Flavia Frigeri, assistant curator of our Matisse cut-outs exhibition, writes on how Matisse's wrangling with the question of how to represent a tree began a lasting love affair with the handsome palm

  • Matisse in the garden at Villa le Reve
    Matisse in the garden at Villa le Reve
    © Hélène Adant
    Centre Pompidou - Mnam - Bibliothèque Kandinsky - Hélène Adant

Explaining ‘the birth of a tree in the head of an artist’ to his friend and writer Andre RouveyreMatisse identified two ways of representing a tree: either by drawing an imitation of it or by evoking the emotion that its approach and contemplation suggest. Having tried many times to draw trees, it was not until he settled in Villa le Rêve in Vence that Matisse encountered one specific tree, the Phoenix canariensis (a type of palm tree) which would come to play a key role in his last complete series of paintings.

Henri Matisse Villa le Reve exterior
An exterior view of Matisse's Villa le Reve studio
© Hélène Adant
Centre Pompidou - Mnam - Bibliothèque Kandinsky - Hélène Adant

Between 1946 and 1948 Matisse worked on a series of paintings depicting the interior of his home in Vence, which were to be some of his last painted works on canvas. The objects which literally and physically coloured his environment were once again drawn into these works. Rearranged in different compositions they shared the stage with the famous palm tree. Standing in Matisse’s garden and visible through the open windows of his home, the palm tree forced itself into these depthless compositions. Made out of planes of pure colour, Matisse’s ‘Interiors of Vence’ series of paintings obliterated all spatial depth, bringing both indoors and outdoors on the same plane. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table (1947) and Interior with Black Fern (1948) are exemplary of this formal set up. The palm tree with its lavish branches peeks through the window bringing a whiff of air to the motionless still life.

View of plams from the window at the Villa le Reve
View of plams from the window at the Villa le Reve
© Hélène Adant
Centre Pompidou - Mnam - Bibliothèque Kandinsky - Hélène Adant

The view from the window which is here almost entirely occupied by the palm tree (see image above), was a key motif for Matisse. In a radio interview from 1942 he explained:

the space is one unity from the horizon right to the interior of my work room, and the boat which is going past exists in the same space as the familiar objects around me; and the wall with the window does not create two different worlds.

Unifying two worlds – exterior and interior – was the goal and the window was the conduit to achieve this; the palm tree with its sumptuous branches stood in-between and its value as a transition point between the natural outdoors and the material indoors was recognised in his ‘Interiors of Vence.’

Contact sheet with photographs taken by Hélène Adant of Matisse at the Villa le Reve
Contact sheet with photographs taken by Hélène Adant of Matisse at the Villa le Reve
© Hélène Adant
Centre Pompidou - Mnam - Bibliothèque Kandinsky - Hélène Adant

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs is on display at Tate Modern until 7 September

The documentary With Matisse in Tangier is being screened on Sundays 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31 August 2014 15.00 – 16.00 at Tate Modern, Starr Auditorium, Free