Christmas 1917: Elsewhere in France, war was raging, but not in Nice, where Henri Matisse had checked into the Hôtel Beau-Rivage. A few years earlier, the painter had been turned down for military service on the grounds of poor health. Safe in Paris, he’d been haunted by guilt at how little he could contribute to the war effort, and he struggled—fruitfully—with some of the most severe, ascetic paintings of his career. They were “displays of force,” one fellow painter declared at the time. Now Matisse wanted a little less reality. Leaving his wife and younger children behind in Paris, he’d gone south, stopping along the way to visit his eldest son Jean, who’d been called up and was stationed west of Marseille. At the Beau-Rivage on January 1, 1918, the day after his forty-eighth birthday, Matisse began painting what would be his last self-portrait: a chilly depiction of a suited, bespectacled, reserved bourgeois with a brush that we have come to accept as the quintessential image of this artist. It’s “a powerful, anti-heroic, oddly provisional image for a man approaching 50 with an international reputation,” writes his biographer, Hilary Spurling. Although masquerading as the solid citizen (the anti-bohemian, the functionary of art), the painter shows himself with a suitcase at his feet. He was a nomad.
Matisse stayed on at the Beau-Rivage until early April 1918. Over the next few years he would head south each winter, staying in various hotels around Nice, mainly the Hôtel de la Méditerranée, and would eventually find a place of his own in town. Years later, he reminisced about the Méditerranée with Francis Carco, the arch-bohemian poet and novelist who also happened to be staying in Nice at the same time: “A good old hotel, I must say! And what lovely Italian-style ceilings! What tiles!… I stayed there four years for the pleasure of painting nudes and figures in an old rococo salon. Do you remember the way the light came through the shutters? It came from below like footlights in a theater. Everything was fake, absurd, terrific, delicious….” The impassive figure we see in Matisse’s 1918 self-portrait does not look like the kind of man who would have a camp sensibility, a “love of the unnatural” and “of artifice and exaggeration,” as Susan Sontag famously defined it. The man in the picture is still the one who spent many years battling with his Bathers by a River, started in 1909 and only completed (or, as Paul Valéry would have said, abandoned) in 1917. Or he is the man who—to take an example from the fine exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (through March 17), “Matisse: In Search of True Painting”—had painted the darkly luminous, bluntly geometricized still life Apples, 1916. The fruit is beautiful, but it would not have tempted Eve to bite.
The journey to Nice led Matisse to a different manner of painting. His was to become an “often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content”—again, the words are Sontag’s, and though written without reference to Matisse, they are apt. The art of Matisse’s Nice period is often associated with the “return to order” proclaimed by Jean Cocteau as the watchword for the 1920s, but this seems mistaken. The neoclassicism and archaism of some of Picasso’s work or of the Novecento Italiano are real manifestations of a return to order. (With the Italians, the political implications were clear enough; their great promoter was Mussolini’s mistress, Margherita Sarfatti.) In Matisse’s case, the work of the war years is more deeply permeated with a search for order than what he produced in the decade that followed. In Nice, he rediscovered the intoxicating purity of light, but he also rediscovered—through Auguste Renoir, whom he went to visit almost immediately in nearby Cagnes-sur-Mer—the Impressionist treatment of light, using it in his paintings to dissolve hard boundaries between forms.
But unlike most of the Impressionists, Matisse would not be pre-eminently a landscapist, a plein-air painter. He would not be a painter of nature, because “to be natural,” per Sontag and Oscar Wilde, “is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” In “fake, absurd, terrific, delicious” hotel rooms, ones that turned natural light into theatrical lighting, he found that “the richness and the silver clarity of the light of Nice” had been trapped and condensed, intensified even when gathered in shade, and bounced from wall to wall and ceiling to floor in a kind of dizzying ebullience: always changing, always in motion. The exhibition at the Met—the theme of which is how Matisse “used his completed canvases as tools, repeating compositions in order to compare effects, gauge his progress, and, as he put it, ‘push further and deeper into true painting’”—is perfectly pitched to his Nice period. His newfound fascination with theatricality, combined with his immersion in the mercurial nature of light and its incessant intersuffusions, enabled him to show the same motifs again within the compass of the same room, which can never be as neutral a background as a proper artist’s studio, and can never be the same way twice.