The Matisse Museum 

The exterior of the Matisse Museum in Nice

The Musee Matisse holds one of the world’s largest collections of the works of Henri Matisse, and traces his evolution from his beginnings through his last works.

How to get there:  Take bus #5 to bus stop Les Arènes / Musée Matisse. Click here for how to get to the Matisse Museum by bus.

If you don’t want to bother with the bus, an easy option is to take an Uber, which would cost around 8-9€ from the Old Town.  Don’t take a regular taxi as it would cost 15-20€ or more.

Address:  164 avenue des Arènes de Cimiez, Tel: (+33) (0)4 93 81 08 08.

Hours: 10am to 6pm in summer, 10am to 5pm in winter; closed Tuesdays, May 1, Easter Sunday, Christmas and Jan. 1.

Tickets: 15€ for adults, but your ticket gives you access to all 10 municipal museums in Nice for 48-hoursFree for children under 18, students of any age with student ID, locals with the blue Pass Musée, or with the French Riviera Pass. Click here for more info on the ticket/museum pass including which museums you get access to, suggested ways to group them, and some strategy to make the most of your 48 hours.

Free Audioguides:  Download the free app MuséeMatisse (App Store or Google Play), which features free audioguides in multiple languages, plus games, demos, a few deep dives, and lots more.  If you don’t want to download, the museum has QR codes and free wifi, so you can have access to the audioguide on the fly.  Just don’t forget your earbuds.

What to bring: The aforementioned earbuds, and a picnic blanket to spread on the grass in case you want to get something from the Cimiez gardens snack bar and picnic in the surrounding 500-year-old olive grove.

Matisse in Nice

Matisse was already a successful artist when he came to Nice alone in December 1917 at the age of 48 to treat his bronchitis. He booked a month at the seaside The Hotel Beau Rivage in Old Nice but it rained every single day, so he sadly painted the interior of his drab hotel room over and over. On the final day the sun came out, and when he saw the light he was hooked! He later wrote:

“I left L’Estaque because of the wind, and I had caught bronchitis there.  I came to Nice to cure it, and it rained for a month.  Finally I decided to leave.  The next day the mistral chased the clouds away and it was beautiful.  I decided not to leave Nice, and have stayed there practically the rest of my life.”

For the rest of that winter, he rented an apartment on Mont Boron, then an apartment next to the Hotel Beau Rivage; and for the next few winter/spring seasons rented a suite at the Palais de la Mediterranee.

The Matisse house on Cours Saleya in NiceIn the winter of 1921, Matisse moved to Nice permanently, taking an apartment in the appropriately luminous yellow building at the very top of Cours Saleya, where he would stay and paint for the next 17 years.  First he lived on the third floor with view out on to the market, later moving up to the 4th floor penthouse with the wrap-around terrace. These early years in Nice were his most joyous and prolific period.  Bizarrely, there is no plaque or marker to commemorate this building, but there should be!

Matisse's workshop in NiceDuring this period, Matisse was working on a commissioned project that was far too big for his apartment on Cours Saleya.  If you go across the Promenade du Paillon gardens, and walk up the street just on the right side of the Lycée Massena, you can see where Matisse converted a garage into an enormous studio at 8 rue Desire Niel, and this is where he created his most famous painting, The Dance.  This is another little-known spot with no marker or plaque.

In 1938 Matisse moved up to Cimiez, where he bought 2 large apartments on the 3rd floor of the elegant Hotel Regina (right across from the entrance to the gardens where the museum is now located), which was built specifically for Queen Victoria’s annual vacations in Nice.  He furnished the rooms with many of the artifacts from his travels, many of which are currently on display at the museum.  

1939 heralded the start of some difficult years: after 40 years of marriage, Matisse’s wife Amelie left him and they divorced, and WWII broke out.  Matisse’s health was degrading rapidly during this time, and his model Lydia Delectorskaya became his daily assistant.  By 1941 he was operated on for colon cancer and was sent back home with a bulky metal corset and given 6 months to live.  The corset prevented him from standing for more than an hour, but at least he survived the ominous 6 month prediction, and he started to become quite spiritual. 

By 1943 Nice was under constant threat of bombing and the Nazi occupation was immanent, so to get a bit of distance he closed up his Regina apartment and decamped with Lydia to take refuge in the village of Vence.  In the meantime, Matisse’s ex-wife and two oldest children were very active in the French Resistance.  In 1944, the Gestapo arrested Matisse’s ex-wife Amelie, and a few months later, his daughter Marguerite.  Amelie was held in prison for 6 months then released, but Marguerite was tortured and disfigured during her time being held, and the doctors later said it was a miracle that she made it.

While in Vence Matisse focused his efforts on his spirituality: creating and building a unique and wonderous chapel for worship, designing every aspect down to the smallest detail.  He considered this chapel to be his life’s masterpiece.  If you go up to Vence (which you can get to easily on the Bus #400 from Nice) be sure to visit the Matisse Chapel, which has been entirely restored and is really great. It’s a 20 minute walk outside the village on at 466 boulevard Henri Matisse. Closed Sunday and Monday. 7€ 

After the war, Matisse returned to his large apartments at the Regina; and even after his hands were too crippled with arthritis and age to paint, it is here that he created many of his giant collages.  He never stopped creating, and even the day before he died at the Regina on November 1954 at the age of 84, he even drew a last portrait of Lydia.  He is buried in the Cimiez Cemetery just behind the Monastery, where you can visit his surprisingly sober and unadorned tomb, where he is buried with his wife Amelie.

While you’re up on Cimiez…

Be sure to go around to the back of the Matisse Museum and peer through the fence for a view of the impressive ruins of the enormous Roman bath complex that used to occupy this site (and which you can see in more detail from the Archaeology Museum, a 5-minute walk).  From the front of the Matisse museum you are looking out at a 2000-year-old olive grove with the ruins of a Roman Amphitheater to your left, and if you walk a bit to your right you will come upon an ancient Franciscan Monastery with magnificent Italian-style gardens to explore (free), and a tiny Friar’s museum in the church, which is really quite interesting, especially the room dedicated to the Shroud of Turin (the burial cloth that may or may not show the imprint of Christ’s body), which was held in Nice for a time in the 14th century.  Behind the Monastery you’ll come upon a cemetery, which is where you can find Matisse’s tomb as well as that of artist Raoul Dufy.

By the way, the paths in the Cimiez gardens are all named after jazz musicians because this olive grove was the site of the Nice Jazz Festival until just a few years ago when it moved down to Place Massena.  There is a little snack bar in the Cimiez gardens where you can sit and people watch, or if the tables are full just bring a towel to spread on the ground and and enjoy your snacks while watching the locals play pentanque.  

If you want to now visit the Chagall Museum, just pass the Regina and walk down the scenic tree-lined boulevard de Cimiez for 15-minutes (it’s all downhill).   Or take Bus #5 toward Nice for a couple of stops, to the Musee Chagall bus stop.  The Chagall museum also has a snack bar in their gardens.  You now need to reserve to get into the Chagall museum, so if you need to kill time before your reservation time you can wander the Chagall gardens, where there is also a snack bar.

Photo credits: Matisse Museum by Tubantia, Cours Saleya by Patrice Sameria, licensed under creative commons. 

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