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Henri Matisse, The Chapel at Vence, and “The Color of Light”

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 19, 2017
Category: Drama

I didn’t set out to write a play. But one night as I was following some random thread on the Web, I happened upon a mention of the Chapelle du Rosaire — the chapel that Henri Matisse designed in Vence. Decades ago, on a trip to Provence, I’d made a pilgrimage to the chapel, and, like everyone who experiences it, I was flattened by its alternately raw and subtle beauty. But I knew nothing of the story of its creation.

Then we took a cruise. Not the sort of thing we do, which is why we did it. There were 700 kids on the ship — it was Spring Break — and the Small Person, true to form, spoke to none of them. I also hid out and read all the books I brought. Then, in desperation, I read all the articles on the Web about Matisse’s life in the south of France. I knew a lot about his art, but I’d never thought to ask the key question about the chapel: How did this atheist come to create a place of worship for Catholics?

The answer was: a woman. Of course. But not in the way you may be thinking.

In 1942, Matisse was 72, divorced, living in Nice and recovering from an operation. His only companion was his chilly Russian assistant. Needing a nurse, he hired Monique Bourgeois, a 21-year-old nursing student. In the 15 nights they were together, Matisse came to love her like a daughter. But when he learned that she was going to become a nun, he was enraged. They parted on bad terms.

Five years later, Matisse was living in Vence. So was Monique, who was Matisse’s friend again — even if she was now Sister Jacques-Marie. Her convent prayed in a chapel that was once a garage. When it rained, the roof leaked. She asked Matisse to design a stained glass window so the nuns could raise money and repair the chapel. He had another idea: a new chapel. Over opposition, Matisse created the Chapelle du Rosaire — he called it the masterpiece of his career And then he died.

In our world, old age means a winding down, assisted living, and death in an antiseptic hospital room. But here was a late-life success story: a great love, a creative flowering, a good death at home. That story, told as a play, might deliver a transcendent theatrical experience. It astonished me that no one had written it. So I read 15 books. I watched Barbara Freed’s excellent 97-minute documentary, “A Model for Matisse,” about the chapel and his relationship with Jacques-Marie. [To watch a preview, click here. To buy the DVD from Amazon, click here. To stream it, click here.]

And then I wrote — and rewrote — “The Color of Light.”

The reaction has been… well, crazy. This play is so unlike anything I’ve ever written that when a celebrated friend read it, his first comment was “What have you done with Jesse’s corpse?” Famous Person A sent it to Academy Award-winning actor B. Academy Award-winner C sent it to Academy Award-winning Actor D. With luck, there will be a red carpet opening in New York before I’m as old as Matisse.

More immediately, some great good news: “The Color of Light” will debut in January at the Vantage Theatre in San Diego. It’s been hugely rewarding to work with Dori and Robert Salerno to improve a play I thought was finished, and to launch the play at this highly respected theatre. More about this production as we get closer.

For those who are even remotely curious, here’s the first scene of “The Color of Light.”


Henri Matisse’s living room in Nice, France, between September 26, 1942 and January 1943.

This grand, high-ceilinged living room seems larger because it’s sparsely furnished: a bed, a few chairs, a table laden with shells, vases of flowers, oranges and lemons, and a phonograph. Pasted on one wall: a shaped piece of green paper that’s more like the essence of a leaf than a literal representation. A vast window, through which we see a leafy tree and blue sky. Next to the window is a large stretched white canvas. Next to the canvas: a long bamboo stick with black chalk attached. In the far right corner: a foyer with a large sculpture — a nude man — on a pedestal.


Day. A man sits in a wheelchair, his back to the audience. He rolls the chair to the rear of the stage. Slowly, carefully, he picks up the bamboo stick and begins to outline a shape. Whatever his difficulty with walking, his muscle control in his upper body is astonishing; it’s as if he’s a foot from the wall and holding the chalk in his hand.

He finishes the outline. Pauses. Then, delicately as a Japanese calligrapher, he outlines a second, overlapping figure. Two leaves. A complete statement. Beautiful.

He lowers the stick. An audible breath. An audible exhale. He raises the stick. This time his arm trembles. He lowers the stick. He slumps, exhausted.

As he turns and rolls the chair back to center stage, we recognize the bearded, bespectacled artist: Henri Matisse. At 73, he looks strong, alert, vibrant. A sudden pain hits him, and that vitality dissolves into vulnerability and fear.

MATISSE (shouts): Lydia!