Since becoming a tourist resort in the 1860s, the winding stretch of Mediterranean coastline extending from Marseilles to Menton—known as the French Riviera—has inspired numerous artists with its scenic beauty and radiant light. Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was among the first modern artists to settle in the town of Nice, the center of artistic and intellectual life in the region, where he would remain from 1917 until the end of his life in 1954. Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Raoul Dufy (1877–1953), and Chaim Soutine (1894–1943) were among the other artists drawn to the spectacular scenery and distinctive clarity of light along the coast. Henri Matisse and Modern Art on the French Riviera (through October 25, 2009) presents approximately 35 paintings and sculptures by Matisse and his contemporaries from the Museum’s collection and two local private collections.
Michael Taylor, the Museum’s Muriel and Philip Berman Curator of Modern Art, organized the installation celebrating the French Riviera’s mythic allure for modern artists. According to Taylor, “the sun-drenched beaches and fishing villages of the south of France attracted some of the great colorists of 20th-century painting, including Matisse and Bonnard, whose work responded to the region’s natural beauty.”
The Museum holds the largest group of works from Matisse’s “Nice period” – paintings and sculpture that the artist made in the city between 1917 and 1930 - outside of France. The artist’s principal subject in these works was the female figure, often depicted as an odalisque standing, seated, or reclining in luxurious, richly decorated interiors, and dressed in oriental costume. Matisse also produced numerous still life paintings during this period, which convey languor and opulence and contain a particular emphasis on the interplay between pattern and decoration.
Matisse’s work in Nice was also reflective of a trend during the post-World War I period as artists rejected Cubism’s fragmented, shattered view of the world and returned to a more representational style of painting. Matisse, along with Dufy, André Derain (1880-1954) and others continued to explore intense, pure color in their work, while also pursuing fresh ideas about harmony, order, and classical beauty in art. Their work will be juxtaposed with the examples of their friends and students, such as Max Weber (1881-1961), who studied with Matisse, Jean Souverbie (1891-1981), and Aristide Maillol (1861-1944).
With the approach of the Second World War, the atmosphere of the Riviera as an artist idyll was quickly coming to an end. In 1942 German forces occupied the region and imposed anti-Semitic racial laws under the pro-Nazi Vichy government. After the war Pablo Picasso moved to the South of France, and incorporated elements of the Mediterranean cultural tradition into his work, but the Riviera would never regain its central status or its mythic allure for artists.