'From my open window you can see the top of a palm tree-- white lace curtains-- coat-rack on the left-- armchair with white lace cover on the back-- on the right a red table with my suitcase on it-- sky and sea blue-- blue-- blue' (Matisse, quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954, London, 2005, p. 205).
So wrote Matisse to his wife, transported with ecstasy at the view from his bedroom window in the Hôtel Beau-Rivage, where he had arrived in December 1917. Initially, Matisse had been greeted by miserable weather that came to a climax on New Year's Eve-- his birthday. When the skies cleared, the combination of winter light and the blue of sky and sea inspired him to paint a small group of views of and from his bedroom window. These included Intérieur à Nice and another picture with a very similar composition in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which notably has less blue in the sky, implying that it was the present work that he was discussing in his letter). Intérieur à Nice is filled with light and colour, the lapis lazuli-like blues of sky and sea alike the focal point, made all the more intense by the surrounding details of the room. This is the blue that had fascinated Matisse for his entire life, that had been so elusive and that he had sought and sought, and which he now found in abundance in the South of France. Discussing his move to Nice, Matisse explained, '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' (Matisse, quoted in Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930, exh. cat., Washington, D.C. & New York, 1986, p. 19). In Intérieur à Nice, it is telling that the suitcase is still in evidence, hinting that Matisse was far from decided on staying there.
Initially, Matisse was alone in Nice; when the weather cleared, he developed a rigorous routine of painting, living frugally, especially in comparison to some of his more decadent and bohemian friends, who had opted for the high life of the South. Matisse was enchanted by the opportunities that Nice provided, not least the view from his narrow hotel room looking out onto the bay. The intensity of the colours in January were all the more enchanting for an artist originally from Northern France. Colour appealed to Matisse because of its relative absence in his native North. Of Nice, he said that, 'Most people came here for the light and the picturesque quality. As for me, I come from the north. What made me stay are the great coloured reflections of January, the luminosity of day-light' (Matisse, quoted in ibid., p. 19). It is this January light that has informed Intérieur à Nice and that resulted in some of Matisse's pictorial breakthroughs, or rather consolidations, during this crucial period.
It is a reflection of Matisse's own awareness of the new quality, the new synthesis that already characterised the paintings he had created since his arrival in Nice that he brought a group of recently completed works for the appraisal of the great Impressionist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who lived in nearby Cagnes. Amongst the works was a view of Matisse's hotel room, and in 1951, Alfred Barr suggested that it was the present work (certainly, it was either this or the Philadelphia picture). Matisse himself recalled this legendary meeting of two of the most famous and celebrated artists of the past century and a half:
'As I admired [Renoir] greatly, I would go and see him in his home at Cagnes, Les Collettes. He received me cordially and I showed him several of my paintings, in order to find out his opinion. He looked at them in a rather disapproving manner. Then he said: 'In all truthfulness, I don't like what you do. I'd almost like to say that you are not a good painter, or even that you are a very bad painter. But one thing prevents me from doing this: when you put black on the canvas it stays in its plane. All my life, I thought that one couldn't use it without breaking the chromatic unity of the surface. It is a tint that I have banished from my palette. As for you, using a coloured vocabulary, you introduce black and it holds. So in spite of my feeling, I think that you are most surely a painter'' (Matisse, quoted in ibid., p. 20).
This use of black above the window in Intérieur à Nice was directly opposed to Renoir's belief in verisimilitude. For the Impressionists, it had been a central tenet of their painting that there was no black in nature: they had abandoned the bitumen favoured by so many of their contemporaries. Matisse, though, has used it here to great effect in order to create the composition of planes of colour. Renoir was exasperated, complaining: 'If I were to put a black like that in my painting, it would stick right out' (quoted in P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 504). The entire nature of Matisse's art was opposed to his. Intérieur à Nice embraces its two-dimensionality. It does not pretend to imitate nature or to portray depth; in it, the forms and colours have been rendered through a simplification that verges on the abstract, even down to the curlicues of the coat hooks. And yet it perfectly conveys the reality, sense and appearance of the hotel room through expressive means, as Renoir himself recognised: 'How you have managed to express the atmosphere of a hotel room in Nice! But that blue of the sea should come to the front... And that black line from which the white curtains fall. It's in its place. Everything is very accurate. It was difficult... It makes me mad...' (op.cit., 1986, p. 20).
Matisse himself would explain the way in which his picture was so alien to Renoir, and yet what kept it together, what made it function so perfectly:
'It's through a combination of forces brought together on canvas, which is the particular contribution of my generation. And it's also, I think, the feeling of space that I always get from observing the models, and that even makes me put myself into the space. This space is constructed from a convergence of forces that has nothing to do with the direct copying of nature. It's difficult to explain more fully because, with this sort of construction, a large part is down to the mysterious workings of instinct' (ibid., p. 220).
It is a tribute to the importance of Intérieur à Nice that it was purchased by Matisse's friend and fellow artist, Hans Purrmann. It was Purrmann who had organised, as 'student-manager,' art lessons that were taught by Matisse some years earlier. Several times, these two artists were travelling companions; Purrmann wrote several monographs on his friend and was influential in his native Germany, as well as in Italy, which was for some years his adopted home-- indeed, during one of Hitler's visits there, he was briefly imprisoned there as a protagonist of Entartete Kunst.