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Chasing Matisse

A Year in France Living My Dream

About The Book

Who hasn't had the fanthasy of leaving his or her old life behind to start over? What would happen if you gave up your job, city, state, and routine to move to another part of the world? Critically acclaimed writer and aspiring painter James Morgan does just that. Risking everything, he and his wife shed their old, settled life in a lovingly restored house in Little Rock, Arkansas, to travel in the footsteps of Morgan's hero, the painter Henri Matisse, and to find inspiration in Matisse's fierce struggle to live the life he knew he had to live. Part memoir, part travelogue, and part biography of Matisse, Chasing Matisse proves that you don't have to be wealthy to live the life you want; you just have to want it enough.

Morgan's riveting journey of self-discovery takes him, and us, from the earthy, brooding Picardy of Matisse's youth all the way to the luminous Nice of the painter's final years. In between, Morgan confronts, with the notebook of a journalist and the sketchpad of an artist, the places that Matisse himself saw and painted: bustling, romantic Paris; windswept Belle-île off the Brittany coast; Corsica, with its blazing southern light; the Pyrénees village of Collouire, where color became explosive in Matisse's hands; exotic Morocco, land of the secret interior life; and across the sybaritic French Riviera to spiritual Vence and the hillside Villa Le Rêve -- the Dream -- where the mature artist created so many of his masterpieces.

A journey from darkness to light, Chasing Matisse shows us how we can learn to see ourselves, others, and the world with fresh eyes. We look with Morgan out of some of the same windows through which Matisse himself found his subjects and take great heart from Matisse's indomitable, life-affirming spirit. For Matisse, living was an art, and he never stopped striving, never stopped creating, never stopped growing, never stopped reinventing himself. "The artist," he said, "must look at everything as though he were seeing it for the first time." That's the inspiring message of renewal that comes through on every page of Chasing Matisse. Funny, sad, and defiantly hopeful, this is a book that restores our faith in the possibility of dreams.


Chasing Matisse

Up in Charcoal Country
WHERE WE COME from is never just a place on a map. The red roads are drawn in the blood of our veins, the green hills in the faith of our earliest hopes and dreams, and sometimes the blue rivers in the wash of our tears. Topography is a fingerprint.

Beth and I left Paris for Matisse’s Picardy on a cold blustery Saturday in December, our leased Peugeot 307 wagon loaded down like a gypsy’s caravan. This wasn’t the car she had wanted us to get. Convinced that a station wagon would be too small, she had pressed for a minivan. At the Arc de Triomphe, a circle of madness that felt like a metaphor, I steered the car around a swath of pavement half a football field wide jammed with cars, trucks, bicyclists, and even Rollerbladers all going as fast as they could, darting this way and that, peeling off inches in front of one another to turn at any number of the spokes that branch out sadistically from the center. All I had to do was glance in my rearview mirror to know that Beth had been right. In our car, there wasn’t even a clear sight line to the back window. Instead, I saw shifting mounds of coats, hats, suitcases, book boxes, file folders, computer bags, art supplies, and even our income tax records (we are, hilariously, a corporation). We seemed to be trying to haul our own topography with us.

“We look like the Joads,” I said.

“Jwahds,” said Beth, correcting my French.

We traversed the usual pattern of modern office buildings, depressing apartment houses, giant discount stores, and factories.

Then, in a surprisingly short time, the buildings were gone and cows were grazing. Soon we came upon a sign proclaiming “Picardie: Terre Fertile.” I had long wondered what Matisse’s boyhood world looked like, and now I was in it. Picardy approaching winter was a muddy palette, a somber and cheerless farm landscape as far as the eye could see. It didn’t strike me as the celebratory sort of fertility you find in Provence. This looked like hard-work country.

Matisse was born, on December 31, 1869, in the little textile town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis. Eight days later, the family moved a few miles south to Bohain-en-Vermandois, where Monsieur Matisse was taking ownership of a general store. Madame Matisse made hats and created delicate paintings on dishes. Still, Henri and his brother grew up over the family business, which in Henri’s years there gradually shifted its focus to seeds, fertilizer, and other supplies for the local beet farmers. In his father’s sphere, the social fabric was knit with hard reality, not romance and dreaming. If it took cutting down every single tree in Bohain to keep sun on the beet fields, then you got out the saws.

The irony was that Bohain’s most famous industry was luxury and beauty. In the design and manufacture of fine velvets and silks, cashmeres and tweeds, gauzes and tulles, the weavers of Bohain had no peer. They served the highest end of the Paris and world markets. The House of Chanel sold their masterpieces. Members of European royalty ordered their finest fabrics from Bohain, whose diligent weavers took pride in their renowned ability to seemingly reinvent the definition of beauty with each new pattern. But the weavers’ own lives were lived in dark, cramped rooms. Their bodies were bent and their faces pale and gaunt. Alcoholism was rampant.

It’s a curious combination, this yoked team of aesthetic expression and unindulgent self-discipline. Beautiful textiles and the airy wider world they furnished would forever play a role in Matisse’s work. But so would an extreme and punishing sense of duty.

The largest of the towns we wanted to visit was Saint-Quentin, population some fifty thousand. It was the area business hub where Matisse was educated, worked as a law clerk, and first took art lessons. Late on Saturday afternoon, Saint-Quentin’s centre ville reminded me of Saturdays in rural Arkansas. The main square, called the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, was milling with rough-edged farm families doing their weekend shopping and socializing, with townspeople running their pre-Sunday errands, with knots of supercharged teens just hanging out like teens everywhere.

We drove around looking for lodging. Beth had by then formulated her Rule d’Hôtel, which held that only inns with three stars or above would have phone plug-ins for her computer; at that point it was merely theory, but the truth of it would be demonstrated time and again in our travels. We also hoped to find a hotel with a gated courtyard. I didn’t relish the thought of hauling everything inside every time we stopped.

On a side street a block from the main square, Beth spotted the Hôtel des Canonniers. She checked it out and soon motioned for me to pull the car into the courtyard. “You won’t believe this place,” she said.

“How much?”

“Sixty-five euros a night.”

The hotel was old and beautifully restored, with a handsome black-and-white stone floor and a sweeping staircase flanked in dizzying swirls of wrought iron. It had once been a home and still felt like one. In fact it was: The proprietor and her family lived there. They had restored this place themselves, through four grueling years. A chic middle-aged woman in a bouclé jacket, Madame Marie-Paule Michel, led us up another staircase to a top-floor landing anchored by a deep red Oriental rug. She inserted an old-fashioned key into a lock and gently pushed open the door to reveal a sprawling space with a slanted ceiling, heavy wood timbers, a refrigerator, stove, sink, dining table, cable TV, queen-size bed with great reading lights, and a sparkling bathroom with a huge deep tub. For a pair of nomads traveling without reservations, we had hit the jackpot. I could hardly wait to fill up the tub and warm my bones.

As we began settling in, Madame told us, in thankfully fluent English, that there was only one other guest in the hotel-a man who was to play accordion at a jazz concert in Saint-Quentin the following night. New to France, I couldn’t shake the image of Myron Floren grooving on Round Midnight, and made a mental note to be otherwise engaged.

ON MONDAY, WE drove through Bohain to Le Cateau-Cam-brésis to visit the newly reopened Musée Matisse. Bohain was about sixteen miles from Saint-Quentin, Le Cateau nineteen miles beyond that. Outside industrial Saint-Quentin, the road quickly settled into muted pasture land, mostly flat, not many trees. Critic and curator John Elderfield searingly described this place in his introduction to Henri Matisse: A Retrospective: “It is a cold, inhospitable region of gray skies above a flat landscape with distant horizons, punctuated by church steeples around which cluster villages of dull brick houses.” He could have added that the atmosphere pressed down with the weight of solid lead, the impression I had from the view out our car window.

We snaked through Bohain, the main thoroughfare curving sharply twice, and soon we were in country a little more rolling than before. The colors were still earthy—grays, browns, and rusts, deep red weathered-brick barns, touches of matte-toned lichens on black slate roofs like scumbled paint. They evoked thoughts of Matisse’s famous Studio Under the Eaves, a picture of a small, dark, spare, makeshift art room—but with a far window opening onto bright sunlight. He painted it in Bohain, in the attic of a house he was renting from his father, during the hard winter of 1902-03, when he and his family were forced by circumstances to come back home to regroup. The painting caused a stir when it was later exhibited in Paris, and Matisse himself always considered it one of his best. Most scholars and critics read it as a disturbing portrait of claustrophobia and scarcity, but for anyone who’s ever found serenity being closed off in a room alone making art, there are other possible interpretations. The room could also be seen as cozy—protective, even. It must surely have felt that way to Matisse at the time he painted it. Beyond those tight walls his world was bleak. After ten years of art study and few sales, Henri had “given up trying to please anyone but himself,” as Hilary Spurling says in her excellent biography, The Unknown Matisse. Now, in letters from Bohain, where even beautiful fabrics were primarily a matter of no-nonsense wage earning, he told friends he was thinking of quitting painting altogether. His humiliated father told him that everyone in town took him for an imbecile.

In Studio Under the Eaves, hope floats like motes on the light from that one small opening. I imagine Matisse standing at the actual window looking out over the next-door factory to the land where he had come of age. He had always been a dreamer, as a young boy playing knights with his brother and friends in the ruins of Bohain’s medieval castle, or attending visiting circus shows and imagining himself performing for the crowds. He established his own toy theater, putting on spectacles—such as the eruption of Vesuvius, in sulfuric blue—for his friends. In time he began studying the violin, an instrument that would show up time and again in his paintings, and he later equated making pictures with performing—with grabbing an audience by the lapels and telling them stories. Had he remained in Picardy, his narrative would’ve been dark and deeply shadowed, a modulated tale of a measured life. From the beginning he knew he wanted more. “You have first of all to feel this light,” he said, “to find it within yourself.”

Approaching Le Cateau, we could see a church steeple, which proved to be that of Église Saint-Martin, where Matisse was baptized. The road took us almost through the village, then twisted back left and brought us out on a busy street that sloped downward from the church to the river Selle. To the right at the bottom of the hill was the Matisse Museum.

It was more impressive than we had expected, a former palace, in fact—the Palais Fénelon, once the home of an archbishop. The museum had originally opened in another building in 1952, the aged Matisse himself donating many paintings and drawings. Since then, the collection had wandered from location to location, and had reopened only months before with a grand fete attended by dignitaries from all over France, including Matisse’s three grandchildren. This building was laid out in a large U, with a wide brick courtyard entered through an imposing gated arch. Unfortunately, the gate was locked. Ice on the bricks, a sign said.

We wandered around to the back, through an expansive garden, and found an open door. The lobby was full of elementary school kids, all giggly and picking at one another’s shirts and hair while their teachers tried to impose decorum. We bought our tickets and began the tour. The special exhibit had been donated by Alice Tériade, widow of the influential editor of Verve, Efstratios Eleftheriades—known simply as Tériade—who had commissioned every important artist of the time to design covers and features for his magazine. In the first downstairs gallery were pictures by Picasso, Léger, Chagall, Bonnard, Giacometti, Miró, Gris, Villon, Rouault, and, of course, Matisse.

Upstairs, beginning with samples of delicate Picardy silks, jacquards, and cashmeres, hung Matisse paintings that ranged from his early dark palette, through his shocking Fauvist period, and on to the large, colorful, stunning canvases from his time in Nice. There were many paintings I had never seen before—paintings I didn’t even know existed. In another large gallery, this one slightly darkened, his four huge bas-relief sculptures of backs were spaced out on a long wall, like pillars.

In the long upstairs side gallery, we found a class of students solemnly studying, at close range, Matisse’s drawings of impressively endowed nudes, both male and female. “Can you imagine that happening at home?” Beth whispered. “Some religious nut would be calling the school and having that teacher’s job.” The gallery devoted to Matisse’s cutouts had become an atelier for second-graders—they were sitting and lying on the floor, filling every square meter, cutting and pasting their own bright paper shapes onto big sheets of white stock. One boy was cutting up more than cutting out, and a stern-eyed guard had stationed himself nearby to make sure no one got truly reckless.

Later, while Beth shopped for books and posters—the latter to tape up around me for inspiration when I was writing—I was staring out the front window as the cutout class made its ragged exit across the courtyard. One of the last in line was the bad boy, who was gesturing in the direction of the upstairs gallery. I glanced over and saw the stern guard, dressed in Matisse blue, standing at the tinted window, watching. The bad boy had a museum directory in his hand, which he first wagged as a tail. The guard was not amused. Then the boy wagged his directory as a horn. The guard remained stoic. Finally, just as he passed through the gate, the boy placed his directory on his middle finger and wagged it back and forth, slowly, repeatedly, until he disappeared behind the wall.

Matisse would probably have liked that kid. A notorious schoolboy cutup himself, he had once spat on the top hat of his art teacher in Saint-Quentin as the man ascended the stairs to class. As a frustrated lawyer’s clerk, he would take out his pea shooter and pop passersby with wads of paper. Defiance, for an artist, can be a powerful arm of the creative arsenal.

ON MONDAY AFTERNOON our hotel was filling up with out-of-town businesspeople, and we had to move downstairs to a smaller room. She had a lot of regulars, Marie-Paule said. One psychologist had come in from Paris every Monday night for years. She arrived at 9:30, went out for dinner, came back and turned off her light, and returned to Paris Tuesday afternoon after her work was done.

That evening before supper, I sat in a comfortable chair on the landing above the marble staircase working on my notes. Downstairs, Marie-Paule was preparing for a big family dinner. The occasion was the impending departure, on Wednesday, of her oldest son, Victor, who was moving to California to start management training at the Ritz-Carlton. Marie-Paule was feeling very motherly, a little weepy, and had asked us what Laguna Beach was like. She wondered if Victor would like it, and it him. She and her husband, Gilles, were already making plans to visit him in August. “It’ll be the first time ever that we’ve closed the hotel,” she said.

As I wrote, I could hear the clatter of pots and the occasional clink of fine china. Soon Victor’s sister arrived with her daughter, whose squeals and laughter infused the house with the palpable feel of family. I strained to hear those same joyous sounds in the story of the family Matisse, but I couldn’t make them come to life. Monsieur Matisse, Henri’s father, had always expected his older son to take over the family seed business, but as Henri’s schooling was drawing to an end the very thought of such a future made the young man physically ill. He collapsed into bed for weeks complaining of stomach problems. Finally, abandoning all thought of Henri’s running the family firm, and hoping now just to steer him toward gainful employment, Monsieur Matisse secured his son a job working for a local lawyer.

Henri seemed to do well, and even suggested to his father that he go to Paris for a year and study law. Upon his return he began working for a lawyer in Saint-Quentin. That’s when reality set in. He was miserable, and soon fell into bed with a relapse. Thoroughly disgusted, Monsieur Matisse gave up on him. While Henri was recuperating, a neighbor suggested he pass the time copying “chromos” of Swiss landscapes from a then-popular hobby painting kit. Matisse’s first picture was Swiss Chalet with Pine Trees, and he was hooked. He asked his mother to buy him his own paints, which she promptly did. “From the moment I held that box of colors in my hand,” Matisse later said, “I knew this would be my life.”

Although he continued to work at the law office, he had found the way to the light. “Other people’s quarrels interested me much less than painting,” Matisse later recalled, and, without telling his father, he enrolled in an early-morning drawing class at the Maurice Quentin de La Tour Free Art School. Like the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to which all such regional schools hoped to be conduits, the de La Tour school stressed strict monochromatic copying of plaster casts. Under Director Jules Degrave, color and painting en plein air were prohibited. Matisse bridled under such restrictions.

Then, in the fall of 1890, a new young assistant director, Emmanuel Croize, persuaded Degrave to let him open an academy of painting in an attic above his apartment at 11, rue Thiers. In the buttoned up, bureaucratic world of academic art, all hell ensued. Live models! Brilliant palettes! Quick color sketches of actual sunsets! Matisse described Croize’s class as “an open door,” but Degrave quickly slammed it shut, expelling Matisse for painting outdoors. It was the end for him in Picardy. Somehow persuading his father to stake him to study art in Paris, Matisse and a couple of Saint Quentin classmates left Picardy in the fall of 1891, bound for the city of light.

We, too, had planned to head back to Paris the next day, but as I made my notes I realized that I hadn’t seen Bohain and Le Cateau well enough, and Saint-Quentin hardly at all. David Bailin, my art teacher that summer at the Arkansas Arts Center, had told me a story before we left. He had been stumped by one particular large drawing he’d been working on, one in a series of biblical themes. “For years,” he said, “I would drive down Cantrell Road in Little Rock and see people in their yards trimming, pruning, preparing for the summer. None of it had particular significance to me. Then when I was working on this piece—I had Abraham over here on the left, startled, and then I had Sarah and their son, Isaac, over here. Abraham was going to be working in a vineyard. But I couldn’t figure out what to do with the rest of the picture. So I was driving down Cantrell and saw this man pruning his crepe myrtles way back, and I saw all these knobs. Wow! I thought. That’s it! I went from having the vineyard lush and full to being all this dead stuff, like the sacrifice of Isaac. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen extremely pruned bushes before; it was that now they had a significance within a structure that I was working with.” From that story, I understood that it’s sometimes making art that causes you to see like an artist, rather than the other way around. I needed to look at Picardy, alone, with a sketch pad in my hand.

THE NEXT MORNING, before I set off, I ran into Marie-Paule and told her we would stay another night. As she marked it down in her book, I asked how the dinner had gone the night before. I was surprised at her perturbed response. Both sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles, Victor’s sister, her husband and daughter, Victor’s younger brother—all had come, she said, and not one of them had cried.

On the road to Bohain, I thought about Marie-Paule and Victor. Rural places like this must see going-away dinners like that a lot, with or without tears. In any case, how do you know whom to cry for? Hilary Spurling quotes young Henri telling of waking from a nightmare during his first year studying art in Paris. He had dreamed he was back working in the lawyer’s office at Saint Quentin: “ ‘I said to myself: That’s it, you’ve had it. I was in a cold sweat, I was terrified. Then my eyes opened. I saw the sky and the stars. I was saved.’ ” On the other hand, his brother, Auguste, had remained in Bohain and made a tremendous success of the family seed business. When Henri and his family had to come back to Bohain in 1902-03, Auguste was the fair-haired one. He had just gotten married, and Henri’s allowance had been cut off so their father could pay Auguste’s marriage settlement of fifteen thousand francs—the same amount Monsieur Matisse had expended on Henri’s ten-year struggle to find success as an artist.

The topography around Bohain echoed the gentle rolls of Matisse’s mother and the furrowed brow of his father. As I drove I found myself thinking about my own father, whose face I see in the land every time I’m in a certain part of Mississippi. He was like Monsieur Matisse. For fifteen of his last twenty years, he had worked for the state of Florida’s division of vocational rehabilitation, much of that time heading up the South Florida region. It was a tough job in a tough place, full of office politics and probably more disappointing days than rewarding ones. He groused a lot at night, regularly referring to his boss as “the little bastard.”

But having escaped a poor upbringing and gone on to achieve BA and MA degrees, my father felt great satisfaction in helping give marginalized people the tools to become self-sufficient. He had worked hard all his life, and he wanted others to have that privilege. He never played golf or tennis. He never took glamorous vacations. He had fished as a youngster, but gave it up after he moved to Florida, where fishing was a sport. He seemed to have no personal interests besides working in the yard and fixing things around the house. His closest stab at a hobby was a brief pass at upholstering, but what enthusiasm he brought to the pastime sprang from practicality rather than passion—he hated paying store prices for furniture.

Then, in 1971, he suffered a massive heart attack. He was sixty years old. His doctor ordered him to retire. “Get a hobby,” the doctor said. Lifting chairs for upholstering was too strenuous now, so my father came up with another idea: He would start painting bottles. As far as his family knew, he had never shown any interest in art. But as soon as he was able, he began driving his yellow Ford wagon out to dumps and bringing home bags and baskets of empty liquor and wine bottles. Mateuse containers, with their wide flat surfaces, were a particular favorite. For larger works, he leaned toward gallon jugs of Paisano wine. We were dumbfounded, but soon the bottles had taken the place of broken chairs in his garage shop, and he had replaced his commercial sewing machine with containers of paint and cans full of brushes.

What happened next seemed less like art than mass production. That was, of course, the way he had always done everything—quickly, compulsively, impatiently. He began cranking out painted bottles, as many as fifteen or twenty a day. At first we didn’t know what to make of his masterpieces. They generally fell into two categories: The geometric designs, with blocks of gold-painted solder separating the colors like leaded glass in a church window; and the representational paintings, scenes of ducks and geese, horses and cows, forests and oceans, magnificent sunsets. He rendered boats and palm trees and love birds facing each other nibbling on a shared worm. In only one case did he depict a human figure—a face staring wide-eyed from inside a window, like Boo Radley.

He was, of course, following in a venerable southern tradition, and if he had taken himself more seriously, he might’ve become another revered Naïve icon. But art for art’s sake wasn’t something my father understood, so once he had a trunkload of bottles ready, he took them to local flea markets and set up shop. His given name had been Ledger James Morgan, but he had long since taken the liberty of dropping the d from his first name. Now he embellished that name for his art: On the bottoms of many of his bottles, right next to his pasted-on price, he scrawled, usually in gold paint, the name “Leger”—with an acute accent over the second e.Voilà, l’artiste.

During those years following his first heart attack, I felt that I got to know him better than I ever had. Once when I was visiting Miami, Dad and I went for a walk. He told me that he had handled a lot of things wrong in his life—that he had been too rigid, too focused on the job, too driven. Then we came home and he went to his workshop and dashed off a picture of a bird perched on the branches of a dogwood tree.

He suffered a second, and final, heart attack five years after the first. As I grew older I came to admire his bottle paintings, seeing in them not only surprising technique but an attempt at autobiography—his Mississippi boyhood in the little farms, the rolling hills, the wildlife, the tender leaves of spring; his Florida adulthood among the swaying palm trees, the ocean whitecaps, the silver moons. But I was afraid—for him—that the most personal painting of all was that face at the window, the haunted visage of someone trapped in a life that didn’t fulfill.

THE HOUSE WHERE Matisse grew up was just on the left past the first S-curve in Bohain, on the corner of the main street, rue du Château, and the smaller Peu d’Aise. I parked in front of an insurance company across the way and took out my sketch pad. Something about Picardy made me think of charcoals. Maybe the relative absence of color brought forward the power of shape and line, but I didn’t feel the call of pen and ink. They are for crisp climes, where the sun makes sharp edges. Picardy required layered shadows and thicker bones.

The Matisse house was sturdy and square, a two-story structure with a florist’s shop on the street floor and a home above, to judge by the plants in window boxes. Someone, sometime, had painted the dentil work and window trim bright blue. It wasn’t his shade, but it was still a nice Matisse-like touch, a clear color that stood out in this subdued landscape.

After sketching, I got back in my car and headed toward Le Cateau. Just outside town, I passed a creek with an old stone house by the road on the right. Beyond that, up a steep hill, was a big mas, a French farm enclave made up of several buildings. Across the road was a little house practically hidden in trees. I was at the top of the hill before something told me to slam on my brakes, turn into a driveway, and go back. I parked at the bottom next to the creek bridge. It struck me as a good Picardy scene, old stone and black trees and rolling land with shadows in the crevasses. In the center, a gray country road stopped at the horizon. Charcoal was definitely the right medium.

In fact, I spent much of that afternoon searching for a whole tree of charcoal. Bohain’s most famous landmark is the Chêne Brûlé, or blasted oak, a massive tree northeast of town that was burned and partially destroyed by Spanish marauders in the seventeenth century. As a boy, Matisse and his friends played beneath it. When he was back living in Bohain, he painted it. The Chêne Brûlé was the subject of old picture postcards. Even today, a picture of the blasted oak is one of the first things visitors to the Hôtel de Ville see when they walk through the door.

I had already driven around Le Cateau searching out the site of Matisse’s birthplace, a two-room house (no longer standing) with a packed dirt floor in the curve of a narrow street hardly more than an alley. I had drawn the steeple of the church where he’d been baptized. Cows in a pasture, stripes of black hedgerows, a dingy trestle outside Bohain-these were the subjects I entered in my sketchbook. Then I walked into the Hôtel de Ville and remembered the Chêne Brûlé.

A pleasant-looking woman came out of an office. “Pardon, madame,” I said. “Où est le Chêne Brûlé?”

Her face lit up like I had just sung the Marsaillaise. “Le Chêne Brûlé? Ah, oui!” She couldn’t tell me how to get there, but motioned for me to follow her into another office. There I waited while she consulted with a man in a cubicle. A framed painting of the tree in question hung on the office wall.

The man soon appeared with a spring in his step. “Le Chêne Brûlé, oui, oui,” he said, and took out a city map. “Le Chêne Brûlé ici!” He pointed to a spot near the top of the grid. I must’ve looked blank, because he then made a kind of pirouette so that he was facing the street in front. “À droite …,” he said, moving both hands as though he were directing traffic. Another pirouette, this one ninety degrees clockwise. “À droite …,” he said, directing traffic again right. I followed his hands to the end of their arc. À droite et … [he spun] “à gauche!” With that, his body and hands together swooped sharply left, as though he were about to attempt a corkscrew dive. He seemed very pleased with himself.

I backed out the car and drove slowly along rue Fagard, taking a right at the first street, rue Petreaux. Just at the corner, second building in at 24, rue Fagard, was where Matisse painted Studio Under the Eaves. As I drove by, I craned my neck to try to catch a glimpse of that hopeful rear window from the painting, but the brick wall was too high.

At the next street I made a right, then a left at the first turn. Voilà! I was actually on a street called rue du Chêne Brûlé. But instead of leading me to the tree, that road petered out at the top of a hill near a stadium with pasture land beyond. I drove right along rue du Pont du Roi, then made another circle, ending up in the same place. On my next lap, I saw a man walking his dog. I stopped and rolled down my window. “Pardon, Monsieur.” He seemed startled to encounter an American in his neighborhood. “Où est le Chêne Brûlé?”

They were magic words. He brightened. “Ah, oui, le Chêne Brûlé!” He pointed in the direction I had already gone.

I circled around by a school, then found myself back on the rue du Chêne Brûlé. Still no tree. A couple of boys on motorcycles passed me on a curve. When I got to the bottom of the hill, on a narrow one-way street, they were parked in front of a garage. I called one of them over. He was probably fifteen, with pink cheeks and a touch of an attitude. “Le Chêne Brûlé?” he said, and dropped his pose. He pointed down the hill, then two lefts, and a right. That took me back by Matisse’s studio under the eaves.

My next time around, I spotted a young woman studying something in the trunk of her car. When I asked the question, she became immediately friendly, coming over and propping her arm on my roof. “Le Chêne Brûlé, ah, oui.” Then she said, in enough English so that I could understand, that she didn’t know exactly where the tree was—maybe in a yard at the top of the hill. Something in her words made me wonder if the Chêne Brûlé was still with us.

One more loop. As I descended into the one-way street, the kids were still lounging around their motorbikes. Now a couple of girls were with them. I stopped, and they all came over. The attitude was back. The girls’ eyes were dancing. “Oui?” the cheeky boy said.

“Le Chêne Brûlé,” I began.

“Ah, le Chêne Brûlé,” he said, and the rest of them started giggling.

“C’est ici maintenant?” I was trying to ask if it was still here, but I clearly wasn’t communicating. I had found a picture of the blasted oak in a small book from the Musée Matisse. I opened it and pointed to the massive tree.

Their faces fell. “No no no,” the boy said, wagging a finger. The others shook their heads. “Le Chêne Brûlé est … peu.” The tree was small.

“Le Chêne Brûlé est … mort?”

“Ah, oui,” they all said together, and one of them repeated my word: “Mort.” The Chêne Brûlé was dead.

I heard them laughing as I drove away. “Bonne journée!” one of them shouted.

“Bonne année!” I called back, to even greater laughter. It was my first try at a French joke.

I was hungry after that and stopped at a bar américain, which is to say a roadhouse. Three bon old boys were throwing darts at some kind of electronic board. Whenever one hit the bull’s-eye, the machine would burst into James Brown’s “I Feel Good” (da-da-da-da-da-da-daaaa). It being after normal serving hours, one of the men—the proprietor, presumably—grudgingly broke from his game long enough to go into the back and fetch his wife, who graciously slathered butter on a full baguette and loaded it with ham, and brought me a beer to go with it.

As I sat writing my notes about the afternoon, I marveled at the power of a symbol that still lived in the hearts of these people long after it had ceased to live in the world. The massive, wounded oak tree, its core charred black, had roots still resolutely holding tight to Picardie: Terre Fertile. Henri Matisse was much the same. To the end of his life, he felt wounded by the lack of respect he’d been accorded as a struggling young artist by his more practical countrymen—especially his father. That was combined with personal guilt over his own willful disregard of his bewildered father’s wishes. (“It was the equivalent of saying … ‘Everything you do is pointless and leads nowhere,’ ” Matisse later lamented.) As if in both defiance and reparation, he dug deeply into himself and stood firm, forever managing the business of creating beauty and light with a single-mindedness that recalled the way practical Bohain weavers had turned out their fabulous fabrics, or the way a Picardy grain merchant had driven himself to make a success of selling seeds.

On Tuesday night, before we checked out the next morning, we gave Marie-Paule and Victor the names and phone numbers of our good friends Jerry and Stephanie Atchley in Laguna Beach. We shook Victor’s hand and wished him well. Marie-Paule hugged us good-bye. They were leaving for the airport the next morning at 5 A.M.

In the predawn darkness I awoke to hear them scurrying around downstairs, and then the sound of the ancient door settling shut. As they cranked up the car and drove off, I said a prayer for Victor. Then I drifted back to sleep thinking of the grand adventure he had before him in the Southern California light.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

James Morgan is the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Distance to the Moon and the critically acclaimed If These Walls Had Ears: The Biography of a House. He also collaborated with Virginia Kelley, President Clinton's mother, on her bestselling autobiography, Leading with My Heart. Morgan's articles and essays have appeared in numerous national media, including The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post Magazine, Men's Journal, and National Geographic Traveler. He and his wife now live in Paris.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (March 25, 2009)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439167243

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