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The story of the Matisse Chapel in Vence, south of France

Night Nurse Needed – Should be young and pretty. This was the ad Henri Matisse placed with the nursing school in Nice, France in 1942. He was seventy-two years-old and still working while recovering from a serious surgery. He required constant care and needed someone to fill in while his regular night nurse was away.

Matisse and the young night nurse

A twenty-one-year-old, student nurse by the name of Monique Bourgeois saw the ad. She was young… but pretty? She had always been told she was plain. But as the sole breadwinner of her family, she needed the money, so she applied anyway.

Monique and Matisse hit it off immediately. They were kindred spirits, and the artist became a grandfather-figure to her. When the great artist asked her opinion on one of his paintings, Monique answered truthfully. She said, “I like the colours a lot, but the lines… not so much.” Matisse loved her honesty.

One day, Matisse asked the young student nurse to sit for a painting. She was flattered. He gave her a lovely (and revealing) dress to wear – unlike anything she had ever worn. She must have felt very beautiful as she sat there posing for one of the greatest artists alive.

However, when she saw the finished product, any ideas of her beauty were dashed to the ground. She thought it was awful and she told him so. She said it was just a few lines with blobs of colour and it looked nothing like her. Matisse explained that he didn’t paint what was in front of him but the emotions it produced. In her, he saw an expressive face that exuded a feeling of being alive. She felt a bit better.

Matisse and the Nun

They became great friends, but Matisse’s regular nurse returned and life took them in different directions. But, as fate would have it, a few years later, in 1943, they ended just across the street from one another in Vence. Matisse had moved inland from Nice to escape the threat of coastal bombing, and Monique had come to the Dominican convent across from his house to recover from tuberculosis.

They were thrilled to rekindle their friendship, and Monique sat for a few more sessions with the aging artist. She appears in many drawings as well as four paintings: Monique (Monique in Grey Dress), L’Idol (The Idol), La Robe Verte et les Oranges (Green Dress and Oranges), and Tabac Royal.

After her recovery, Monique decided to stay at the convent and become a nun. Matisse tried unsuccessfully to dissuade her. They parted ways, and Monique became Sister Jacques-Marie. A few months later the atheistic artist accepted her decision and wrote a long letter apologizing and wishing her the best.

At the time the Dominican Sisters were in need of a chapel, and a priest from Paris was sent to make some preliminary plans. As it turned out, he was a Matisse fan. When he learned that the great artist lived just across the street, he asked to meet him. Sister Jacques-Marie introduced him and they chatted about the new chapel. Matisse surprised them by announcing that he would take care of the windows and decoration.

Everyone was thrilled… except the Mother Superior. She didn’t want an atheist artist who painted nudes to have anything to do with their new chapel. And she stood her ground. It took the intervention of Mother Superior’s superior in Paris to enable Matisse to proceed. Sister Jacques-Marie was put in charge of keeping the peace. She called it her “four years of misery.”

Matisse and the Chapel of Vence

Despite never having done a project like this, Matisse, age seventy-seven, threw himself into it with gusto. He designed every detail: stained-glass windows, flooring, wall decoration, lighting, even the priest’s robes.

The Chapelle du Rosaire opened in 1951. When the press got wind that the chapel was a joint project between Matisse and a nun who had been his model, they went looking for a scandal. The papers hinted at a secret romance, and those rumours plagued Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie until their deaths. Matisse died in 1954, and Sister Jacques-Marie was not allowed to attend the funeral. She died in 2005 near Biarritz.

Both Matisse and Sister Jacques-Marie denied they had ever had a physical relationship. But they did confess to a close friendship in which the artist was like a grandfather. Matisse described it as a “fleurtation.” He said, “What takes place between us is like a shower of flowers (fleurs in French) — rose petals that we throw at each other.” At the age of 71 when Sister Jacques-Marie was asked directly whether she and Matisse had had a love affair, she replied, “Well, there is more than one kind of love affair.” Until she died, she kept a photo of the artist in her room.

Book: Sister Jacques-Marie wrote about her experience with Matisse and the chapel in her book, Henri Matisse – The Vence Chapel

Visit: You can visit Chapelle Du Rosaire (also known as the Matisse Chapel) at 466 av H.Matisse, 06140 Vence, France.  Chapel Website (in French)

Read about the Matisse Museum, Nice

Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France and blogs at curiousrambler.com. She is the author of Curious Histories of Provence, Curious Histories of Nice, France and French Holidays and Traditions

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