Chasing Matisse and a Dream

Who hasn’t had the fantasy of leaving his or her old life behind to start over? What would happen if you gave up your job and routine to move to Paris? Writer and aspiring painter James Morgan does just that and lives to tell about it in his new book “Chasing Matisse.”

Risking everything, he and his wife shed their old, settled life in a lovely 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 the reader 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.
Funny, sad and defiantly hopeful, this is a book that restores our faith in the possibility of dreams.

Interview with James Morgan

No doubt about it, getting to spend five days in Matisse’s studio at Villa Le Reve in Vence was the highlight of the journey. This was the house he rented during World War II when fears of Allied bombing on the coast required that he leave his apartment above Nice. Vence is higher into the mountains. He lived at Villa Le Reve from 1943 to 1949, and it was there that he did his last great series of easel paintings. I tend to think of them as the paintings with the palm tree exploding outside the window. Interior With an Egyptian Curtain is the name of one of the pictures. Most people don’t know the names, but they would recognize them if they saw them. He also did his cutouts for the book Jazz there. I’ve seen photos with the Jazz cutouts pinned to the wall. We slept in that very room, next to that very wall, and our window was the one with the palm tree outside. It’s the same view now, except the tree is taller.

There was something magical about staying in the very place where legendary art was made. You could actually see the way that Matisse saw light, and you could understand why he painted the cool, dark inside black-to make the light outside roar. I did a couple of paintings while I was there, but unfortunately the magic didn’t extend to my paintbrush.

Do you have any regrets?

I sometimes regret selling my house, which my family loved. But it had to be done in order for Beth and me to do this. To have this adventure. And the truth is, it was time. Life at home was getting stale, and we needed to shake ourselves out of it. Matisse once wrote that “Everything we see in daily life is distorted by our acquired habits.” In other words, we start to see what we expect to see. Such ready-made images, he said, “are to the eye what prejudices are to the mind.”

Still, I sometimes miss my old house. If Chasing Matisse does really, really well, maybe we’ll buy Villa Le Reve. Le Reve, by the way, means “the dream.”

Is there anything you would do differently if you were to do it all over again?

It would be nice to take it a little slower-to spend more time in each place as we chased Matisse. Matisse, for example, spent several whole summers in Belle Ile, off the Brittany coast. We stayed a long weekend. He spent four months in Corsica; we were there five days. He went twice to Morocco, for a total of several months. We were there nine days. It’s hard processing so much information when you’re moving so fast.

 Have you noticed any changes in your artwork over the course of your adventure?

I have a long way to go, and right now, in our apartment in Paris, I don’t have much room for painting. I still need real lessons-personal lessons. And either they need to be in English, or my French needs to get a whole lot better. I’m a dedicated amateur-that’s what I am. One night in Paris, soon after we got there, Beth and I were walking around after dinner looking at galleries in the Place de Vosges. “See?” Beth said. “There’s a lot of bad art out here.”

I think she was trying to encourage me.

But it was wonderful getting to spend a year with drawing, painting, and sketching being part of my job. I didn’t have to feel guilty taking off to do it. And it was terrific getting to see so much art while we were running around France chasing Matisse. In France, even little villages can have a museum with great art in it. One of the best we ran across was in St. Tropez. I had thought St. Tropez was just a jet-set playground, but right there on the waterfront is a fine museum with all the best French modern painters.

There are a million ways in which a painting can be bad. But I realize now that a major requirement for a painting to be good is for it to be personal. That means it won’t necessarily look the way someone else thinks it ought to look. That means, to me, that I’ve come to cherish my flaws.

Is there something you miss in Little Rock that just cannot be replaced by anything else?

Excedrin. Zip lock bags. Plastic wrap that really sticks.

Seriously, we miss our friends and family, of course. We had a great front porch that we used to sit on at night. Lots and lots of nights. It was a real gathering place.

But I’ve moved around enough to know that, to paraphrase Hemingway, every place you live is a moveable feast. We still have those friends. Now we visit them in Arkansas and they visit us in France. We have shared memories, and we’re making new shared memories together. We saw a lot of France on our journey chasing Matisse-more than a lot of French people, we’ve found-and now it’s fun for us to show our old friends around our new world.

In the prologue to Chasing Matisse, you ended by saying that this adventure, this journey, “is either the craziest, most self-destructive dream of the craziest dreamers the world has ever known, Or it’s the most important thing we’ve ever done.” What’s the verdict?

I think the jury’s still out on that one. The French Tourist Network, when they did a feature on us, called us “brave…some would say foolhardy.”

There are so many ways to look at it. We’ve spent a lot of money opening our eyes and following our hearts, and it would be nice if Chasing Matisse made us as rich as Peter Mayle or Frances Mayes. Then I think everyone would say, Hey, you gambled and won.

On the other hand, what price can you put on getting to live the life that you know in your bones you have to live? That’s what “Chasing Matisse” means-not just following in the painter’s footsteps around France, but living the life that calls you. In our case, a life of creating. I spent a lot of years staring into the mirror in the morning asking myself why I was going to a job that I hated. Now I love what I do, but I sometimes stare at myself in the mirror asking when the next check is going to come.

I guess if I had to decide, I would come down on the side of this being the most important thing we’ve ever done. It woke up our lives.

Of course, I am one of the craziest dreamers the world has ever known.