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The Magical Matisse Chapel in Vence

The Chapelle du Rosaire is often referred to as the Matisse Chapel. It is a small chapel built and decorated between 1949 and 1951 for Dominican nuns in the town of Vence on the French Riviera. The chapel was built and decorated by the artist, Henri Matisse.

This small Chapel houses a few Matisse originals. However the Chapel itself is regarded by Matisse as his major “Masterpiece”.

Why did Matisse build a chapel in Vence?

In 1941, Matisse, who lived most of the year in Nice became sick with cancer and underwent surgery. Throughout his long recovery period, he needed a nurse to look after him. Matisse wrote the following ad, which was placed in the Nice nursing school:

Night Nurse Needed – Should be young and pretty. 

A 21 year old, student nurse by the name of Monique Bourgeois saw the ad. She was young but not so pretty. However as the sole breadwinner of her family, she needed the money, and applied anyway.

Matisse asked her to pose for him, which she agreed to do. There are several drawings and paintings of Monique Bourgeois.

Henri Matisse Paintings - fauvism art
Monique in Tabac Royal, 1943

In 1943 Monique decided to enter the Dominican convent in Vence, a nearby hill town to Nice. Matisse eventually bought a home in Vence. The young nun visited him and told him of the plans of the Dominicans to build a chapel. She asked Matisse if he would help design it.

Although he had never done anything like this before, he agreed to help. At the age of 77, Matisse began the greatest project of his life and spent more than four years working on the chapel.

Matisse Chapel, Vence
The Matisse Chapel, Vence / Jon Anderson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Design of the Matisse Chapel

Matisse designed the architecture of the Chapel, the stained glass windows, its interior furnishings, its murals and the vestments of the priests. There are three sets of stained glass windows, all using just three colours:

  • Bright yellow for the sun
  • Bright green for the vegetation; and
  • Bold blue for the Riviera skies and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea
Matisse art - stainglass windows designed by Matisse
The Stained Glass window in the Matisse Chapel / Monica Arellano-Ongpin (CC BY 2.0)

For the walls, Matisse designed three great murals, painted on white tiles with black paint.

At this stage of his life, Matisse was so crippled with sickness that he could only work from a wheelchair. He improvised by using a long stick with a brush strapped to his arm. Pieces of paper were stuck on the wall. He would then paint the images using the stick. The images were then transferred to tiles by skilled craftsmen.

The murals in the Matisse Chapel depict Saint Dominic, the founder of the Order of Dominicans, the Virgin and Child, and the Stations of the Cross, which Matisse incorporated on one wall in one cohesive composition.

Travel French Riviera - Matisse Chapel in Vence
Matisse Chapel in Vence on the Left / mksfca (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

How to get there from Nice using Public Transport

There are two buses:

  • Take the Bus #400 Vence (par St Paul) which goes to both Vence and Saint Paul de Vence; or
  • Bus #94 Halte Routière de l’Ara which goes directly to Vence and doesn’t stop at Saint-Paul-de-Vence

The bus stops for both buses are on rue Verdun/Albert 1ere, which is between the Meridian Hotel and the start of the Promenade du Paillon gardens. You can also catch both buses at one of the stops along the Promenade des Anglais.  The buses leave every 30-45 minutes on weekdays and every 45 minutes to an hour on weekends and public holidays..

The last #400 bus leaves Vence at 7:15pm on weekdays, and 7:30pm on weekends and holidays (picking up in Saint-Paul-de-Vence 5 minutes later).   If you miss the last bus, the most inexpensive way to get back to Nice is to take a taxi (or Uber) down to the Cagnes-sur-mer train station and then catch the train back to Nice (the last train is around 11pm).

For more information, press here.

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