An Impromptu Evening with Matisse

After a busy June, we suddenly realized the Matisse exhibit at the MFA Boston was closing in a matter of days! Now, we are not terribly spontaneous people, so it should give you a good indication of our true and undying love for Matisse that we dropped everything, packed up the kids and some sandwiches, and drove into town on a weeknight.

The current MFA exhibit, Matisse in the Studio, focuses on his creative process and inspiration, and pairs many of his major works with the actual physical objects depicted in them. You can read more about it here.


It was a really fun exhibit to do with the kids – well, with Vivienne. (Hugh just barreled around, waived at people, and tried to touch priceless art.) But Vivienne is SUCH a good museum buddy! We spent most of the time making a game of finding the objects that were repeated in painting after painting. “More lemons, Mom! And look! Another chocolate pot! Matisse must have reeeally liked hot chocolate.”

Meanwhile, Hugh:


I’m certainly no Matisse scholar, but I do absolutely love his work, and particularly his later work – bold, edited, simple forms. I find it so exhilarating! It’s like the economy of poetry on a canvas.

This exhibit touched on Matisse’s last major project: the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, a tiny chapel in the hills of the French Riviera. Ryan and I drove HOURS out of our way to see it a couple years ago – with no regrets!

Vence is a small, dense town built into the mountains, and I remember the anticipation as we drove up, up, up around tight corners, through the medieval walled village, across a massive old stone bridge with a deep gorge below and sweeping views down to the Mediterranean.

We found a spot to park, then walked up cobbled streets, an arbor of ancient palm trees stretching above us, shifting around in the warm breeze. Three year old Vivienne was wild after the drive, bounding ahead, prompting a brief change-of-tactic conversation for her parents.  “Perhaps we’ll take turns…”

Then, the chapel! Pretty unassuming from the street: narrow, white, and spare, with a tiled roof. If we hadn’t been looking for it, we might not have stopped.

But inside! An invigorating sacred space, all bright white except for vibrant stripes of cobalt, aqua, and lemon yellow stained glass .

Chapelle du Rosaire - Architectural Review
Chapelle du Rosaire (interior) Photo by Architectural Review

Matisse designed every bit of it, from the structure on down to the candelabras and clergy’s chasubles (robes), the stained glass, and enormous decorative tile installations glazed with larger than life line drawings of the Stations of the Cross, the Madonna and Child, and Saint Dominic (not pictured).

No photos allowed up in the chapel, but these chasubles were on display in the museum space below. A maquette (preliminary model) of a chasuble is on display in the MFA exhibit, and curators noted that, “Worn, the robe transforms the body of the priest into a mobile part of the overall space, a living and ever-changing artwork.”

Of the chapel, he later wrote, “Despite its imperfections, I think it is my masterpiece, the result of a lifetime devoted to the search for truth.”

His self-proclaimed masterpiece… inspired by, and designed in collaboration with, a nun – his former nurse and model, who later entered the religious order of the Dominicans. It’s quite a story, and I love it because it speaks to the inspiration we humans draw from one another.  Without their strange relationship, linked over years and odd circumstances, nurtured by mutual affection, this incredible space would never have been.

I’m incredibly grateful for our quiet moments of reflection there!  And they were indeed quiet, because we did end up taking turns with Vivienne, who loudly proclaimed that she needed to go potty about 30 seconds after we reverently entered the chapel.  C’est la vie. We let her run off her energy in the courtyard.

Look how little she is!

As was the case that day back in 2015, we had to do some trading off at the MFA the other night. Little kids in museums really are ticking time bombs. In a best case scenario, you’ve got like 90 minutes.  So, after swapping kids a couple times, we departed the museum proper to picnic on the lawn.

Hastily made PB&J’s never tasted so good.
Vivienne mimics the “Night” half of Garcia’s “Night and Day” sculptures.

After a quick dinner (bedtime already upon us – risky!), Vivienne declared that she had a surprise to show me, and I MUST close my eyes.  She led me, with excited giggles, around the corner of the museum and into the Japanese garden, grandly announcing, “Now you can open your eyes… It’s a SECRET GARDEN!”

I admit I’d never taken the time to stop in there, and it was so refreshing! Cool mist was spraying down on the foliage, and the soft sound insulated the garden from Fenway traffic just outside.  Neatly combed rocks made elegant arcs around boulders and trees. It made me so glad about the whole evening, ending up in that magical spot right at the golden evening hour, holding hands with my big girl, exploring the world.


PSA: Matisse in the Studio closes this Saturday 7/9/17, so consider squeezing in a quick visit if you haven’t already!

You can read all about the Chapelle du Rosaire, including about the nurse-turned-model-turned-nun, Sister Jacques-Marie, who initiated the project, on the very thorough Wikipedia page here.   There’s also fun documentary called “A Model for Matisse” that’s streaming on Netflix, if you are so inclined.




One thought on “An Impromptu Evening with Matisse

  1. Loved reading about your adventure, Caroline! A Matisse exhibit was my first foray into a museum, too, way back when Kristina was two! I can still vividly remember that day 36 years ago! Children truly are like sponges, soaking up what we may not know till years later.


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