Matisse to Picasso: “When one of us dies, there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anybody else.”

Post the COVID lockdown and arriving just in time for the Christmas season is the blockbuster art show we needed: Henri Matisse at the AGNSW. Exhibition designer, the ever-cool Richard Johnson, has set aside a tall-ceilinged room to display original artworks for a small chapel in Vence, in the south of France, that Matisse regarded as the high point in his artistic career. It is to that building that we turn our attention in this column, linking design to current affairs,

During WW2 Matisse fled Paris to Nice. In 1941, he developed cancer and underwent extensive surgery. He placed an ad at the local nursing school requesting “night nurse needed – should be young and pretty”. 21-year-old student nurse, Monique Bourgeois gained the position, and they formed a bond as kindred spirits. Matisse enticed her to be his model for drawings and several paintings, including ‘Green Dress and Oranges’.

When the regular nurse returned, they parted ways but in 1943 found themselves on opposite sides of a street in Vence, in the hills behind Nice. Matisse had moved inland to escape the threat of coastal bombing and Bourgeois was in a Dominican convent to recover from tuberculosis. They renewed their friendship and Bourgeois sat for more drawings and paintings.


Upon recovery Bourgeois joined the nuns and became Sister Jacques-Marie, much to Matisse's disappointment. After the war, the Dominican sisters needed a chapel and Jacques-Marie approached Matisse to participate in the design. Matisse was delighted and offered to design the entire chapel. Everyone was excited except the Mother Superior; she didn't want their new chapel designed by an atheist artist who painted nudes.


Father Marie-Alain Couturier from Paris, an advocate for modern art and architecture within the church, interceded and organized for August Perret, President of the ‘Ordre des architectes’ to oversee the work. When asked why an atheist like Matisse should design the chapel Couturier replied, “better a genius without faith than a believer without talent”. He went on to be the chief enabler of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel and La Tourette convent.

In 1947 Matisse, now aged 77, took on the whole building, with the architectural drawings being made by L.B. Rayssigiuer, a young Dominican brother and architect. Matisse designed every detail: the plan, section, stained glass, flooring, lighting, decorations, even the priests’ robes. Outside it is a plain white building with zigzag blue and white roof tiles. Hardly noticeable, sitting within the vernacular of Vence.


You descend downstairs from the Avenue Henri Matisse and turn right into the main body of the chapel. Austere timber seats are arranged in rows for the laity and townspeople in the main rectangle, 15x6m, and pews for the nuns on the left in a straightforward L shape plan. They are bonded through an angled altar in local brownstone (chosen to resemble the color of bread and the Eucharist). Matisse designed the bronze crucifix, the altar candle and a small tabernacle.

There are three sets of stain glass windows, made from three colours: yellow for the sun, green for the local vegetation (often cactus forms and pine trees) and vivid blue for the Mediterranean, the sky and the religious color of the Madonna. Two windows behind the altar are ‘The tree of life’. The forms are abstract and the bright colours flood the white interior.

There are three tiled murals: Matisse painted black lines on 300 x 300 white tiles prior to firing. Crippled at the time, he worked stooped over or from a wheelchair, using a brush on a long stick to do the drawings. They include an image of St. Dominic, the founder of the order behind the altar, an image of the Virgin and Child on the side wall with abstract flowers, and the 14 stations of the cross unusually gathered together on one wall in one cohesive composition

Matisse also designed the priest’s vestments, including chasubles, maniples, stoles and chalice veils,  using the traditional seasonal ecclesiastical colours of purple, black, rose, green and red. Pope Pius XII requested that they be sent to Rome to be put in the Vatican's new museum of modern religious art. The nuns made five sets of vestments which you can see in the Vatican.

After four years it opened to great acclaim in 1951 but press hounded Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie looking for romantic scandal. In her 1992 book, Henri Matisse, La Chappelle de Vence, she describes Matisse as like her grandfather, and that ‘there is more than one kind of love affair’. Sadly, she was not permitted to go to Matisse's funeral in 1954 and died in 2005, aged 84, having moved away from Vence.

The convent school has closed, only some elderly nuns now live there. The chapel is more a tourist site than working chapel and open more hours than it was formerly (two hours Tuesday and Thursday afternoons). I visited regularly in the 1990s with students on a modern architecture tour, sitting with sixty or more others, for a half hour talk in French on the history and the design of the chapel, before buying postcards.

At the end of the nun’s talk on one memorable visit I asked if I could say a few words in English to my group. She offered better than that, she would repeat the talk if I made a traduction using my tolerably fluent French. As I announced this to my group of sixteen, I was astonished to see the entire audience sit down for my translation. Not one of eighty had understood a word. At the end some American tourist pressed US dollars into my hand.

The full-scale designs made by Matisse for the chapel have been continuously exhibited since they were shown in the year of the chapel's consecration at MOMA, (the NY Museum of Modern Art). I'd wager that many more people have seen the Marquettes and full-scale drawings and designs in galleries and museums than those who have been to the chapel.

I am still surprised at how poorly known it is. The normally reliable Colin Bisset of ABC RN’s Blueprint for Living program attributed it to August Perret, rendering Matisse to interior decorator. Maybe the inspiring exhibition at the AGNSW will encourage more Australians to make the pilgrimage to this small but exquisite chapel. And if you are traveling to Vence, don’t miss the hill town of St. Paul de Vence and the Colombe d’Or (Golden Dove) modern artists hotel, and the Maeght Foundation designed by Jose Louis Sert.

On completion Matisse said “this work required me four years of an exclusive and tiring effort, and it is the fruit of my whole working life. In spite of all its imperfections I consider it as my masterpiece”.

The chapel is one of the great religious spaces of the 20th century, and for me perfection of the adage that ‘architecture is space’ more about the contained than the container.

After Matisse died Picasso said: “There are a number of things I shall no longer be able to talk about with anyone... All things considered, there is only Matisse".


Researched and written by Tone Wheeler. Views expressed solely those of the author, not held or endorsed by A+D. Comments may be addressed to [email protected].