In the heart of a beautiful olive grove on the hills of Cimiez that echos to the sound of Jazz in July during Nice's wonderful Jazz Festival, and not far from a Franciscan monastery with fabulous Italinanate terraced gardens, the majestic Hotel Régina and Gallo-Roman ruins, lies the quite stunning Villa Garin de Cocconato, today known simply as the Matisse Museum.
This extraordinary building, with its striking maroon façade and sienna window frames literally comes alive when touched by the mediterranean sun. No other building could have been so well chosen to house Matisse's impressive collection of works.
In 1670, on the site of a hut buried in the ancient remains of Cimiez, a folly was built by Jean-Baptiste Gubernatis, Consul of Nice, with numerous symmetrical windows and façades decorated with coloured pebble-dash and trompe-l'oeil paintings and extended by balustraded terraces. The site of the villa, facing the sea, and the characteristic Genoese architecture are explained by the thriving rade linking together the rich families of Nice and Liguria. The villa was completed in 1685 by Jean-Baptiste's grandson: Jean Jérome Marcel, President of the Nice Senate and Ambassador to Spain, Portugal and Rome for the Dukes of Savoy, and was the setting for the celebrations given in honour of the marriage of the Ambassador to Laura de Ventimiglia.
In 1823, the Gubernatis Palace became the property of Raymond Garin de Cocconato who modified the exterior and the interior in order to adapt it to the needs of a bourgeois town house. In 1923, 'the Villa de Garin de Cocconato' was sold by its last occupant, a distant relative of Raymond Garin, to a real estate company which was interested in developing the site.
In 1950, when it was in extremis, the City of Nice, anxious to preserve the villa and its grounds, submitted a proposition to the town council that the building be classed as suitable for public use, and an expropriation order was made. Saved from being divided up it was rechristened Villa des Arènes. It opened as a museum on 5th January 1963 with archaeological exhibits on the ground floor and the Matisse Museum on the first floor.
In 1986 a separate Archaeology Museum was built on the nearby Gallo-Roman site, at which point the Matisse Museum began a programme of renovation and extension to the Villa. An architectural competition, organised in 1987, awarded the French architect Jean-François Bodin with the task of restoring and enlarging the original villa at a total cost of Euros 7.4 million ($9.4 million). The addition, built below ground level, included a bookstore, a 70-seat auditorium and a restaurant with terrace. The new Museum, as it stands today, reopened it doors six years later in June 1993.
The Permanent Collection
The paintings, sculptures, drawings, engravings, paper cut-outs and illustrated books, as well as objects and documents bequeathed by Matisse and his heirs and loaned from the State, make up a collection which is both personal (relating to those works and possessions from which Matisse was never separated and were taken, from studio to studio, throughout his entire life) and educational (representing all the periods and range of mediums in his career as a painter).
Today this weighty permanent collection is made up of 68 oil paintings and paper cut-outs, 236 drawings, 218 engravings, 57 sculptures, 14 illustrated books, as well as 95 photographs and 187 of the artist's possessions, which include silk-screen prints, hangings, ceramics, glass-ware and documents.
For Matisse, drawings were as significant as paintings themselves and the collection here is one of the world's most important. The photographs include those Matisse took in Tahiti and many (taken by contemporaries such as Henri Cartier-Bresson) of the artist and his studio. With all the mediums that Matisse worked in so well represented, plus so many of the objects he used as models, a real understanding of the artist's vision emerges.
The first gifts were made by Matisse himself on 21 October 1953. They consisted of the painting 'Nature morte aux Grenades' which he did while living in Villa Le Rêve in Vence, four drawings from the 1941-42 series 'Thèmes et l'Ariations', the paper cut-out 'La Danseuse Créole' dated 1950, and two silk screen prints of 1947 entitled 'Océanie la mer' and 'Océanie le ciel'.
The Matisse Museum
Although the outside of the museum is astonishing, both in style and vibrant colour, inside it has a totally different feel: modern, bright and airy, with hardwood floors and white walls throughout. Everything here is neat and orderly, almost stark, and in total constrast to the true character of Matisse who enjoyed cramming his studios to bursting point with his favourite objects, drawings, cutouts, paintings, an assortment of chairs, plants, small round tables, as well as china, fabrics, books and flowers that Hélène Adant (cousin of Lydia Delectorskaya) captured so well in all her photos. The new wing has certainly given extra space with several open plan levels to explore, but lacks the warmth and human touch that would turn the museum into a truly vibrant journey of discovery and bring Matisse closer rather than keeping him at arm's length.
During our research about Matisse, we were very fortunate to receive permission from Les Héritiers Matisse and the Curator of the Matisse Museum to take a number of photos of inside the museum itself. This was especially poignant for us as we had just purchased the wonderful book Matisse at Villa Le Rêve, and discovered how much he'd been literally smitten by a Rocaille chair he bought in an antique's shop in Nice in 1942. Made up of two large silver scallop shells, for the seat and back, the armrests and feet resembled the head of a lizard-type creature. It was truly an oddity, but which captivated Matisse totally and even took on the full role of a model. You can imagine our delight therefore when we happened upon this same chair, next to the canvas he painted of it in 1946 simply called Rocaille Armchair in one of the exhibition rooms in the Museum. As if bumping into a long-lost friend, it was all we could do not to rush up and hug it, our mind already busy wondering what amazing stories it could tell us.
We would like to extend our very special thanks to both Les Héritiers Matisse in Paris and the Matisse Museum in Nice in granting us permission to photograph inside the museum as well as their assistance in providing us with detailed information about this remarkable building.
164 avenue des Arènes de Cimiez, 06000 Nice
Telephone: 04 93 81 08 08 | Fax: 04 93 53 00 22
Website | Email
Open all day from 10am to 6pm. Closed every Tuesday and Bank Holidays
Admission: 4 € full price; 2,50 € reduced price (students, groups of + 15 people)
Free to under 18 year olds