Book Review: A Journey into Matisse's South of France

Betty Jo Riggs's picture

A Journey into Matisses’s South of France by Laura McPhee
Hong Kong:  Roaring Forties Press, 2006.

In English 101, the assignment was to critique a painting.  I was given the task of writing about a Matisse painting.  It was modern, filled with color, and it made no sense at all to me.  I panned it royally.  A few weeks later, invited to the professor’s home with other classmates for coffee, I noticed with chagrin that the subject of my essay was framed and occupied a prominent place in his living room.  That was in 1955, shortly after the artist’s death.  Had I read Laura McPhee’s A Journey into Matisses’s South of France before writing that essay, perhaps my grade would have been higher.

For either a lover of art or a traveler to France, Laura McPhee’s A Journey into Matisses’s South of France is an informative and beautiful book.  McPhee has successfully melded two genres:  biography and travel.

Henri Matisse’s lifetime search for the art within him led him from Paris to St. Tropez to Collioure to Nice, Vence, and, finally, Cimiez where Matisse died in 1954.  McPhee devotes a chapter to each of Matisse’s home bases.  She vividly describes the areas and explains what Matisse learned from each setting. Photos often include pictures of Matisse’s haunts as they appear today as well as the artist’s works.

After an unsuccessful stint as a law student, Matisee studied art in Paris by first copying masterpieces of French art.  Later he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. However, he needed to find his own style.  He turned to the south.

At St. Tropez, he discovered the extraordinary light of the Mediterranean coast.  The artist here experimented with Pointillism but found neither it nor his earlier study of Impressionism was for him. The colors of the Mediterranean were so vibrant and so different from the north that Matisse captured them on canvas.  His work met with rejection because it was so startingly different from pervious art.

In Collioure, a remote village on the coast but near the Spanish border, Matisse became the leader of Les Fauves, the modern painters. Here he began painting views from his studios which he continued throughout his life.  Collioure was a favorite spot, and Matisse returned often.

Matisse was the leader of the avant garde, but other painters followed in the modern tradition.  Picasso, Modigliani, Rivera, and Kandinsky turned the art world upside down.  Matisse, being older and with a family, had little in common with the younger artists.  But while in Nice, he often visited Renoir who was a mentor. 

During World War II, Matisse took refuge in Vence, far from the German occupation.   His daughter and his ex-wife had no such refuge from the Gestapo.  Each was arrested.  Marguerite, his daughter, escaped as she was on a train bound for a concentration camp.  Amelie, served six months in prison.  McPhee tells the story of the artist’s family throughout her book, but it is clear that his art was his first priority.

By 1941, Matisse’s health was very poor.  He was confined to his bed or a wheelchair, but he found a way to continue his art.  Although he couldn’t wield a brush, he used large scissors to make colorful cutouts which became models for decorative tiles, pottery, stained glass windows, and posters.  They still exhibited the bright, clear colors he so loved.  From 1948 through 1951, he spent nearly every day working on the design of La Chapelle du Rosaire, a chapel for nuns. His last project was a stained glass window, commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller for the Union Church of Pocantico Hills, New York. 

Matisse had found recognition for his art and became a symbol for Nice and the Riviera.  Nice provided the land for his burial in Cimiez; the archbishop conducted the funeral; the mayor delivered the eulogy.  His grave faces the sea, and the flowers and sun surround him eternally in the sun-drenched colors he needed to paint.

How lucky am I to have finally understood Henri Matisse’s art through Laura McPhee’s research and photos.  How lucky am I to be able to travel soon to Nice and to experience that famous light to which Matisse and others have been drawn.  With McPhee’s book in hand, one could explore the south of France on a Matisse tour.  That would surely be a trip to remember.


For more information on Roaring Forties Press Titles, please see:





Betty Jo Riggs is the Co-Editor of Retiree Travel for Wandering Educators