Under the guardianship of Joëlle Audry, Villa Le Rêve continues to be an artists’ house where art, cultural and creative activities, health and well-being courses are held throughout the year.
The villa was built in 1930 on the outskirts of the village of Vence for an English admiral who also gave it its name: Villa Le Rêve (the Dream). It sits in a 2500m² tree filled garden at the foot of an impressive 673 metre high cliff, “Baou des Blancs”. A square ochre house slightly colonial in style, it has brown wooden shutters and dark, dusty pink roof tiles so typical of the homes in the area.
Although it was his friend André Rouveyre who found the villa early in 1943, it was Lydia Delectorskaya who inspected the premises, interviewed the owner, organised the move and made the house ready for the arrival of Matisse and his night nurse for June 30th. The house was so simple and unassuming in appearance that when Picasso came to visit Matisse shortly after he had moved in, he initially knocked at the door of a more picturesque villa further up the road.
But Matisse thought the villa beautiful and unpretentious and loved its thick walls and glass doors with windows that reached right up to the ceiling and let in the same light he so cherished in Nice. Throughout the villa, the flooring was made up of small, deep red hexagon tiles, called tomettes, while large fireplaces ensured adequate warmth throughout the cold winter months.
The artist chose a large room downstairs to be his studio and filled it with flowers, potted plants and the array of objects he had collected throughout his life and took with him from studio to studio. As in Nice he hung his windows with open-work cotton curtains which filtered the southern light as if through a grille, covering these with a large Egyptian curtain with a vivid arabesque design whenever he painted.
When he was not too tired, Matisse would walk the two kilometres from the villa to the main square in Vence with Lydia. From his garden, a small iron gate opened onto the country road and would lead him down into the village. Not more than 100 metres away stood a very derelict garage. Unknown to him then, this run-down building would turn out to be his ultimate life’s work: the Chapelle du Rosaire.
Matisse walked through his garden every day or, when too tired, would go and sit there on a favourite chair or bench. He loved the enormous Phoenix canariensis palm trees with their arching feathered foliage that stood like sentinels in front of the villa. To the side of the house several old olive trees reminded him of mammoth ‘limbs’ and stirred his imagination still further. In summer bunches of flowers spilled over in a riot of colour and leaf design and found their way inside the house and onto his canvasses.
Villa Le Rêve Today
It is difficult to describe the kaleidoscope of emotions I felt as I walked up the steps and across the threshold of Villa Le Rêve. Being uncertain as to what I would find, feelings of excitement, respect, gratitude and awe took turns in expressing themselves. Following my host, Joëlle Audry, into the villa I found myself in a narrow longish corridor made a little dark by the intense sunlight I’d just left behind outside. Entering his old studio I was saddened to find nothing to indicate that this had once been, for a few years at least, the centre of Matisse’s universe.
Divided now into two, sparsely furnished bedrooms (called simply Bedroom 1 and Bedroom 2), his studio retains nothing of his character nor any trace of the artist himself. The thick walls have been painted white, the large fireplaces, once located at either end of his studio and which Lydia would stoke up in winter so that Matisse had some heat to warm his hands, were gone. The wonderful Provençal red tomette flooring had vanished and now covered in lino. Only the tall, French windows and wooden shutters remained and still opened out onto the garden and the majestic palm trees so loved by Matisse. I left his studio quietly and a little sombrely and continued my discovery of the villa.
As with Matisse’s old studio, the other rooms had been turned into bedrooms, each with their own shower and sink. These too were clean, quite basic (no telephone, radio, television or computer) and simply decorated with pretty Provençal bed linen and accessories. Joëlle explained that, as in Cimiez, Matisse had set aside one of the rooms downstairs for his doves who were allowed to escape the boundaries of their cages more often than not, much to the delight of Matisse, but one would imagine not to the delight of his housekeeper. A dormitory-style bathroom, large informal kitchen and dining room completed the downstairs layout.
Returning to the narrow corridor I then made my way up a marble staircase, decorated with a beautiful jet-black wrought-iron banister. Reaching the first floor, a large picture window, gaily decorated with house-plants, caught my eye. In pride of place a superb philodendron (Monstera deliciosa) clambered happily around the window; a subtle reminder to Matisse’s creative Jazz paper cut-outs he created there with a similar plant so many years ago.
Three rooms, roughly 30m² each, had been turned into ateliers and were well appointed for the task at hand (easels, sketching-boards, tables, washbasins and various pots and rags) with wonderful high ceilings and, when Joelle opened the shutters, extraordinary brilliant sunlight. Stepping out on the balcony I could see the Matisse chapel and further beyond, the pretty village of Vence and the sea. Dominating the skyline were two enormous palm trees, estimated to be over 100 years old, standing tall, like Roman pillars and just as impressive. Making my way down the stairs I walked out into the garden.
Although the intense heat of the Mediterranean summer sun had taken its toll on the many flowers and shrubs that grew there, the terraced garden was nonetheless very special. Here I could imagine Matisse, accompanied by his two cats, Coussi and Minouche, enjoying a gentle stroll around the garden, or taking a moment’s rest under a shady tree. Orange trees, olive trees, Bougainvillea, and a host of different flowering shrubs, once companions and a source of inspiration to Matisse, peppered this well-established garden.
Broad entrance gates, located on the top end of the garden, opened onto a gravel driveway which leads up to the house. Wide stone steps led down to the terraced garden while another set of steeper steps located at the bottom of the garden, lead directly onto the street below (now named Avenue Henri Matisse) via a forged-iron gate. Standing there I wondered how many times this gate had been pushed open and shut during his six years at the villa and more especially during those nine months of intense preparatory work on the Matisse chapel.
After the departure of Matisse from Villa Le Rêve in 1949, the house reverted back to its original owner. As far as I can ascertain, it was then sold again before being bought by the municipality of Vence. For a while it was opened to the general public with visits organised by the local tourist office. Then in 1996 it was turned into a home for artists under the guardianship of Joëlle Audry. Today, Villa Le Rêve offers painting courses and workshops covering a number of artistic programs: composition, sketching/drawing, mixed media painting, acrylics and oil painting as well as being a health and well-being or personal development centre. The whole villa or just individual bedrooms (there are 8) can be rented either on a weekly or more exclusive basis.
After bidding farewell to my charming host, I walked slowly to my car, passing for one last time the magnificent palm trees. For if Villa Le Rêve no longer held any essence of Matisse, it seemed to me that these remarkable sentinels kept vigil to his spirit.