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Film recalls bond between Matisse and model nun

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

A beautifully made documentary sheds new light on the creation of Henri Matisse's Chapelle du Rosaire (Chapel of the Rosary) in the village of Vence, France, and his relationship with the nun who was once his model.

The motif for a "sapphire blue, emerald green and lemon yellow" window in Henri Matisse's Chapelle du Rosaire (Chapel of the Rosary) in Vence, France, was inspired by the "prickly pear fig," a native cactus, according to French Dominican Sister Jacques-Marie. Her friendship with the famed artist is the subject of a documentary that will be shown at CMU today.

"A Model for Matisse: The Story of the Vence Chapel" unfolds from Sister Jacques-Marie's point of view. As such, it introduces another facet of complexity to the understanding of Matisse and is refreshingly different from the kind of art-historical analysis that too often includes only that which supports the academic theories of its author.

The film, which was directed and produced by Barbara Freed, Carnegie Mellon professor of French and applied linguistics, will be previewed on campus today. Its formal debut will be held in November at the Matisse Museum in Nice.

As a child, Freed and her artist parents spent one summer in Vence, where Marc Chagall was a neighbor and Picasso was working nearby. Matisse had died by then. Freed has authored and translated books about the rich artistic presence in the south of France and became interested in telling this particular story while translating a book Sister Jacques-Marie had written about her friendship with Matisse and the work that the artist considered "in spite of its imperfections, to be [his] masterpiece."

The two met in 1941 when then Monique Bourgeois answered an ad for "a young and pretty nurse" to aid Matisse, who was recovering from surgery for intestinal cancer. Though an amateur painter herself, Bourgeois wasn't aware of Matisse's status when she sought the position.

While that stage of their relationship was relatively brief, serendipitous circumstances would continue to bring them together.

What sets this film apart is the voice of Sister Jacques-Marie (French with subtitles), who is now a spry 83 years old.

"Model" will be shown in English beginning at 5 p.m. in the Giant Eagle Auditorium and in French at 5:15 p.m. in the H&SS Auditorium, both on the ground floor of Baker Hall, CMU. The screenings are free and open to the public. For information, call 412-268-6094.

Interspersed are documentation that confirm the credibility of her memory and images of paintings by Sister Jacques-Marie and by Matisse -- including those for which she modeled -- as well as rare film clips of the master himself in his studio.

That the story flows as effortlessly as a family recollection belies the amount of time that Freed invested in reviewing archival materials, interviewing, visiting sites and creating a visual sense of place that ensures that the sensual experience matches the intellectual one.

Sister Jacques-Marie is delightful -- humble and direct, obedient yet impish, at peace with herself -- and one can understand why the sophisticated, globally renowned artist found connection with the plain-spoken country woman.

During World War II, Matisse moved from coastal France to the inland village of Vence, at about the time that Bourgeois was sent to a Dominican convent in the same town to be cared for during an illness. In 1943, she decided to join the order and in 1946 became Sister Jacques-Marie.

Matisse objected strenuously to Bourgeois' decision to enter the convent but reconciled with her and eventually determined to bring to fruition the sisters' dream of a chapel for their convent.

Sister Jacques-Marie, a French Dominican nun, left, discussed her friendship with Henri Matisse with CMU professor Barbara Freed in Freed's documentary.

This generous gesture was rejected by a mother superior who was seemingly jealous of the attention her young charge was receiving from the older artist, and Sister Jacques-Marie's attempts to convince the head nun of Matisse's determination and the need to speak with him went unheeded. This, predictably, did not deter Matisse, who went to the press. Mother Superior, Sister Jacques-Marie says with a small smile and twinkling eyes, learned of the plans for the chapel by reading about them in the newspaper.

It took four years for Matisse to realize his dream, begun in 1947. Awash with light and color, the chapel was both designed and decorated by the artist, including its candelabras, crucifix, altar and liturgical vestments.

Press coverage wasn't always so helpful, and reporters sensationalized the relationship between the artist and the nun. Sister Jacques-Marie maintains that nothing untoward ever happened between them. But their deep fondness for one another is evident in her conversation and in read snippets of his correspondence.

The chapel was completed in 1951, but by then Matisse, who died in 1954, was too weak to attend the consecration ceremony on June 25. Sister Jacques-Marie, having reached the end of her tolerance for her superior's treatment of her, moved away the next year, to Matisse's disappointment. She last saw him a couple of months before his death, she says -- adding that had she known he was going to die so soon she would have remained in Vence. Her superior forbade her to attend his funeral.

While these events are unseemly and harsh, the ultimate message of the film is one of triumph. Conceived by an unlikely pairing, the exquisite little church, which gleams like a Faberge egg, breathes life with each new visitor who comes to admire, each congregation that gathers to worship.

Mary Thomas can be reached at or 412-263-1925.

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