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Shirley Hartman: The Matisse of Pennsylvania

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 27, 2017
Category: Art

I visited the chapel that Matisse created in Vence 35 years ago, but it wasn’t until last year that I stumbled on the story of its creation.

In 1942, Henri Matisse was 72, living in Nice and recovering from an operation. He was divorced. His children were distant. His only companion was his chilly Russian assistant. Needing help, he hired Monique Bourgeois, a 21-year-old nursing student who knew nothing about him. In the 15 nights they were together, Matisse came to love her like a daughter. But because she was leaving to become a nun and Matisse loathed religion, they parted on bad terms.

Five years later, Matisse was living in Vence. So was Monique, who was now Sister Jacques-Marie. After they resumed their friendship, she asked a favor. Her convent prayed in a garage with a leaky roof. If Matisse would design a stained glass window, the nuns could raise money and repair the chapel. Matisse had another idea: a new chapel. Over opposition, he and Jacques-Marie created the Vence Chapel, which he described as the masterpiece of his career. And then he died.

A great story. Not widely known. Never dramatized. So I wrote a play, “The Color of Light,” about the spiritual romance of Matisse and the nurse/nun. It’s apparently very good, because when I asked a Famous Dramatist to give it to her friend, Famous Actor #1, she was happy to do it. A Famous Actress sent the play to Famous Actor #2. Meanwhile, I’ve arranged for it to be staged in California later this year, and I’ve made some progress getting it to New York.

Now we come to the twist — for more than a decide, I’ve owned many pictures that look as if Matisse painted or drew them.

In the 1990s, there was a woman selling her art on pleasant Saturdays. Shirley Hartman was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she still lives. Her father, who played guitar with the Dorsey brothers, filled their home with art, music and books. He died when she was just eight, but his discipline and love of the arts defined her — at 10, she was painting on the basement walls of her family’s home.

Hartman studied art in Philadelphia, where she encountered Matisse and surrendered to his graceful lines and vibrant colors. By her early 20s, she was supporting herself as an artist.

Hartman isn’t a slavish copyist of Matisse. I think of her as a gifted interpreter. And her watercolors and drawings are affordable. The record price for a Matisse is $33.6 million. A Hartman costs between $80 and $180. What’s her work like? Click here to see a gallery of her art.

I bought half a dozen 11” x 14” and 7” by 9” black-and-white drawings and several 11’ by 14” watercolors. A friend commissioned Hartman to create a huge 4’ by 6’ watercolor. She hung it in the living room, above the fireplace. Visitors gasped. As they did when they saw my collection.

If want a Hartman, forget Amazon; deal direct. Choose an image from her web site. Write her using the contact form or at She’ll quote you a price between $80 and $180. And you’ll be on your way to owning a second-generation Matisse. One favor: please tell Ms. Hartman I sent you.