust of Matisse mounted on a concrete plinth bearing simply his dates: 1869-1954.
The Henri Matisse nursery school in Le Cateau-Cambresis
There would be a neat symmetry to the WW1 trip I had embarked on. I had ended the first day, here at the Musee Matisse in the artist’s birthplace. I would end my trip back in London at Tate Modern, seeing The Cut-Outs exhibition. More of that to come.
- Matisse: his last resting place and resurrection
- A summer of Matisse: Palm trees, palms, and the rhythms of jazz
- A summer of Matisse: the colour of music
- Matisse in Nice: through an open window
- The Art Books of Henri Matisse
- The Chapelle du Rosaire by Matisse (April 2008)
- A visit to the Matisse Museum in Nice (April 2008)