The Matisse Museum located in Nice, dedicated as its name suggests to the French painter Henri Matisse, brings together one of the most important world collections of his work.

Installed in the Villa des Arènes, a 17th century Genoese villa located on the very chic Mont Cimiez in Nice, the museum opened its doors in 1963. The villa as such, whose construction began in 1670 and was completed in 1685, was called at that time Gubernatis Palace – from the name of its owner. It only took the name of Villa des Arènes in 1950 when the city of Nice acquired it.

The permanent collections of the Matisse Museum have been enriched over the years thanks to numerous donations – that of Matisse himself, then those of his heirs – and to various deposits from the French State. The museum now contains 68 paintings and gouaches, 236 drawings, 218 engravings, 57 sculptures, not to mention illustrated books, photographs and the painter’s personal effects.

Let’s talk about the painter now.

Henri Matisse was born in 1869 in the North of France to a grain merchant father and an amateur painter mother. Destined to take over the father’s business, his fragile health prevents him from carrying heavy loads. He then turns to law and begins his professional life as a notary clerk. But at the age of 20, bedridden for long weeks by an appendicitis, he discovers the pleasure of painting thanks to a box of paint offered by his mother.

He abandons law and goes to Paris. He takes classes at the École des Beaux-Arts within the studio of Gustave Moreau, who encourages his students to dream their painting beyond technical mastery. To earn a living, Matisse becomes a painter by the day for theater decorators. In fact, years later – in 1920 – he will create the sets and costumes for Diaghilev’s ballet “Le Chant du Rossignol”.

He persists. Gustave Moreau, who reviews his first works prophesies that Matisse will “simplify painting”.

He gets married in 1898 with Amélie who opens a fashion store to financially support the couple and their three children, Marguerite (born from a first union of Matisse), Jean and Pierre.

La Cour du Moulin à Ajaccio – 1898

Les Gourgues – 1898

From Corsica, Matisse sends to his friend from Gustave Moreau’s studio, Henri Evenepoel, some of his new paintings. Henri Evenepoel cannot repress his surprise: “I find that it is exasperated painting, yes! At first glance, they killed me! I felt very bourgeois watching them!”.

In 1904, he spends the Summer in Saint-Tropez with the painter Signac and adopts the pointillist technique. The strong colors of the South of France are a real shock for him: he has an even greater desire to use them and bring them to life on his canvases.

Figure à l’ombrelle – 1905

At the 1905 paris Fall Exhibition, his canvases including violent colors laid flat and with no shadows cause a scandal, and the art critic Louis Vauxcelles compares the room exhibiting the works of Matisse, Vlaminck and Derain to “a cage of wild cats”.

The term is immediately adopted and adapted and Matisse becomes the leader of the Fauvist movement whose dazzling colors disturb conformist minds. By abandoning the notion of perspective by using large flat areas of color (a technique that will be further developed with the cut-out gouaches), Matisse defines his style a little more.

His fame grows and one can read on the walls of Montparnasse: “Matisse makes you crazy, Matisse is more dangerous than absinthe“. In 1909, he signs with the Parisian avant-garde gallery Bernheim-Jeune. Sculpture is also on his mind.

Bronze Henriette III – 1929

A great traveler, whether in France or abroad, Matisse transcribes his impressions on his canvases. The odalisques, for example, occupy a good part of his life.

The “Odalisque with a red box” is part of a series of paintings produced in Nice in the 1920s. This series reflects the influence the trips to Algeria (1906) and Morocco (1912, 1913) may have had on Matisse. Installed in an apartment overlooking the Cour Saleya in Nice, this intimate oil on canvas denotes a fabricated and somewhat artificial staging that the fair skin of the model (Henriette Darricarrère) further underlines.

L’Odalisque au coffret rouge – 1927

Tempête à Nice – 1920

La leçon de piano – 1923 – Matisse saturates the pictorial space and the juxtaposition of planes leaves no doubt about their spatial organization. Instead of presenting a fictional depth, the painting asserts itself in its flatness and this conception of the painting is one of Matisse’s essential contributions to the pictorial art of the 20th century.

Nymphes dans la forêt – 1935-1942/1943

Matisse separates from his wife Amélie in 1939. He lives in the South of France with Lydia Délectorskaya, his assistant, model and lover. In 1941, suffering from cancer, he undergoes surgery which leaves him very weak. He therefore draws and begins to work with his famous cut-out gouaches: he paints pieces of paper which he cuts out and affixes to the canvas.

Le repos de la danseuse – 1942

In the difficult context of the Second World War, Matisse only produces a few canvases in 1944 in his studio in Vence, where he has been living since July 1943.

Femme au chapeau bleu – 1944 – For this painting, Matisse has a young woman recently met in Vence, Ginette Michel, pose in a very beautiful white dress, the luxury of which he accentuated by combining it with a fur coat. It is the whiteness of the dress as well as its fluid movement which then mobilize the attention of the painter, the scowling face being very unusual in the work of the painter who does not generally describe the moods of the painted subject.

His estranged wife Amélie, his children Marguerite and Jean are part of Resistance networks. If Amélie is arrested and released after 6 months, Marguerite is less lucky. Tortured by the Gestapo and disfigured, she does not see her father again until 1945. Deeply moved, Matisse executes many portraits of Marguerite, the last of which shows a serene face.

Intérieur à la fougère noire – 1948 – This oil on canvas belongs to the last great set of paintings made by Matisse in Vence between 1946 and 1948. The depthless composition revolves around simplified elements and dazzling colors. The arrangement of the surfaces cancels the limit of the picture frame.

The last ten years of his life will be mainly dedicated to paper cut-outs, a technique that spares his fragile health.

He dies in 1954 in Nice, leaving a very special work. His influence on American painting and the New York School is immense, as it is on pop art.

Matisse will be remembered as the liberator of lines and colors.

Matisse Museum

July 7, 2023