Modern Art and Spirituality: Matisse

The next stop on our tour through modern art is Henri Matisse. Compared to Picasso, Matisse was a temperate man with a bourgeoisie work-ethic, yet not humble. Indeed, he imagined himself the high-priest of art. Van Gogh influenced both Matisse and Picasso. John Peter Russel exposed Matisse to van Gogh in 1896 and by 1899 Matisse owned a third of van Gogh’s paintings. Furthermore, he shared Picasso desire to draw on pre-modern arts. For Matisse, pre-modern arts meant Islāmic, African and Byzantine art. Different from Picasso though, Matisse adored Gaugin’ flattening perspectives and ceramics.

In 1889, appendicitis left a young Matisse bedridden. His mother gifted him a paint box while he was infirmed. For the rest of his life, the joy, void, and nostalgia of creating art would haunt Matisse. Matisse once said he believes in God when he works. About his religious education, however, we know little. When asked about religion or God he was cryptic. Although, he reported reciting his Hail Marys and the Paternoster throughout his life to calm his nerves.

Matisse’s art is rather Arcadian for someone so obscure about the religious. His use of bright colours gives one the impression his paintings produce light. His subjects all seem happy. That is until we come to what he consider his greatest work: The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence.

One has to wait until the end of Matisse’s life for this outright religious art work. Indeed, Matisse’s religious oeuvre comes as a gesamtkunstwerk. The Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence is part of a brief post-World War II revived interest in religious art and architecture in Europe.  Le Corbusier, for example, also designed the Notre Dame du Haut in the mining commune of Ronchamp during this time.

How did Matisse come to develop and build this small, unassuming building? After developing cancer and having surgery in 1941, a young part-time nurse Monique Bourgeois cared for Matisse. In 1943 Monique entered a convent in Vence near Nice where Matisse lived. Matisse also moved to Vence. Later, Monique, who took the name Sister Jaques-Marie, asked him to help design a new convent chapel.

The church is nothing if eclectic. Almost a model for the interfaith spaces so popular today, yet more subtle. The sanctuary is not striped of symbols as many such spaces are. Matisse borrows from the Byzantine church the chapel’s use of light. The confession door speaks of North African mosques. The Tree of Life draws on the Tahitian tapa.

Three Matisse murals decorate the small chapel. Behind the altar one of St. Dominic; the side wall a Virgin and child; at the back The Stations of the Cross. Matisse also designed a set of vestments for the priests. The murals were done from his wheelchair using a brush mounted on a long stick. There is something deeply moving about thinking about an old broken Matisse painting The Stations of the Cross. Or Matisse imagining the coloured glass Tree of Life from his wheelchair.

The Stations of the Cross and the Tree of Life face each other. The Stations of the Cross at the back of the chapel represent a strange break in Matisse’s optimistic brightness. Indeed, one sees here a rare glimpse of a melancholic Matisse. The lines are a simple black on white tiles; the figures seem incomplete; the stations numbered. Moving through the nave, on the right a massive Madonna and child using the same simple black lines and white tiles. On the left, coloured glass hints at the Tree of Life. Light scatters all over the monochrome Madonna and child. Then the pièce de résistance, maybe the pinnacle of Matisse’s art: the Tree of Life. Matisse always wanted paintings to seem like they produce light, yet here his painting is light.

Matisse’s Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, like all enduring works of art, contains nostalgia and novelty. Various religious and cultural leitmotifs are spun into the Christian narrative. Like those pre-secular churches often build as texts to informing and enveloping the illiterate, Matisse’s chapel feels familiar and novel at the same time.

Matisse once wrote about the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence: “This chapel is for me the culmination of a life of work, and the coming into flower of an enormous, sincere, and difficult effort. This is not a work that I chose, but rather a work for which I was chosen by fate.” Whether, faith, fortune, or fluke his gesamtkunstwerk echoes various characteristics of contemporary spirituality.

First, like Matisse’s Arcadian painting, our time is saturated with optimism. Our sea of euphoria has tides, but it seldom drains into outright societal depression. Yes, catastrophes grinds things to a halt. One does not, however, have to wait long for someone to offer encouragement, solutions, or outright optimism. Matisse first externalised tragic at the end of his life when painting The Stations of the Cross. Is thr contemporary time not marked by the same avoidance of tragic?

The second point links to the first. One can see the modern avoidance of tragedy in how many want to leave their spirituality unstructured. Yes, many believe in something meta—nature, god, energy, natural laws. The liturgical and communal structuring of belief has, however, fallen out of favour. Religions and liturgies remind us of things we would rather avoid: death, tragedy, sin, weakness. Matisse both started and completed his art career with sickness and feminine caregivers. Helplessness was his inspiration soil but he avoided painting it.

Third, optimism, avoidance of weakness, and an unstructured spirituality produce a hidden burden. Kenneth Silver’s article ends with an antidote. The Mother Superior of the Vence convent expressed surprise that Matisse thanked her for letting design the chapel, he replied that he was doing it for himself. When Sister Jaques-Marie interjected that he had said, he told her he was going it for God. Matisse replied: “I am God.”

Burdening mortals with being gods is like charging a painting with producing light. Matisse’s Tree of Life teaches us a valuable lesson. Tragedy illuminates life. Light is seen best in juxtaposition to simplicity, darkness, and things unfinished. One cannot produce light; one can only colour and structure the light passing through.


Works Consulted

  • Langdon, G., 1988. “A Spiritual Space”: Matisse’s Chapel of the Dominicans at Vence. Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 51(H. 4), pp.542-573.
  • Lemaitre, H., 1950. A MASTERPIECE OF MODERN RELIGIOUS ART BY HENRI MATISSE. Blackfriars, 31(358), pp.35-38.
  • Lewis, D., 2009. Matisse and Byzantium, or, Mechanization Takes Command. Modernism/modernity, 16(1), pp.51-59.
  • Matisse, H. and Flam, J.D., 1995. Matisse on art. Univ of California Press.
  • Silver, K.E., 2006. Matisse at Vence: An Epilogue to” Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Search for Sacred Art”. French Politics, Culture & Society, pp.81-90.
  • Ter Borg, M.B., 2016. Sense Giving in the Art of Henri Matisse. Implicit Religion, 19(1).

Author Details

Calvyn du Toit

Calvyn C. du Toit is a PhD-candidate in Christian Spirituality at the University of South Africa (UNISA), and a Research Associated in the Department of Christian Dogmatics and Ethics at the University of Pretoria. He lives in New York City, where he is h(o)us(e)band to Christine, and 6PM Music Director at the Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal).

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