Henri Matisse at Villa le Reve
Last summer, when I was chasing Picasso in Aix-en-Provence and Antibes, in the South of France, I also went in search of Henri Matisse in Nice and Vence.
Follow me on a rare trip—as I walk in Matisse’s footsteps, find the house where he painted so joyfully, and find insights into the artist’s sensual and richly detailed paintings of interiors and costumed models.
Henri Matisse is the supreme painter and stylist of interiors. I’ve always loved his vivid, sensual and superbly constructed paintings that conjure sunny Riviera rooms in languid eternal summer.
Most memorable are the gloriously seductive canvases he created in Vence in the forties, in a house called Villa le Reve. Come with me on a visit.
This past summer, I was most fortunate to spend time in the South of France. I followed Pablo Picasso, seeking his haunts and his paintings (check in THE STYLE SALONISTE archive for a feature on Picasso’s Chateau de Vauvenargues)—but I was also devotedly sleuthing the residences, studios and locations that inspired Henri Matisse.
I’ve always been drawn to the thrumming colors, the theatrically styled vignettes, the props and blooming flowers, open windows and palm trees shimmering in the sunlight, of Henri Matisse’s intensely personal paintings. These are canvases of sheer sensation, a vibration of the optic fibers, where the season is forever summer, the Mediterranean always glinting, and flowers radiant. It’s all emotion. You feel it immediately.
Matisse brought together his textiles, antiques, rugs, Moroccan pottery, plants, goldfish in bowls, flowers, fruit—and of course his seductive models—to create interior paintings of singular beauty. I wanted to be there. I wanted to look out the windows of these rooms. I wanted to experience the exuberant joy of these sunny and intensely romantic houses.
I conducted hours of research on Matisse in the south of France, and planned to follow his life around Nice and Cimiez, paying respects at the Matisse Museum, and especially trying to find his magical Villa le Reve on a hillside in Vence, where he lived and painted.
In 1943, with the war raging, seventy-four-year-old Matisse escaped from Nice to the relative safety of Vence, a hill town in a verdant and blossoming region a few miles above the Cote d’Azur. Hidden from the sunbathers and revelers, Vence had been a refuge for other famous painters, including Bonnard, Renoir, Dufy, Soutine, and Dubuffet, who had created some of their best art, inspired by the lush setting, the happiness-inducing limpid weather.
Matisse drove up to Vence from Nice, took one look at Villa Le Reve with its palm trees, orange blossom fragrance, and the chalky mountains rising protectively beyond the oleanders. The house had a certain air of privacy and detachment, and Matisse decided it would be his perfect refuge.
“Beautiful villa, and I don’t mean gingerbread or pretentious,” he wrote to his friend, the poet Louis Aragon in 1943. “Thick walls and glass doors reaching up to the ceiling. In other words, nice light.”
“The beautiful terrace had a large balustrade overflowing with variegated Roman ivy and lovely geraniums of hot colors that I did not know. The many lovely colors of the palm trees that filled the windows were enthralling” said Matisse, quoted by his son, Pierre.
Matisse shipped his props up from his former atelier, including Moroccan rugs, pewter vases, block-printed cottons and elaborate embroidered textiles, Chinese porcelains, shells, a small round wrought-iron table, tarnished silver pitchers, shells, slip-covered armchairs, a grand antique marble-topped table with baroque iron legs, Fez pottery and antique French pottery. These would all later appear in paintings of the interiors of Villa le Reve, in this period. Just outside his open windows he would be surrounded sun-struck oleanders and visions of the shimmering sea in the distance.
“When I realized I would see that light every morning, I could not believe my good fortune,” Henri Matisse wrote in a letter to the Surrealist poet Louis Aragon, who collected his work.
At Villa le Reve, Matisse devoted his life to art, and painted every day. This is the artist at his most joyful, intense and expressive. After a day of painting he practiced the violin for an hour, dined lightly, and then early to bed.
I had always loved the scrumptious paintings Matisse created at Villa le Reve, with almost nude models in Moroccan ensembles draped on chaises, reclining models in North African robes, tables laden with kinetic garlands of flowers, and ravishing bowls of lemons and pomegranates in bright patches of sunshine. And always there were the open shutters, streaming light, and flickering palm trees looming at the windows.
“Sometimes when I pause over a motif, a corner of my studio that I find expressive, even if it is beyond me and my strength, I wait for the coup de foudre,” commented Matisse to his son, Pierre.
Among the artists who visited Matisse when he was living in Vence was Pablo Picasso, with his lover, Francoise Gilot.
“Of all the artists Pablo knew and visited during the years I spent with him, no-one meant quite as much to him as Matisse. At the time we made our first visit to Matisse, in February 1946, he was living in a villa called Le Reve, in Vence. Pablo had at least eight paintings by Matisse. The paintings are very successful in their color harmonies and very free and spontaneous. Matisse told me, “My thought in doing a painting is often a continuous non sequitur, a series of jumps from one mountain peak to another. It’s what you might call a somnambulist’s thought”– Francoise Gilot in ‘Life with Picasso’ (McGraw-Hill, 1964).
Soon after I arrived in Nice (and had spent the morning at the Villa Kerylos), I was able to arrange at least to see the Villa le Reve, but I was told that it would most likely not be possible to go onto the property or enter the house.
I would be happy glancing through the wrought iron gates, I thought. Well, not really. I wanted to linger in the garden, smell the lavender and orange blossoms in Matisse’s garden, and look out of his windows, see his studio.
I drove into the hills, up winding roads framed with flourishing olive trees and jacarandas. I turned into the avenue where the house stands behind a high hedge. I could see it through the leaves as I pressed the buzzer on the gate. To my surprise, a woman walked out of the front door of the terra cotta stucco residence. It was the manager of the house, Joelle Audry.
“I am not sure if you can come in,” she said. “There is a group of Norwegian artists studying here. I’ll have to ask their instructor if it is OK.”
I could see several woman wearing straw hats working on oil paintings , their easels set out in the garden. I could see the teacher critiquing their work. Audrey spoke to her. The instructor nodded her head.
Audrey opened the tall iron gate. I walked into the garden. It was like entering the secret garden. The mingled fragrance of lavender, roses and oleander vibrated in the warm afternoon air. Palm trees glimmered in the sun. I felt uplifted, light-headed, a little giddy. Perhaps it was the heat. I think not.
Matisse’s house, painted the original terra cotta with faded turquoise shutters, stood two stories, overlooking the garden. Typical of these hill town houses, it has balconies from which to view the blue coast.
I imagined Matisse working there every day, diligently taking up his brushes and focusing on the light, the intense colors, creating beauty.
I walked across the lawn, and quietly asked the Norwegian art instructor, very delicately, if it might be possible to enter the house to see Matisse’s studio, holy ground. She nodded, smiling.
I walked into the house and felt Matisse’s presence. All of his paintings were in my head. I knew the placement of the windows, the way sun slanted across his mis-en-scene in the afternoon.
The reality is that the house today is managed by the local municipality, and may be rented by art groups. It has sleeping accommodations downstairs for art students.
Still, I could I see Matisse and his lissome models there among his antiques, brilliant flowers in every vase and Moroccan rugs strewn around.
A joyful Matisse painting I had seen recently of a woman sitting at a table, ‘The Silence Living in Houses’ offers a magical sense of the peace and power of this setting for the artist.
I walked upstairs. Books were jumbled into an old bookcase. I walked toward the two upstairs rooms where Matisse has painted. Both were now bare-bones studios with white walls and tall windows. But still, precisely as in Matisse’s paintings, palm trees loom at the window and Provencal sunlight streams inside.
Looking at the spare white rooms—and yet seeing Matisse’s vibrant ‘rooms’ created with theatrical style—I felt overwhelming admiration for this artist. Matisse imagined and entirely created worlds superbly brought to life in his paintings.
He hung ornate backdrops of Moroccan textiles and laid hand-woven carpets on the floor. He set forged iron tables with goldfish in glass bowls, and dressed his serene and outrageously exotic models in gold- embroidered jackets and gauzy sequined skirts to depict a carefree harem or a super-charged and sensual hot-weather afternoon of delight.
From bare rooms, small rooms, plain interiors, he created a dreamy world and lavish paintings of great opulence. His health was faltering at the time, his years as a painter were fading, and yet these canvases were full of life, full of life force and sensuality.
This was my coup de foudre, a vision of Henri Matisse’s genius, and a true insight into a great artist’s daily life and six years of stunning creativity. These paintings are his legacy and heritage.
Matisse lived and painted at Villa le Reve from 1943 to 1949 when he moved back to Nice. He died in 1954.
"Nature accompanies me, exalts me.”–Pierre Matisse
“I would not get rid of my feelings by copying a tree exactly nor by drawing the leaves one by one in the current idiom. Only after I have identified myself with it, I have created an object that resembles the tree. The symbol of the tree.”–Henri Matisse
Matisse’s Villa le Reve, 261, Avenue Henri Matisse, Vence, Provence, is available for rent for artists, paintings groups and study groups, by the week or for the weekend. for details, contact Joëlle Audry : firstname.lastname@example.org, or the Vence Tourist Office, email@example.com.
The Matisse Museum, 164 Avenue des Arenes de Cimiez, Nice, www.musee-matisse-nice.org.
“The object is not so interesting in itself,” said Matisse. “It is the surroundings that bring the object alive. This is how I have worked my whole life, with the same objects that involve my spirit.”
Color photographs of Villa le Reve by Diane Dorrans Saeks, July 2009.
Black and white portrait of Matisse, and interiors by Helene Adant.
‘Matisse at Villa le Reve’ by Marie-France Boyer, photography by Helene Adant (Thames & Hudson 2004.)
'Matisse, His Art and His Textiles', (Royal Academy of Arts, London 2004).
For further information: www.franceguide.com, and email firstname.lastname@example.org