The Snail 1953 Henri Matisse 1869-1954 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1962

The Snail 1953 Henri Matisse 1869-1954

Since my second cataract surgery – 8/7 – the world seems to have been washed clean. Actually, scrubbed, purified, reborn, revitalized, refreshed. In fact, I’ve fallen madly in love with the color blue. Blue (!) Blue – the visible color on the spectrum between green and violet, the Jewish color, the color (cobalt blue) of the glass on my coffee tables, the color that’s abundant in sea and sky though hardly seen in fruits or vegetables.It’s one of multitudes of colors in variations/combinations decorating my novel The Woman Who Brought Matisse Back from the Dead, it’s the color blue that in some sense becomes it’s spine. See below, a few samples of my new love, the color blue, turning up in various swatches lifted from this blue book:

from section Chimiez, 1935

One bright blue day after Lydia sat for him, because his joints were suffering with neuritis, he asked if she would please scrape strontium yellow and lilac from a painting that did not satisfy him. She did this very well. Another day he asked her to scrape a section of white shaded with cadmium red, then, she watched with curiosity as he replaced the newly scraped area with madder and some white. The cushion shown in the painting was outlined with black. When she watched him repaint the darker part of the cushion Prussian blue, pure, applied with a finger of viridian, she understood what was meant when it was said that he was a “great man.”

from section Florida Everglades, 1954

Their bay was usually calm and green, rich with clusters of mangrove thickets. Because Matisse loved birds, Roy became curious about birds, learned to identify storks that flew in flocks – a lonely cormorant, wading birds, turkey vultures. Everything was in miniature on the houseboat – small bed, minute sink, minute cooker in which Roy cooked stews and soups while she cleaned as best she could with a sponge dipped in hot water into which a drop, just a drop, of ammonia had been dropped. Around the room Roy had speared pithy quotations by admired artists with pushpins. Pinned on the bathroom door:

When he took his exercise by walking the gritty streets of Paris he was often alone but sometimes accompanied by a lady friend. He described an experience he had had to one of his female companions: “I entered my studio and was struck by an indescribably beautiful painting, all irradiated by an interior light. I could only distinguish . . . forms and color and meaning. Suddenly I realized that it was one of my own paintings turned on its side. The next day in daylight I tried to recapture my previous impression . . . with the painting on its side but I could always find the object, the blue light of dusk was missing. I felt a terrifying abyss opening under my feet.” In 1910 Wasilly Kandinsky was 44.

from section Chimiez, 1940

He decided to inventory his birds – the cardinals, the nightingales, his favorites, the white pigeons and doves that flew freely through the apartment so that daily life was punctuated by streaks of color passing through various kinds of light, by the shushing sound of wings against air, by occasional splats of unwelcome green slime landing where it did not belong. The white of the white birds was various – powdery, icy, feathery, snowy, blinding, wedding-white. He lost count, called, “Lydia!”

Large windows looked over the rooftops of Nice as far as the Bay of Angels. He had first come to the Mediterranean in 1898, in the month of February. He and Amélie were on their honeymoon. Now he sent her 7,000 francs a month. Since 1898 he had never once tired of drinking in this landscape of Le Midi from one vantage or other. The transaction had been completed the previous week and, late in the afternoon, the buyer of 30 of his birds arrived with empty cages, departed with full cages. The birds could be heard shrieking long after the door shut behind them. It was chilly and smoke was rising among the groves below. He said to Lydia when she joined him, “If I were religious I would beg God for an extension of my life. I need time. I need years. My work is not finished.”

He walked onto the balcony and looked down at the eucalyptus tree below that stood among various plants – queen palms, shrubs, plantings – on the grounds of the convent in which he had so often strolled, on less chilly days, among silent nuns dressed in black. He spent the morning painting oysters, then he and Lydia lunched. After lunch he took a nap. When he woke, he paced up and down the vast glass-enclosed hallways for 40 minutes. His goal was to walk 3,300 meters. Instead of counting steps, he ticked off various colors as he walked: rose pink, ultramarine, black, ivory black, viridian, cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, yellow ochre, pure black, gray . . .

Through the afternoon he again painted oysters, then returned to the hallways to walk some more. He ticked off: cadmium red, cobalt violet, ultramarine, silver, white, black. Up and back, up and back. Two thousand meters completed, he joined Lydia for tea among his many plants. As he sipped, his eyes wandered up the wall toward works he owned and loved by Cézanne and Courbet. He could no longer imagine his life without Lydia. She poured more tea into the half-empty blue cup.


from section Paris 1952

The word “Tahiti” conjured the blue in Gauguin’s Blue Horse. Tomorrow, if he were strong enough, he would think about doing something in that particular blue.

“And his feeling for you?”

“He’s given me a string of pearls.”

Hesitantly she added, “Perhaps you would do him the honor of looking at one or two of his paintings? Give a critique? Vous voulez bien?”

“Of course, as a favor to you.”

When she was gone Matisse and Lydia examined the day’s work. It was scanty indeed because his eyes had burned all day. The cook brought in a plate of skate in black butter. Lydia began to eat but he only picked because he did not like to eat at night.

“Must Claude go so far away? I do not have a good feeling about her going so far away. Renoir once told me, ‘On an uninhabited island, no one is going to take up painting.’”

from section Paris 1952

He examined each of Roy’s paintings. After scrutinizing the final painting, he wheeled his chair over to the table, took pen in hand and scribbled a letter of recommendation on a sheet of off-white paper.

Eh bien.”

He folded the letter in thirds, slid it into an envelope. Roy’s lime-green eyes leaked glee. Matisse said, “I think you might find it helpful to go to the Louvre and study the Egyptian antiquities.”

At that moment, Matisse’s face went deathly white. Shutting his eyes, he whispered “I’ll be myself in a moment or two.”

After a while he opened his eyes.

“I’ve got much work to do.”

Relieved that he had not died during his visit, Roy asked, “How do you make yourself work if you’re so ill, Monsieur?

“Nothing interferes with my work. I don’t have much time left and there’s more to do. I dearly hope your wife will not forget me in her prayers. Perhaps it is she who has been keeping me alive. Do you have another question?”

“How many colors did you use on your pallet when you paint?”

“Never more than 12 but I can’t really paint anymore because of my health.

“Do you make much use of black?”

“Yes . . . I use it to cool the blue.”

from section New York 1971

Finally, he finished a painting – Woman in Blue Gandurah. It was the first he had been able to take to completion since 1948. He was exhausted. To catch his breath he worked on cut-outs, sketched and did drawings, doubting if he would ever have the stamina to again complete a painting. No one wanted to tell him what Jean Cocteau had said about him: “The sun-drenched Fauve has turned into a Bonnard kitten.” But he found out anyway.

Eye spasms returned. The pain was excruciating. One of his models told him about an acupuncturist living in Paris, an Indonesian. He was willing to try. Needles were inserted between his big toe and smaller toes, into the webbing of his feet. They were wiggled and left for an hour and 10 minutes, then removed. The acupuncturist with the shiny maroon face had brown rings around his black eyes.

“I need to open your liver channel. The pain is connected to your liver.”

When the doctor left, it was as if he had rowed a boat for an hour. He sank into a dreamless sleep, the deepest he had experienced in 60 years. When he woke he called to Lydia.

“Bring my sheers, bring paper . . . bring the sheets you painted with flat black paint, sheets painted plum red as well. And . . . all the blues you have – powder blue, cornflower blue, robin’s egg blue, azure . . .

The acupuncturist’s promise was kept, the eye spasms abated. Matisse could work. He called the newest work – made from cut paper – The Swimming Pool. He tried to contain it but it ended up over 7 feet high and over 4 feet wide. Unfortunately, within a month, the eye spasms returned. So Lydia arranged for the acupuncturist to call again. This time, when he had gone, Matisse did not feel sleepy. He called for his shears, began work on The Parakeet and the Mermaid, which came to exceed The Swimming Pool in size. Eleven feet high, 25 feet wide. This time the eye spasms were worse than before. One moment he saw Lydia clearly and the next he could not see her at all.

She told him, “You are not the only one experiencing heavy weather. Pablo has pneumonia. Marc Chagall’s wife has fallen in love with another man.”