The capital of the French Riviera was the great love in the life of one of the 20th century’s greatest artists
The list of famous painters who have been claimed as the genius loci of one Riviera town or the other is long: Cagnes-sur-Mer has Renoir, St Paul de Vence has Chagall, Menton has Jean Cocteau, Vallauris and Antibes share Picasso (but there is a lot to share, Picasso being “vast and containing multitudes”). Even so, there is something special about the association between Nice and Matisse.
This is because Nice was the love of Matisse’s life, not some sort of beautiful trophy wife he acquired when he was in his seventies. Matisse came to Nice many times, staying at different places and at various stages of his life and his career, also during periods when he was not yet a household name, while most of his fellow modernists moved to the south when the key battles of their artistic lives had been fought and won decades ago and when they were in a position to enjoy the fruits of their victories. Fruits that included mansions which, on today’s property market, would easily fetch in excess of € 20 million.
The “Matisse trail” in Nice, conversely, features relatively modest flats and rooms in tourist hotels.
Discovering the Nice of Henri Matisse
Matisse came to Nice for the first time in 1917, and the town had him from the first ray of sunshine. “When I realised that I would see this light again every morning,” he wrote, “I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.” This is how he described the various blues of the sea and the sky: “It is the blue of sapphires, of the peacock’s wing, of an Alpine glacier, and the kingfisher melted together. And yet, it is none of these, for it shines with the unearthly radiance of Neptune’s kingdom … it gleams, it is translucent, it shines as if it were lit up from below.” Matisse was then a mature man of almost 50, but this is clearly the language of a teenager in love.
His first stop was the Hotel Beau Rivage on 107 Quai des Etats Unis …
…but when he decided that he would like to stay for the entire winter, he soon moved to an apartment next door on no. 105.
(You may read in some accounts that the Beau Rivage was a “modest” hotel in the interwar period, but I have my doubts. It certainly is not “modest” today and possesses the largest private beach of any hotel in Nice.)
Matisse returned in February 1920. This time, he stayed in the Hotel de la Méditerranée a little further up on 25 Promenade des Anglais. He left in June, but came back to the same hotel in September and spent the winter there.
The Hotel Méditerranée of Matisse’s time no longer exists, it was torn down in the 1930s, but the 2nd floor coffee bar of the Palais de la Mediterranee – half a block away – offers you the best chance you are going to get for a Matisse-like view of the beach promenade, although you may question whether this view represents good value at €4.50 for a cup of espresso.
In September 1921, Matisse finally took the plunge and signed a proper rental contract for an apartment on the Cours Saleya, renting the fourth floor of the beautiful townhouse on the top of Place Charles Felix.
Later, he also rented the 3rd floor which he used as a studio and stayed there until 1938, …
… enjoying the life in the Old Town much better than the glittering atmosphere among the wealthy tourists and ex-pats on the Promenade.
These were the best years of his artistic life, and it appears that Matisse enjoyed the Riviera lifestyle, too. He even became an active outdoorsman– something you would not suspect from his Nice pictures which are mainly concerned with the paraphernalia of the indoor life. (The Cote d’Azur des Peintres collection of outdoor motives in Nice comprises 17 paintings, not one of which is by Matisse.) Matisse, well into his 50s at this stage, developed a specific passion for canoeing, paddling around the port of Nice most days of the week.
He even received a medal from his club, admittedly more for effort (154 canoeing trips in nine months) than for anything else. Still, this makes Matisse one of the few major 20th century artists who won anything at sports. (Samuel Beckett, famously, played in cricket’s top division but never put his hands on any kind of sporting trophy. He did win the Nobel prize, however.)
In 1938, Matisse moved up the hill to the Hotel Regina in Cimiez where he would paint more interiors over the next 15 years, this time without Mediterranean views peeping through the open windows.
You can either walk or take the bus (lines 15 or 22, calling at Matisse / Arènes), but go you should, for one because there is the Matisse museum next door with the world’s largest collections of his works …
… and for another because this is also where he is buried, next to his wife (from whom he had been separated for the last 15 years of his life), on the cemetery of the near-by Franciscan Monastery.
Considering how long Matisse lived in Nice, how much he loved the city and how deeply it affected his style, it is strange that his footsteps in Nice are almost exclusively biographic in nature: there are no street scenes that one could recreate from his paintings, not even with a lot of imagination.
There is only one half-exception: in 1921, Matisse painted (from the balcony of the Hotel Mediterranee) the Bataille des Fleurs, the traditional Carnival “parade of flowers” …
… which even today, in its quieter moments, reflects some of the sweetness that the life in interwar Nice must have had for Matisse. This, at any rate, is probably as close as we can get.
Have you visited to discover the Nice of Henri Matisse recently?