Nestling into the hillside above the little town of Vence in the Alpes-Maritimes lies the Chapelle du Rosaire or, as it is often called, the Matisse Chapelle de Vence. Henri Matisse lived in Vence after the war when he was recovering from illness. The district in which the Chapelle is located in the town is now called Matisse District…
Vence – in the footsteps of Matisse
Matisse, recovering from an abdominal operation, advertised for a young and pretty nurse to assist him. Monique Bourgeois, the nurse who fulfilled the role, later became his model and eventually a Dominican nun in the convent in Vence.
Sister Jacques-Marie as she became, retained her friendship with the artist and later asked him to help design a Chapel that the nuns could use for their devotions. The Mother Superior frowned upon this relationship – but the project carried on regardless.
Matisse wrote that he did not choose the work for the Chapel, but instead he believed he was chosen by fate – it was an expression of spirituality. He believed that God had given artists the beautiful light to compose their paintings and this was his way of sharing – through this sacred commission. Although Matisse had been born a Catholic he was an atheist – but the Chapel gave him a chance to realise his life’s work. When completed, he stated that it was ‘his life’s masterpiece’.
The Chapelle’s design is centered on the light, which he used in all its glory. The luminosity of the sun streams through the stained glass windows, which reflect the colours of Provence – blue for the azure sea and sky, green for verdant grasses and yellow for the plentiful sun. The walls are covered in white ceramic tiles, which have the figures of the Madonna and Child and St Dominique in his robes painted on them. The Stations of the Cross are represented as a tableau – black on white tiling. The pain and suffering is clearly portrayed in this Composition. The result when the sun streams through the windows means the colours are painted onto the white tiles – producing a dancing, ever changing artwork.
Everything inside the Chapelle and outside was included in this, his end of life, task. The altar, the crucifix, the roof tiles and the mystical spirals on the roof which are almost oriental in appearance. The roof tiles are a luxuriant blue – in complete contrast to the usual Provencal ochre tiles.
Matisse completed this work in 1951 and died in Nice in 1954. Sister Jacques-Marie was given the final punishment for her friendship with the artist – she was forbidden from attending his funeral.
The Chapelle is located next to the Dominican convent and on the side facing the Convent is a Roundel painted into the Apex – 2 entwined, nude figures, male and female. I smile wryly when I see this as I feel it was Henri Matisse’s final arrow for the disapproving nuns – they would forever have to look upon a slightly risqué painting….
Video of the Chapel by BBC Presenter Alastair Sooke – who was moved to tears by the beauty of the little Chapelle and its significance in the life of Matisse and all that it portrays: