Matisse and his Sister come to Pittsburgh

Serendipity adds to life a lasting, stubborn reason to believe in something magical; if something is serendipitous, it is a happy accident. Serendipity brought together Henri Matisse, the great 20th-century French painter and sculptor, and a young nursing student named Monique Bourgeois. It was also serendipity that led Barbara Freed, professor of French studies at Carnegie Mellon, to stumble upon the book that would lead her to the late Sister Jacques-Marie, as Bourgeois was called after becoming a nun.

It is now about five years since Freed stumbled upon the book Henri Matisse: La Chapelle de Vence. The book described how Matisse came to take over much of the construction of the Vence Chapel. “I thought, ‘This must be translated,” said Freed, “So I spoke to the publisher and got his interest.” It was her publisher that recommended she meet with Sister Jacques, and Freed and the elderly nun began a relationship that culminated when Sister Jacques agreed to tell the story of her time with Matisse on film in Freed’s documentary A Model for Matisse: The Story of the Vence Chapel.

“It was Sister Jacques’ story; I wanted to tell it with her,” said Freed, recalling the role that Sister Jacques had in bringing the story to life. Sister Jacques started out as Matisse’s nurse in 1941 when he was recovering from intestinal cancer.

The film’s title comes in part from the fact that Sister Jacques modeled for Matisse before she entered the nunnery. “After Bourgeois left the artist’s employ, Matisse called her to request that she pose for him,” reported the December 2005 issue of ARTnews. The article says that Bourgeois (later Sister Jacques) sat for four of Matisse’s paintings. The two separated during World War II, but Matisse and Sister Jacques reconnected twice more by chance, the last time in Vence when Sister Jacques, newly a nun, was sent to work there as a nurse. It was Sister Jacques’ sketch of the Assumption that inspired Matisse to make a stained glass window, and the idea grew until Matisse was designing and creating every aspect of the chapel.

This is but a fragment of the entire story, which is illuminated by Freed’s documentary. The film also contains many visuals of works by Matisse (including his decorated letters to Sister Jacques) that hadn’t been shown until Sister Jacques revealed them before the camera. Freed’s documentary has been shown in the U.S., including screenings at the Met in New York and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The documentary has been shown many times abroad as well.

And soon Pittsburgh will exhibit the film again, in conjunction with the display of one of Matisse’s cut-out works. A Model for Matisse: The Story of the Vence Chapel will be shown on September 20 at 7 p.m. at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Afterwards Barbara Freed will lead an extensive question-and-answer session.

Freed recounted the wide variety of questions she has received as she traveled and showed her documentary — many, she said, focus on Matisse’s motivation in building the chapel and why he considered it his greatest work. Only those willing to travel, however, are able to see the chapel in its full magnificence. Freed’s documentary solves a piece of that problem, however: “Despite the enormous documentation of the creation of the chapel ... there was no visual documentation of the type that would be afforded by a documentary,” said Freed, speaking of her motivation to create the film.

Freed has close connections to the location of the chapel — she and her parents lived in Vence while she was in college. When she started attending school in Aix-en-Provence she traveled between Aix and Vence and the chapel was on the way, she said. In France, Freed was surrounded by art by men like Matisse, Cocteau, and Chagall. France itself “was in the midst of this great foment of artistic activity. It seemed there was a museum or sculpture or something by one of these artists everywhere I went,” Freed said.

She describes the process of creating the film as rewarding at every step of the way. Freed also mentions that chance encounters played a role in how she met her director of photography. Freed happened to meet Dana Sardet at the 50th anniversary ceremony at the Vence Chapel when she asked Sardet how to turn on her video camera. “I met people whose paths never would have crossed with mine,” Freed said.

Not only will Freed’s documentary bring a bit of Matisse to Pittsburgh, but a cut-out titled “The Thousand and One Nights” is at the Museum of Art until November 22. Matisse created his cut-outs in his later years, and the coupling of the documentary about the chapel and the presentation of “The Thousand and One Nights” will serve as a tribute to his late works.

The film serves as one of the few documentations of Henri Matisse at work. As Freed described, lovers of art and of personal stories like that of Matisse and Sister Jacques will be intrigued by A Model for Matisse.