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Trompe l’Oeil – Matisse inspires

colours of Nice

A winning entry in The Good Life France 2014 Writing Contest, the judges loved Eric Freeze’s fantastically rich and lavish descriptions that bought the south of France alive…

Matisse first came to Nice for his health, for his bronchitis and to escape the incendiary escalations of World War I. The first couple days, a tempest blew waves of foam onto the pebbled beach. Wind battered his shutters. He was staying at the Beau Rivage in the Old Town, now one of the most luxurious hotels on the Promenade des Anglais. It was winter, and after a month of rain and feeling sequestered in his room, he decided to paint the gloom as a parting gift to this place. The painting is in the museum in Nice bearing his name, next to a Roman arena and a centuries-old monastery. Its colors are decidedly un-Matisse, no bright reds or blues like his odalisques or still lifes. Instead, smudges of dark gray dominate the canvas. Palm trees are haloed with muted green and brown, conveying a sense of perpetual motion. The tableau reveals Matisse’s inner psychology. What kind of lunatic could have convinced him to come here?

I imagine Matisse fastening his luggage and muttering obscenities the day he planned to leave. This godforsaken place where it rained all the time. His time here was a failure. Only three paintings, each a cramped and sequestered testament to his continual unhappiness. So, bags packed, he took his morning coffee in his room and decided to open the window.

My God, he said.

Matisse was not a believing man. Many people who have visited the church he designed in Vence have made the mistake of assuming he was. No, Matisse spent hours arguing with the nuns about whether or not the outline of a breast was appropriate for a church. Mary was a woman! But the church was a gift to the nuns for their doting attention while he was convalescing. A gift. Here, now, was a gift only an artist understood. Matisse pushed open the shutters and locked them into the iron struts.

It was the light.

Overnight, the mistral had blown away the clouds and the sea had churned the water a milky blue. From his hotel room, the sun lit the opaque depths so that the blue almost fluoresced. Everywhere the light formed shapes. Shutters raked the light in pastel green, yellow, and orange. Palm fronds scissored through the air. Already the fauvist’s mind was carving his world into strips of color, rearranging them for maximum effect. My God. There was no way he could leave this place now.

But I must. I’m renting an apartment not far from the Beau Rivage, and I have a contract telling me that by the end of the week I will no longer have a place to stay. Every morning, I’ve sat at a mahogany desk, tapping away at computer keys, knowing that a plane ticket and a job and responsibilities would eventually push me back to the States. My window overlooks a gravel courtyard where waiters slice entrecotes and shovel couscous into their mouths before the onslaught of the noon rush. An iron portico separates my world from the throngs of tourists and the incessant market noise on the Cours Saleya. Two buildings away is the apartment where Matisse moved after his epiphany at the Beau Rivage. It guards the last entrance onto the Promenade des Anglais before it slopes up around the cornice, past the solemn monument to the dead. These edifices feel so permanent, while everything about me is temporary. Last night, at a playground with my children, another young father said there were many short-term rentals in Old Nice. He would never want to live there himself, but for tourists it was ideal. I tried to detect any hint of disapproval but the man was merely pointing out the obvious: the Old Town was the perfect place for someone like me.

This summer is the tenth time I’ve visited Nice for anywhere from a week to several months. I’ve been here alone, with my spouse, and with one, then two, then three children. It’s a place that has become familiar. Every time I leave I am planning my next trip back, to rent a larger apartment, find a more livable area, to better blend in and improve somehow on my experience from the time before. And yet I always remain a foreigner, here for a brief period to enjoy the resources that tourists have come to Nice to consume for years. I’m like a trompe l’oeil painting on the side of a building, trying despite myself to blend in, to pass myself off as something other than blank concrete.

My last day in Nice, I lay on my back at Castel Plage, not far from my apartment. It was mid-afternoon, the light just descending from its apex. A more contemporary artist, Yves Klein, famously wrote about this blue, how the gulls cut holes in his sky. He wanted them out, expunged from his canvas so he could contemplate that one unadulterated color. My own image of Nice is full of holes, a painting that is never complete. It changes with each visit, each interaction morphing along with personal changes: a receding hairline, a growing family, changing fortunes. Why I am here is the unanswerable question, my reasons as shifting as the pebbled shoreline beneath my back.

But being here is reason enough.

Below me, my children toss chalky stones into the purling water. The sea is calm today, and families inflate arm floats and yellow kiddie tubes. Schools of minnows dart near the shore. In a moment, my daughter will snorkel for the first time. She will strap a mask on her face and walk cautiously in. At first, she will see rocks and algae and the occasional sea urchin. But soon, she notices motion. A school of sarpa nips at coral-encrusted limestone, touching their fishy mouths to its pitted surface. It’s unlike anything she has ever seen before. She hovers for a moment, then dives. The sides of the fish ignite in lines of pure light.

Eric Freeze is the author of Dominant Traits (Dufour, 2012).  He has published short stories, translations and essays in numerous periodicals. A native of Alberta, Canada, Eric Freeze now divides his time between Indiana where he teaches creative writing at Wabash College and Nice, France. The essay above is an altered excerpt from Eri’s forthcoming book Hemingway on a Bike (University of Nebraska Press, October 2014/ Amazon).

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