Matisse and the Nun

An unlikely friendship between the stubbornly secular Henri Matisse and his former model Sister Jacques-Marie led to his Chapel of the Rosary at Vence.



In 1941, a nursing student named Monique Bourgeois responded to an ad placed by Henri Matisse for a “young and pretty night nurse.” Five years later the friendship that developed between Matisse and Bourgeois, by then a Dominican nun named Sister Jacques-Marie, would culminate in the creation of what Matisse considered his life’s greatest achievement: the Chapel of the Rosary in Venice.

Sister Jacques-Marie, the woman Matisse called “the true initiator of the chapel,” died last fall of respiratory failure and other causes at Les Embruns, a rehabilitation center in Bidart, France, where she had been director. She was 84, according to Barbara Freed, a professor of French studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who directed a 2003 documentary on their relationship, A Model for Matisse: The Story of the Vence Chapel.

As the 21-year-old Bourgeois cared for Matisse, then in his early 70s and recovering from an intestinal cancer operation, their mutual affection grew. “She learned a lot from him, and he found her stimulating, funny, and touching,” says Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling. On discovering that his nurse was an amateur artist, Matisse taught her about perspective. When he asked her opinion of his paintings and drawings, she replied, “Monsieur, I like the colors a lot, but the drawings not so much.” Matisse approved of her candid answer and repeated it several times, Sister Jacques-Marie recounts in Freed’s film.

After Bourgeois left the artist’s employ, Matisse called her to request that she pose for him. She was surprised. “When I was a child,” she said to Freed, “my parents told me I was ugly.” But Matisse, who, according to Spurling, admired powerful women, liked “her statuesque quality and the nascent power in her.” In her 2005 book, Matisse the Master, Spurling writes that the artist’s Russian secretary and model, Lidia Delektorskaya, said, “It was Monique, more than any other model, who renewed his determination to push forward once again as a painter into unknown territory.”

Adorned in costume jewelry and a chiffon evening dress with a plunging neckline, Bourgeois sat for her first oil painting, Monique in Gray Robe. When she saw her likeness for the first time, she told Freed, “It didn’t look like me, and I didn’t think it was very good.” Despite her disappointment with the result, she posed for three more paintings: The Idol, Green Dress and Oranges, and Tabac Royal. In her 1993 book about their friendship, Henri Matisse: The Vence Chapel, which Freed translated into English in 2001, Sister Jacques-Marie says that Matisse, who always painted her sleeveless, loved her arms because there was no indentation in her elbow.

In 1943, fate brought the two together again. Matisse, who refused to leave France despite the war, moved to Vence. Bourgeois was convalescing from tuberculosis at a Dominican-run rest home across the street from Matisse’s house. She continued to pose for him, sitting for numerous sketches.

Then, in 1946 Bourgeois took her perpetual vow, against Matisse’s wishes, and became Sister Jacques-Marie. “He was horrified,” says Spurling, adding that Matisse was “a completely secular person who tried hard to dissuade her.” In an impassioned exchange of letters on the subject, Matisse wrote to his former nurse: “I do not need any lectures about religious calling. I’ve not needed the sacraments to glorify the name of God throughout my life. I went as far as Tahiti to admire the beauty of the light he created so I might share it with others through my work.”

Tradition dictated that Sister Jacques-Marie be assigned to a convent in a town other than the one from which she came, but she was sent back to Vence. At the time, the sisters at the rest home were using an old garage with a leaky roof for a chapel. When Sister Jacques-Marie showed Matisse a sketch she had made of the Assumption, he insisted that it be turned into a stained-glass window for a chapel that the two of them would design together.

According to Spurling, “Matisse was waiting for a public commission.” During the next five years, the artist became obsessed with the minute details of the chapel. Sister Jacques-Marie built a plywood model, one-tenth the size, following Matisse’s instructions, and he used it to design all the elements of the building. The motifs in the sapphire blue, emerald green, and lemon yellow stained-glass windows were chosen from three studies. Matisse even designed the priest’s brightly colored vestments, with the aid of Sister Jacques-Marie, who kept the original gouaches and silk swatches in a trunk in her office, says Freed.

In addition to serving as creative adviser, the young nun played the role of diplomat. “There was enormous opposition from within the church, especially from the nuns themselves,” Spurling explains. The sisters were appalled that a modern artist who painted nudes was designing their chapel, and Sister Jacques-Marie “bore the brunt of the mother superior’s fury. But she never wavered, and she was an excellent fighter,” Spurling adds. In the end, Matisse described the Chapel of the Rosary as their “shared project.” When Sister Jacques-Marie told the artist that she believed he was inspired by God, he replied, “Yes, but that god is me.”

When the chapel opened in 1951, the French press sensationalized Matisse’s affection for the nun, with one suggestive headline proclaiming, “The Meeting of a Painter and a Nun Gives Birth to a Chapel.” A reporter from Paris Match even asked if the nun had ever posed for Matisse in the nude. But Sister Jacques-Marie insisted that she thought of the artist as her grandfather: “No one could say there was anything improper between us because there never was,” she tells Freed in the film.

Freed says that one of the challenges in making the documentary was to uncover Sister Jacques-Marie’s real feelings toward Matisse. “What ultimately came out was yes, she had very deep affection for him,” Freed says. And while Freed is certain that the relationship between the two was not carnal, it was more nuanced than the nun described to the press. “It was a very tender, wonderful, and special relationship,” Freed says.

In a letter to his friend Andre Rouveyre, Matisse likened his near-flirtation with Sister Jacques-Marie to a “fleur-tation,” because “what takes place between us is like a shower of flowers—rose petals that we throw at each other.”

At Sister Jacques-Marie’s October funeral in the Vence chapel, which was attended by Matisse family members, her casket was surrounded by masses of anemones, the artist’s favorite flower and the inspiration for the chapel’s candelabra.

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