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Sister Jacques-Marie, 84; Inspired Henri Matisse to Design Famous Chapel

October 01, 2005|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Sister Jacques-Marie, a Dominican nun whose friendship with artist Henri Matisse led him to create the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France, died Monday. She was 84, according to Barbara Freed, a friend of several years.

She died of respiratory disease and other ailments at Les Embruns, a rehabilitation center in Bidart, France, that is operated by the Dominican nuns.

Sister Jacques-Marie's friendship with Matisse began in 1942, when she was a 21-year-old nursing student in Nice named Monique Bourgeois. She answered his ad for a "young and pretty" night nurse and got the job. Later, she joked that her parents always told her she was ugly.

Matisse was in his early 70s and recovering from surgery for intestinal cancer when Bourgeois met him. They became good friends, and for years rumors persisted that he had a crush on her. She never entirely denied it but said she thought of him as a grandfather.

When he regained his health, Matisse asked her to pose for his paintings. She modeled for four, including "Monique in Gray Robe," as well as a number of drawings. He also advised his young friend, who was an amateur artist, about her drawings and paintings.

About a year after she met Matisse, she entered the Dominican order as a novice. After she took her religious vows, she settled in the convent at Vence in 1946. She was working as a nursing nun, sitting at the bedside of an ailing sister, when she made a drawing of the assumption of Mary, the mother of Jesus, into heaven.

Matisse, who had a nearby villa, saw the drawing and suggested that it be made into a stained-glass window. That led to discussions about building a chapel for the order. At the time, the Dominican sisters of Vence met for prayer in a converted garage.

Before long, Matisse was involved in every aspect of the project, starting with a rough sketch he made of the building.

He created the stained-glass windows, murals, vestments and furnishings and, according to some reports, also helped finance it. When it was finished in 1951, he considered the chapel his masterwork and gave Sister Jacques-Marie credit for making it possible.

The small, modern gem attracted international attention, and there also was wide interest in the unusual friendship behind the new building.

"Everyone wanted to sensationalize their relationship," said Freed, who became acquainted with Sister Jacques-Marie when she made the documentary "A Model for Matisse: The Story of the Vence Chapel," in 2003.

A professor of French studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Freed also translated Sister Jacques-Marie's book, "Henri Matisse: La Chapelle de Vence" (1993), into English in 2001.

Sister Jacques-Marie described her friendship with Matisse as one of affection, gratitude and caring, "a haven of peace," Freed said. Fifty years after the chapel was complete, she still kept his photograph on her desk.

In a letter Matisse wrote to a friend, he referred to his relationship with "my nun" not as a flirtation but a "flowertation" and compared it with two people throwing rose petals at each other, Freed said.

Monique Bourgeois was born in a small town in southern France on Jan. 14, 1921, according to Freed, and moved to Vence with her family in 1940. Her father was injured during World War II and remained in frail health.

After becoming a nun, Sister Jacques-Marie remained in Vence until 1952. She moved several times before being appointed director of Les Embruns in Bidart, on France's southwest coast.

Matisse died at the age of 84, two years after Sister Jacques-Marie left Vence. She told Freed that if she had known he had so short a time to live she would have stayed there until he was gone.

Her survivors include one sister.

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