Matisse Museum in Le Cateau Cambrésis, Northern France. The singular history of the museum and the issues of its entry into the digital.

Elsa Urtizverea, Matisse Museum , France

The future of the museum is inextricably linked to its past, its singular history and the content of its Collections. To properly understand the issues and the challenges is facing the museum today; we need to briefly come back to its past. In 1951, Matisse receives in Paris, a few personalities from Le Cateau, his birthplace in the Northern France. Deeply moved by the initiative of his compatriots, Matisse proposes to give important artworks to his hometown. That is how the history of the only museum he created during his lifetime begun. The Matisse museum was inaugurated November 8, 1952 with a collection of more than eighty artworks presented in the Town Hall. In 1982, the museum is transferred in the "Palais Fenelon", a small castle of the seventeenth, historical site in the city. In 1992 the museum is attached to the Department of the North which significantly changes its resources. The French architects Laurent and Emmanuelle Beaudouin has been chosen in 1997 to ensure the renovation of the Fénelon Palace and to give the museum an extension. While the museum is closed for renovations from 1999 to 2002, Alice Tériade, wife of renowned art publisher, donated to the museum great masterpieces. After tackling for years the collection development, the public reception, and embedded the museum in a virgin territory from cultural practice, the museum has entered a new era, that of a digital rebirth. The basic tools have been developed in the recent years but it is now necessary to go beyond this first step. This huge project that the museum must delve is accompanied by a new museum extension. Very recently, the museum acquired the old covered market in the city; adjacent to the museum. The first prerogatives will focus on the development of digital tools. In this field, every thing is possible and the museum's team is working on several projects which are beginning to bloom.

Keywords: Matisse, Elsa Urtizverea, France, Le Cateau, Single Artist Museum, Digital Rebirth


A singular history

The origins of the project and the major foundation stages of the Museum

The departmental Matisse Museum owes its existence firstly to the unequalled admiration of the inhabitants of Le Cateau for the artist, the attachment of one of the tutelary figures of the French Art to his hometown and undeniably to the generosity of some major donors.

The museum’s history has begun after World War II and continues to write itself with as much zeal and enthusiasm. In the summer of 1951, Matisse receives at his home in Paris, in his apartment in the Boulevard du Montparnasse, a few personalities from Le Cateau who wanted to ask him the permission to give his name to the school under construction. They also have in mind to create a museum in homage to Matisse. The catésiens ask him to dedicate for their city two reproductions of the master they have brought with them. Matisse accepts, signs, and annotates these lithographs of La Blouse roumaine (oil on canvas, 1940, Mnam) and Odalisque étendue “For the city of Le Cateau, H. Matisse”.

Deeply moved by the initiative of his compatriots and probably a little bitter that he had had very few purchase by the French State until then, Matisse proposes to give more artworks to his hometown on condition that the city accepts to dedicate him a room. The Town Hall, housed in a beautiful Renaissance building, makes available the grand salon and its loggia. The Matisse Museum, the only one he created during his lifetime, was in germ.

With the help of his assistant Lydia Delectorskaya who reports to the plans of City Hall and his photographer Hélène Adant, Matisse sets the donation, and fully developed the disposition and the hanging of the spaces.

The Matisse museum was inaugurated November 8, 1952 and already had in its collections five sculptures, two large paintings (La Raie d’après Chardin, 1894-1901 and Fenêtre à Tahiti de 1936), twenty-seven engravings, thirty-eight drawings, one tapestry (La femme au Luth, 1946-1949), two hangings (Océanie, le ciel et Océanie, la mer, 1946), and ten illustrated books donated by the artist. The entire donation is estimated to 1593000 francs (over 34 million of euros). In his inauguration speech Matisse sealed his commitment to the city: “My fellow citizens of Le Cateau, which I left so early to follow my destiny, have wanted to honour my life’s work by creating a musuem. […] And, to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, I have helped the town of Le Cateau to create this museum. A part of the result of a lifetime of work, which destiny imposed upon me, rightly finds its place here. I wish to thank the town of Le Cateau for having chosen me.”

The following year, in 1953, Auguste Herbin (born in 1882 in Quiévy en Cambrésis and died in Paris in 1960) pioneer of geometric abstraction, visits the Matisse Museum. A few years later, he offers to the museum twenty-four artworks that are hung in the marriage room in the Town Hall.

In 1982 the Mayor of Le Cateau, concerned with offering a framework more suitable for these works, decided to transfer the museum in the “Palais Fenelon”, a small castle of the seventeenth, historical site in the city. This first move, which marks a decisive step in the development of the museum, also offers it the opportunity to host some great donations from the Matisse family.

In 1992, at the instegation of the city, of the museum managment and thanks to the willpower of the General Council of the Northern France, the museum, became too important for a small municipality, is attached to the Department of the North. This event represents a new foundation stage of the Matisse museum that is enriched of new grants and special deposits.

The General Council of the Northern France, aware of the overriding importance given by the museum and its collections over the years, decides to offer it a home that is worthy of its rich collections.

The French architects Laurent and Emmanuelle Beaudouin has been chosen in 1997 to ensure the renovation of the Fénelon Palace and to give the museum an extension.

While the museum is closed for renovations from September 1999 to November 2002, Alice Tériade, wife of renowned art publisher, donated to the museum of paintings, prints, illustrated books and sculptures of artists whose the couple was close and with whom they had worked: Giacometti, Matisse, Chagall, Picasso, Léger, Miró, Laurens et Rouault. Thus, the greatest artists of Modern Western Art come to enrich the beautiful museum collection providing opportunities to offer to the public an overview of Matisse’s career and his context.

The Collections and its peculiarities

The gift of 85 artworks that Matisse made ​​to his city in 1952, signs from the outset a strong political gesture. When the master worked on his museum’s project, he made a meticulous and very thoughtful selection of his works. He chose to show works of his entire career and all the techniques he worked on are shown. He also thought which was rarer in the time than it is nowadays, the display of each work in the space. Therefore the Matisse museum offers a crucial specificity.

One of the great qualities and characteristics of the museum is the very intimate relationship to the works it offers to the visitors. All the work of the architects during the expansion of the museum in 2002 went also in this direction: create a museum big enough to present both the collections and temporary exhibitions while maintaining a warm and human dimension in the image of Matisse had hoped by offering his works to the city.

The museum provides this privilege thanks to its particular history in the first place. Because Matisse thought himself the hanging of his works and because the museum has preserved, in the drawings room for instance, the layout on which he had worked to achieve a just, harmonious, and balanced presentation.

By the content of these collections which has grown steadily, the museum leads to a very personal dimension of Matisse’s life. Indeed, in addition of the hangings of Oceania which are a transposition of his gouached, paper cutouts on canvas that Matisse had pinned on the walls of his apartment Boulevard du Montparnasse in Paris, the museum has a masterpiece in the original and wide-ranging art Matisse was to produce in his final art: the ceiling of his room at the Hotel Regina in Cimiez (Nice).

In 1950, Matisse draws on the ceiling of his room above his bed, the outlines of his three grandchildren’s faces with a long bamboo cane to which he had attached a piece of charcoal:  “These are my grandchildren. When I can keep them in my thoughts I feel better. That is why I tried to represent them on the ceiling, to have them near me, and most of all during the long nights. That way I feel less alone”. This work, took down at the death of the artist, and installed in a room dedicated to it, is one of the star pieces from the museum’s collection.

In the same dimension, the donation Tériade contributed greatly to illustrate the life of Matisse. Among the works donated to the museum, a masterpiece quite singular came considerably enrich the museum and has participated since its installation in the Palais Fénelon to the success of the institution. It is the dining room of the villa Natacha in Saint-Jean-Cap Ferrat where Tériade and his wife Alice lived. It was in this room that the couple received their friends Matisse, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, Miró, Giacometti, Laurens, Chagall…

Enchanted by the place Matisse offers Tériade to decorate it. Matisse began with a stained glass window; he then painted Le Platane (the plane tree) on white ceramic tiles that hung on the walls. To complete the beautiful set, two cups and a suspension by Giacometti and a small sculpture, la Sirène ailée (the winged Mermaid) by Henri Laurens are added to the room. This wonderful place, considered as a secular equivalent of the Vence Chapel, was completely moved and reassembled in the museum. It now offers visitors a parenthesis of privacy and a unique testimony.

Finally, as a last tribute to his hometown, Matisse offered to the kindergarten of Le Cateau the Stained Glass of The Bees originally designed for the Vence Chapel. Following the example of Matisse, Auguste Herbin gave in turn the stained glass Joy to the primary school of the city. For the museum, the stained glass has been reconstituted identically in 2002.

Recently, the Matisse family renewed its support and its confidence to the museum by an exceptional gift. These are 443 items in gouache and cut-out paper not used by Matisse in these works, entered in the museum’s collection in 2012. Part of this set has been the subject of the exhibition “Matisse, cutting into color” which knew a great success and contributed to scientific enrichment of the major exhibition on Matisse cut-outs currently on display at the Tate Modern in London and show in the MoMA in October.

The challenges of such a museum

The location of the museum and its specific economic issues

The location of the museum is his first particularity. The city of Le Cateau – that hosts the museum within it, and is an integral part of his identity – is located in a rural area, isolated in the middle of the fields. In a second part, comes the socio-economic context of the region especially affected. The city of Le Cateau has 7,500 inhabitants and suffers great difficulties.

Far from major urban centers, the region has witnessed, at the time of the Industrial Revolution, a period of very significant prosperity. Le Cateau has been the cradle of many textile factories, and was an employment area. The city then had nearly 15,000 residents. The childhood of Matisse is also impregnated by the textile world. The crisis industry has gradually given way to empty warehouses and labour low- skilled unemployed. The Cateau is still confronted with problems of social nature (high unemployment, low income, impoverishment of the urban …). If a significant mutual interest has been developed between the museum and the catesians, it took time to gain their trust. For the reopening of the museum in 2002, people organized a demonstration in front of the museum holding banners “No museum but jobs.”

It is in this context that the museum has sought to develop itself, by providing the demands imposed by such a collection, the political will of officials, and an essential and good relationship with the people of the city. It was necessary to conquer the heart of catesians and to let them enjoy the dynamics of the museum as the derive benefits of tourism and economic development.

To do so, the museum has established a strong education policy and provides visitors with entertainment programs for all ages. The dynamic mediation team and the quality of the activities are worthy of the greatest museums.

Since 2002, the Matisse Museum offers a rich cultural program, through its temporary exhibitions (about three per year) or ephemeral events during the European Heritage Days, The Museum Night …

The museum hosts an annual average of between 70,000 and 90,000 visitors and 50% is made ​​up of school groups. In 10 years, the museum received 800,000 visitors, including 116,000 in the year of its reopening.

The majority of visitors are of French nationality. Visitors are in majority people living in the vicinity; and, in 2012, visitors from the region of Nord-Pas de Calais represented 68% of visitors.

But the museum also has one of the most important foreign visitors with rates close to 20%: Belgians, Germans, English, Americans and even a number of Koreans …

The museum has become over the years a true economic heart for the city and its surroundings. In 2012, he was ranked first museum in France in the category of towns with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants.

The programming of the Museum

The generosity, the confidence, and the support of the heirs of Matisse greatly contribute to the enrichment of the collections, making it the third largest museum collection of works by Matisse in the world after the Pompidou Centre and the Matisse Museum in Nice.

Major works from the collection have allowed the museum to develop a dynamic policy and establish collaborations with many French and foreign museums.

Programming of modern art and contemporary art exhibitions was implemented. It can address all aspects of Matisse career and his contemporaries. It also participates in the world-renowned museum.

Around Matisse, the museum has organized « Matisse and the tree » in 2003, « Matisse his Art and his Textiles » with the MET and the Royal Academy, in 2004, « Matisse Derain, 1905 », with the Céret Museum, « They looked at Matisse » in 2009, « Lydia D. muse and model of Matisse », « Eskimos seen by Matisse » in 2010, «  Matisse’s brush drawings” in 2012, in 2013 « Matisse, cutting into color » and in preparation, an exhibition devoted to Matisse and his tapestries.

Several exhibitions on geometric abstraction and the invention of abstraction have been presented: « the group Vouloir, DelMarle, Mondrian, Vantongerloo… », « Albers in the Bauhaus » with the Fondation Albers, and « Vantongerloo «, « Herbin »…

Around the Tériade collection, the museum presented “Tériade and illustrated book”, “Chagall and Tériade”, “Miró and Tériade, the Ubu adventure” for instance.

Contemporary art programming was done in the interests of a coherence with the museum collections: François Morellet, Claude Viallat, Monique Frydman, Pierre Buraglio, Norman Dilworth, Kees Visser and François Rouan among others, were the subject of monographic exhibitions in the recent years.

A catalogue for each exhibition is being published and appreciated for its scientific content.

Meanwhile, works from the collections of the museum are often coveted for loan requests; it allows the museum to participate in large-scale projects. The most recent being the collaboration of the museum to the major retrospective of paper cuts-out presented both in the Tate in London and the MoMA in New York. The museum is also currently working in collaboration with Australia, Taiwan, Denmark example…

The future and the priorities of the museum

The expansion of 2002 is probably the most decisive turning point in the development of the museum and it provided an opportunity to modernize both the communication and mediation tools of the museum. The architects have made ​​every effort to offer a remarkable comfort for the visit and worked for a new digital media. Indeed, in a rather innovative approach in 2002, Emmanuelle and Laurent Beaudouin endowed the museum with interactive multimedia terminals with a scientific content (produced by the museum staff) fully integrated into furniture designed for the exhibition and the collections spaces. Visitors can enjoy the iconographic documentation related to the works presented and linked to audio-guides so they can simultaneously listen to Matisse’s words relating thereto. The audio guides also depict fragments of Matisse’s life narrated by the artist’s biographer, Hilary Spurling.

Today, the museum site is constantly improving, digitization of collections is underway, and many projects should emerge in the coming years.

After tackling for years the collection development, the public reception, and embedded the museum in a virgin territory from cultural practice, the museum has entered a new era, that of a digital rebirth. The basic tools have been developed in the recent years (website, Facebook, Twitter, various digital media) but it is now necessary to go beyond this first step. This huge project that the museum must delve is accompanied by a new museum extension. Very recently, the museum acquired the old covered market in the city; adjacent to the museum, it is a gross area of ​​350 m2.

Along with extending the rooms in the covered market, and creating a sculpture park in the museum garden, the first prerogatives will first focus on the comfort of visiting.

A WiFi access will be available throughout the museum to enable visitors the use of several tools.

QR codes will be affixed to the artwork’s panel. The content will be mainly some videos linked to the artist’s work. New mediation policy is also being developed. Digital tablets with a scientific content will be available for visits. It will offer a more dynamically approach of the collections and it will fit the museum into a new digital strategy in connection with research teams from surrounding universities. A first partnership has been established with a Northern university to set up a common program. The project focuses on the creation of a mutimedia tool that will offer a virtual tour retracing Matisse’s footsteps in his native region of course but also in France and everywhere in the world where Matisse travelled. It will provide an interactive content and an experience of augmented reality related to the different places where Matisse worked and its influences on his work.

As regards to the preservation, this expansion is also an opportunity to create a Centre of research and documentation. This new space will allow the consultation of archives, old books, and illustrated books fully digitized in a database.

In the area of research, a large project, involving the Pompidou Centre and the Musée Matisse in Nice, should be open in the near future. The three museums are planning to create a common database dedicated to Matisse. The base will include the whole of the artist’s works from these three major collections as well as all documentation, research and current exhibitions.

Therefore the Matisse Museum in Le Cateau continues to grow with a special attention given to the values ​​it cherishes and its singular location. It allows also differentiating the structure from other modern and contemporary art institutions, and its initiatives will be an opportunity to affirm the importance of the museum to a local, national, and international scale offering citizens a little of the freshness and beauty of the world so dear to Matisse.

Cite as:
E. Urtizverea, Matisse Museum in Le Cateau Cambrésis, Northern France. The singular history of the museum and the issues of its entry into the digital.. In Museums and the Web Asia 2014, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 25, 2015. Consulted .