“Old age wasn’t for sissies. But the suspicion
was building in him that it was all much simpler than that.
Old age wasn’t for old people. To cope
with old age, you really needed to be young – young,
strong, and in peak condition, exceptionally supple and with very good reflexes …”
[from The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis, Jonathan Cape]
I’ve read that the author of The Pregnant Widow, among others entering senescence, has suggested that one answer to the coming of old age that’s not for the old, might be the construction of ‘euthanasia booths’ on every street corner. If not that, there’s always one’s own Masada. Unless you’re Henri Matisse who youthfully wended his way into and to the end of old age?
His heaviness was lifting. He picked up the scissors from his lap, pointed to a sheet of paper that she had painted a light shade of opal as he’d asked. After she handed it over, he began cutting a bird.
“I remember Marie Vassilieff, Olga Meerson, Joaguina, Claude Boule, Fatima, Pauline Chadourne . . . … a waitress from the Tiaré . . . … the sublime Tahitiennes. Princess Nézy, plump Doucia Retinsky maybe 12 or 14 years old. Oh. Carla Avogadio, Mme. Franz Hift, Jeanne Marin, Victor Crosals, Denise Arokas, my grandchildren, a thousand others. Figs, pomegranates, myself …”
He raised his voice.
The cook heard him and came to the doorway.
“What do we have that would appease my sweet tooth?”
Cook smiled, left and returned with a fancy box of marzipan that she pressed into the old man’s upturned hand. He pulled off the top of the box. Inside were little animals – a fuchsia cat, a lilac fox, an olive-green pig, a chromium-yellow duck, a mustard-colored cow, a slate-blue sheep. Matisse put down his scissors and took off his glasses. He looked down at the various pieces, unsure for a long time. He reached into the box, hesitated, then chose the cobalt-blue rabbit.
“Ah. Good colors sing!”
He took a small bite, chewed with pleasure.
“Each color in its own way is a stick of dynamite. And . . . … my models . . . … I’ve had hundreds . . . … maybe thousands. Just think, penetrated and impregnated thousands of times, pregnant, conceiving and then giving birth thousands of times. A fertile life indeed. Ecstatic. Enough creation to fill every seat on the train from here to Paris. Bring me my stick.”
He roughly bit the blue rabbit in two. Lydia handed him the long stick and a choice of charcoal pieces, then pinned a fresh sheet of paper onto the wall beside the others. His hands were black before he finished inserting the piece of very black charcoal into the tip. He sighed contentedly.
“Without work, I simply cannot exist.”
The Japanese nightingales must have woken because they began to trill. After a few seconds they abruptly stopped. Lydia went looking for a clean rag so he could wipe the black dust off his fingers. She did not hear him when he spoke.
“I’m 82. I have not changed. All this time I have looked for the same things. My models are the principal theme of my work. I’ve depended entirely on my models whom I observe at liberty and then I decide on the poses that best suits their natures.”
Because additional help was needed, a hard-up young woman, Jacqueline, who had been modeling and acting as a studio assistant, was offered a live-in position. Once she was settled, if he felt well enough in the afternoon, he invited her to join them for a glass of Alsace wine. He did not complain when the summer heat began; hot or not he continued wearing the gray sweater. He started modeling something small with clay and agreed to let Alberto Giacometti, the not-so-young Swiss artist and sculptor, do his portrait.
When Giacometti arrived at the first session, Matisse told him, “Work quickly. I’m surely at the end.”
There was a vase filled with rhododendrons on the work table surrounded by shards of broken crockery, swatches of embroidery, a marbled bowl filled with charcoal bits. The large puppet with yellow and white feathers attached to the wooden head hung from the wall, its various limbs attached to the body by heavy twists of rope that had unraveled through the years. The limbs that had been painted various bright colors had faded completely.
The Great Colette had died. All of France was in mourning. When Lydia picked up the telephone, it was a newspaper reporter bringing news that Matisse’s first love, Caroline Jobaud, called Camille, had died.
“It’s being said that Monsieur has returned to his Catholic upbringing since he designed the Vence chapel, that old age and ill health, maybe despondency, has sent him back to God.”
“ . . . … the Catholic writer Henri Daniel-Rops said when he visited the chapel, ‘The Christian finds here nothing between himself and God.’”
Spots of jade and scarlet appeared on her face. As if she was speaking to a child, she explained, “Whenever Monsieur Matisse is asked this he responds in the same way and I quote: ‘My only religion is work. I made the chapel to express myself completely and for no other reason.’ Nothing has changed him. He was and is an agnostic.”
“He was once a Catholic.”
“True. By the way, he’s not despondent.”
“Has a priest been to visit him?”
Matisse had given Camille a fistful of violets when five of his earliest paintings were included in an exhibition at the salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Art. One had sold. Later Camille left him because he changed his painting style, had abandoned the – as he called them – blisters and earth colors of his early work, began going wild with color. It did not seem to her that any good would come of deranged Technicolor madness. Lydia went into his room, told him about Camille’s passing.
Lydia said to Jacqueline, “Change? People think things change, but they don’t change.”
In his blue and white striped pajamas, Matisse had been in bed all day, hardly doing more than making a few drawings with pencil. Giacometti was with him for three hours. When he was leaving, Lydia walked him to the door.
“He says that he cannot see.”
In early evening Jacqueline cooked cod and potatoes and brought the tray to his bed. When she returned an hour later, the food was untouched. When she nagged he put up his hand.
“Stop. I’m not hungry. Please take it away.”
She took the tray. Hoping to tempt him, she returned with a plate of his favorite pastries – palmiers. He took a few bites.
“Save the rest for tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll have an appetite then.”
He called out to Lydia, “Please bring fresh paper and a pencil.”
She had been inventorying sketchbooks and stray drawings. Before he began to sketch, she held sketchbooks one at a time.
After the doctor left, he tried to get out of bed but could not. Lydia went to take a bath because it was All Saints Day, November 1st. Later he told her that the sound of rushing water from the other side of the apartment was the last thing he remembered hearing, and the last feeling he remembered was being crushed by his corset. He later told her that when he opened his eyes he saw but did not feel the doctor puncturing his forearm with a sharp needle.
When the drug began to take effect, he was less groggy, got talkative.
“Renoir wasn’t kept from painting in old age by the agony of rheumatism. He painted regardless. Even if his deformed hands were swathed in bandages, he worked. Once I painted a mischievous sequence of monochrome blue nudes. I would like to do another series of blue nudes before I die . . . if I’m given one more tiny reprieve . . . if one of my saviors is praying somewhere today. The new series will have no mischief.”
The doctor returned in the evening. Matisse tried to push himself into a sitting position but the doctor held up his hand.
“You must not.”
He scrutinized the doctor’s oval head, champagne-colored moustache, teal-blue eyes. He would have taken up a pencil if he could pick up his hand, but he could not. He looked at Lydia.
“I’ve always known that one day I would be right, that one day would be the last day of my life. Now it has come.”
November 2nd was All Soul’s Day, the Day of the Dead, the day of white flowers. After the doctor told Lydia that he had had a cerebral embolism and would not last long, she gave up the idea of going out to the cemetery to look at the graves decorated with asters and chrysanthemums. She told Jacqueline, “There’ll be other All Soul’s Days.”
Matisse slept. Lydia poured a glass of milori-green vodka, lit a cigarette and sat down at the English-green wood desk picking up her pen. She described the early part of the day before his embolism in her diary:
I washed my hair. With my hair wrapped in a towel, turban-style, I came to see him. I laughed and said, ‘Any other day, you would ask me for some paper and pencil.’ ‘Bring me some paper and pencil.’ he said. I brought paper and a ballpoint pen. He began to draw me. He made four sketches of my head and shoulders, about six inches high with a fresh sheet each time. He gave me the sheets, then asked to see the last drawing again. He held it at arm’s length. Looked severely. ‘It’s good,.’ he commented.
She drank the vodka. The time had come to pack the yellow suitcase. She could not put it off any longer. He would die either today, All Soul’s Day. Or tomorrow. She poured more vodka to fortify herself.
By afternoon she had organized her possessions and left a small pile of what didn’t fit in the suitcase on top against the wall of her room. his daughter Marguerite would arrive shortly, would surely be the one with him when he breathed his last breath. Lydia sat at his bedside, could detect his eau de cologne among the smells of old age and sickness. There was silence except for the sound of a fly beating its wings against the window glass, trying to get out. The red room was suffused with cast-iron flecks of light.
He was conscious but either could not or did not care to speak. The bells of the churches began to ring. The special mass for All Soul’s Day was beginning. After a few minutes the sound of singing floated into the room and a clear light splashed across the pale pink floor. Lydia peeled the pearl-yellow coating off her face before she turned and left him alone in the room.