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Encounter With Matisse.


The year was 2015 and it was Spring in France. It was after a workshop I had taken in Villefranche sur Mer. Some free time arrived and we hired a car to wander about the hills around Nice. Arriving in Vence with a necessity to eat, and sitting at a table outside the Maison Marc, a gentleman leaned over the table and enquired as to whether we wanted to see the church? He had apparently heard me asking the waitress about the Matisse Chapel. He had also picked up on the fact that I was an artist as I had ‘L’Art de L’Aquarelle’ in my hand. This edition had my article in it.

He could ‘guide us to the church as he was going home that way anyway’. I had noticed him sitting at the table next to me in his Panama hat with several other French gentleman. A typical scene of French men leaning casually into their cognacs. “OK, d’acord, allons-y!” said I, with complete surprise at my rapid reply. Must have been his hat. Two seconds afterwards, analysing my spontaneous and reactionary acceptance, we walked to our cars. Having never driven on the RHS of any road I kept hugging the hills a bit too closely. Sitting ‘on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road’ was enough to concentrate on let alone what lay ahead.

Trying not to sideswipe the embankments (there is a natural tendency to think you are too close to the centre line) and dodging oncoming trucks (how do they manoeuvre those tight bendy hill roads…Mon Dieu!) I began to think of old black and white espionage movies like The Third Man and The 39 Steps. Even Nordic Noir. Or worse…Wolf Creek!!! What on earth was I doing?

The church ended up being only a ten minute drive away …and it was shut. “Ah, je suis très désolé” said my companion. “Never mind, venez avec moi and I will show you something.”.

Well by now we should have just said thanks, but no thanks, and bye bye but I said…”OK”. It must have still been his hat which was still perched at just the right de rigueur French angle. We drove off again to a country property that had in its centre a tall rectangular building, very dark, old and intimidating. Please come in said our companion and I said…”d’accord”!

We had by now exchanged names and he had removed his hat. He opened the huge heavy door telling me it was 500 years old. Blimey I was thinking, he lives in here? We went in and immediately facing us were heavy old stairs and total blackness. He closed the door and I thought ‘well…hmmm…this is interesting’. I hoped we were not going downstairs to any cellar. We went up. Up to the third floor, in near total darkness holding on to a thick old oak handrail all the way because the stairs were so steep. “It’s up here” he said. I’m thinking what is this? Our demise?

The landing at the top opened into a sort of penthouse full of light and signs of life and apparently a connection to electricity. It was where he lived. He explained that he had inherited the property from his uncle and it had been in the family for centuries.

We had an obligatory coffee and he brought out some paintings. Whoa! They looked like Matisse. Lots of them! “Come across to the studio” he said. I’m breathing a bit more rapidly now and have multitudinous thoughts in my head. What is this? Where are we really? Are we now going to the dungeon?

We went out to the landing and across pitch blackness to another door. He opened it and inside, thankfully illuminated by a few windows, was a time warp. Dark, dusty and reeking with age, nothing had been touched for decades. There was the usual clutter of brown tables, chairs, bookcases, easels and frames all covered with grey dust and pieces of paper, bits of chalk and zinc tubes of paint with other items associated with art…brushes, pencils, coloured paper, glue pots, frames, canvases. “This is where my uncle painted with Matisse” he said (FYI the paintings he had shown me were his uncles, not Matisse’s).

I didn’t know whether to fall over or gasp or stay in my state of shock plus I had to stay upright as I could have fallen on something important. So I stood still and just took it all in, utterly having lost all speech. I was in the room where Matisse painted in his final years. Possibly no one else had ever seen this room.

Exiting backwards out of the room, in honour of what was before me, we went back to the penthouse. Our new friend was so pleased to have shared this with us. He remains a very famous legend himself and we were privileged and honoured to meet him but privacy prevents disclosing his name.

To this day I don’t know why this happened but the synchronicity of life really does throw you some experiences.

For your information Villa La Rêve in Vence, France (Matisse’s actual home during his old age which is NOT the house in this article) is available for painting groups to hire out. It also holds art classes. Google Villa La Rêve for information.

Amanda Hyatt

Amanda painting around Vence