The Vence Paintings
Curator Rebecca Rabinow explores three interior scenes, painted in Vence during the late winter of 1947 and early spring of 1948, that belong to Matisse's last painted series. Transcript available in Met Media
Matisse had the opportunity to leave France at the beginning of World War II. He refused. "I would have felt I was running away," he said. Health problems necessitated major surgery in 1941, and he spent the following years recuperating; worrying about his wife and children, who were active in the French Resistance; and working as best he could. Matisse remained in Nice until summer 1943, when, as a precaution against bombing attacks, he moved farther inland. He created his final painted series during the five-and-a-half years he spent in Vence, while living in a rented house known as the Villa le Rêve.
Matisse's Vence studio consisted of two connected rooms on the second floor of the house, with windows overlooking large palm trees in the front garden. The septuagenarian artist felt that a lifetime of work had prepared him to use color as a means of intimate expression. In spring 1948 he wrote to his son Pierre that his most recent paintings "impress everyone who has seen them because they are vivid and rich."
Interior with an Egyptian Curtain, Interior with Black Fern, and Large Red Interior made their public debut in February 1949 at Pierre Matisse's New York gallery, where they were displayed unframed so that visitors would feel embraced and then transported by the color. The critic Clement Greenberg was not alone in concluding that "Matisse is at the present moment painting as well as he ever has painted before, and in some respects perhaps, even better." Matisse may have felt that he had achieved all he could with easel painting. He devoted the last years of his life to book illustrations, paper cutouts, and designs for a chapel at Vence.
Matisse and his friend Tériade, a Greek-born publisher, were among the many who fled Paris in 1940, when the Germans invaded France. Frustrated in his exile, Tériade urged Matisse to collaborate on a "book of color"—a proposal that resulted in two publications: an issue of Tériade's magazine, Verve, dedicated to "The Color of Matisse" (1945), and the artist's book Jazz (1947). Matisse and Tériade subsequently collaborated on another issue of Verve devoted to the paintings Matisse created in Vence. The artist designed the maquette by interleaving color reproductions of his recent paintings with specially created black-ink drawings of fruit and foliage. In addition he created a special frontispiece and cover using papiers découpés, or paper cutouts, which would be Matisse's medium of choice during his final years. Reproductions of selected spreads from "Vence: 1944–48," Verve, are mounted in the last gallery of the exhibition.