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Monday, June 20, 2011

BUCKET LIST | The Matisse Chapel, Vence

The Cross over Mattisse's Chapel. All
photos by JT Marlin.
My "bucket list" is quite long because Alice and I are expecting to enjoy traveling for many more years. The list included the Matisse Chapel.

My mother, Hilda van Stockum lived with her children in Paris for a year, 1954-55. She referenced the chapel when it was just three years old, in a letter on October 13, 1954, pasted here in her album for that year (p. 19):
We discussed Matisse’s work on the chapel at Vence. It is a Dominican church… Mrs. Schneiter… was enthusiastic.
Later my mother did get to see the chapel, as did my artist sister Brigid, from whom I have comment at the end of this post.

The creation of the chapel is a touching story. Henri Matisse designed it in his late 70s (he was born in 1869). During a four-year battle with cancer, he was looked after by Monique Bourgeois. She became a nun at the convent in Vence, a house of the Dominican Sisters of Monteils (Aveyron). She continued to care for Matisse after joining the convent.

A grateful Matisse spent four years designing the chapel and all its details, down to the colors of vestments. He prepared remarks for the opening of the chapel on June 25, 1951 that he was too ill to deliver, but were read out on his behalf:
This work required of me four years’ exclusive and entire effort and it is the fruit of my whole working life. In spite of all its imperfections I consider it as my masterpiece.
Posted Map of Greater Vence. 
Alice and I set off to see the chapel last Monday (June 13, 2011) with Beatrice and John Eldon, whom I have known since schooldays at Ampleforth College. He and Randal were both at St. Thomas's House. I was at Gilling Castle (now St. Martin's) and then the Junior House.

Leaving Villefranche (between Monaco and Nice) after spending several hours nearby at the Rothschild Villa and Gardens, we headed back to Nice and northward above Cagnes to Vence, tucked in the mountains (see map).

Vence is north of St.-Paul de Vence, which was the subject of a nostalgic story in the NY Times travel section just yesterday.

We ascertained from the chapel web site that the chapel is open Mon Wed Sat, 2 to 5:30 pm, and Tu Th from 10 am to 11:30 am and from 2 to 5:30 pm.

Outside of the Matisse Chapel.
Vence is not so hard to find but if you don't approach from the right direction, signs to the chapel are scarce until one is close. Alas, when we got there, the bonnes soeurs said regretfully that the chapel was closed for the Monday after Pentecost. It is a more important holiday in France than the United States.


We were disappointed, but I took pictures of the outside of the chapel. The soaring cross is gorgeous. Worth a visit to see. Other views are on the chapel web site. We were sorry not to view the stained glass and murals inside and to get a sense of the integrity of the chapel that was Matisse's goal.

At any rate, I have seen enough of the Chapel to take it off my Bucket A List.

I asked Brigid for some reactions to the chapel. She found the nuns themselves very interesting, because the chapel of which they are curators comes out of a movement toward recognizing the primitive ("sauvage"), yet the art itself requires a sophisticated taste. Brigid said:
The nuns were clearly awed by the fame of their chapel and the artist, but nonetheless some of them seemed to miss having faces to pray to on the representations of Jesus and the saints.
As the monks of Ampleforth used to say about the rosary, invention of which is credited to the Dominicans, "The rosary is good for two kinds of Catholics. Those who enjoy praying with it, and those who don't."

The nuns must have had to relearn how to pray in this chapel, without the realistic representations of holy faces that they must have been used to. Some must have found it harder to adjust than others. They deserve special respect.

Postscript, Dec. 31, 2015

This day in 1869 Matisse was born, in Le Cateau, France. Through his education in law school, he showed no interest in art and never visited a museum. But when confined to his bed with appendicitis, he took up painting to while away the time and he said: "For the first time in my life I felt free, quiet, and alone ... carried along by a power alien to my life as a normal man." At 22, he quit law and became a full-time artist. A revolutionary who dressed like a bourgeois, he once said, "It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else." (Thanks to Garrison Keillor for the birthday alert.)

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