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American Art

The Artist's Wife

  History/Biography of Ary Stillman  

P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  F R A N C E S    S T I L L M A N ' S    E U R O P E    D I A R Y

CHAPTER I..........Going from Here to There

CHAPTER II..........Mishap in Milan

CHAPTER III..........Venice

CHAPTER IV..........Florence

CHAPTER V..........Siena

CHAPTER VI..........Rome

CHAPTER VII..........Assisi

CHAPTER VIII..........Nice

CHAPTER IX..........Barcelona

CHAPTER X..........Solsona

CHAPTER XI..........Gerona

CHAPTER XII..........Paris in the Fall

Wednesday, July 16th

We spent last night in Genoa, and were up early this morning to take the bus to Nice. The bus was almost an hour late and we waited in the square in front of the station. Such a stream of buses, bound for neighboring towns, for Milan and for the Cote d'Azur. Finally ours arrived.

The road was winding and steep, cut into the mountain rock, and the contrast of hills and mountain peaks on one side and the exotic blue sea on the other was breathtaking. There is something terribly exciting about the blue of the Mediterranean. I hadn't known how many marvelous shades of blue and green it could be, with just a swirl of dullish white now and then, for contrast. Although the cypress and other familiar trees continued, now there were tall palm trees also, and cactus plants, and the flowers by the wayside took on a greater brilliancy. The houses were painted light pink or blue, with red roofs. Frequently we passed a gay bathing resort, with vacation crowds swimming or sunning themselves on the broad white beach, under red and white striped beach umbrellas. What a different world from the walled towns and centuries-old buildings which we had just left!

As we neared the French Riviera the mountains receded gradually into the distance, giving way to gentle country and flat beaches, with the sea dominating the scene. However, there were occasional hill towns, with shining white villas and terraced orchards. We had a glimpse of the palace and surrounding buildings of Monaco in the distance, and passed the fabulous Casino of Monte Carlo and the luxurious park facing it.

Pulled up in Nice about four o'clock, left the bags at the bus station, and made for the hotel where the Es stayed when they were here two years ago. We didn't notice it when we engaged the room, but later we found that the hotel was only two short blocks from the railroad station. Throughout the night there was a continual puffing and snorting of engines and clanging of bells. Ary hardly closed his eyes, and at daybreak he arose, dressed, and went out to look for another hotel.

He came back about seven-thirty with the news that he had found one, but that our room wouldn't be available until later in the day. It was on a private street, very quiet, and the room which we would have — but couldn't see now, since it was still occupied — faced a garden. We would have to engage it for two weeks, since the landlord had a long waiting list of people who would be willing to rent it for that period. Ary wanted me to look at the outside of the hotel, but I said no, that if it was on a quiet street he should engage the room and have the baggage brought ever there.

Friday, July 18th to Thursday, July 30th

I am not keeping a day by day record of our stay in Nice because very little has actually happened during these two weeks.

I was horrified when I first saw our room in Hotel Durante, but gradually I have come to have a warm feeling, almost an affection for it. The room is drab and dingy, the walls are badly in need of paint, the carpets worn, the draperies faded. The bedding is clean enough, but the linen is terribly coarse. To our surprise we found a two-burner gas stove in the room and a cupboard containing dishes and table silver of a sort; also a notice on the wall to the effect that we are to take care of our own room. Outside in the hallway there are brooms and mops, a coffee-grinder and other kitchen utensils, and an ironing board with an old-fashioned iron, the kind you heat on the gas stove.

The whole establishment has the air of a third-rate actors' boarding house, and the landlord looks as if he might have been the manager of a traveling troupe at one time. But there are many compensations. Our room has a big window and a door leading to a tiny little balcony just large enough for one chair. Outside is a garden — such a funny, tangled garden, straggling and unkempt, with a riot of flowers in the vivid hues typical of the Cote d'Azur. There are orange and lemon trees, a large tree with flaming red blossoms, and an exuberantly purple bougaineillea vine which climbs up into our balcony. All of this is set against flat areas of blue and yellow formed by nearby houses. The colors are vividly bright in the clarity of the Mediterranean sunlight.

Although the hotel is so terribly shabby, the guests are a very genteel and substantial looking lot. From Northern France or Belgium, most of them, small business men who have driven down in their cars with their families to spend a week or two on the beach. Fat papas with big black mustaches, good-natured mammas and docile youngsters. They leave early in the morning for the beach, return at noon carrying long loaves of bread, bottles of red wine, and bags of smelly cheese and sausage. Then after lunch they go to the beach for the rest of the day.

We prepare breakfast and lunch in the room. Ary goes out early in the morning and buys fresh rolls and milk and cheese and tomatoes and oranges and the most luscious tasting peaches. We stay in our room until noon, writing letters or enjoying the garden from our little balcony. After lunch, when the sun streams too strongly into the room, we walk down to the big park by the sea, where we stretch out in beach chairs and doze, or read our French newspapers or the little anthology of modern poetry, which we always carry with us.

It isn't a very exciting existence, but it is a welcome rest after our travels in Italy, and we are quite content.

The park by the sea is enchanting, particularly at night when it is brilliantly lighted — the lawns like green velvet, the tall palm trees, the fountains, the vine-covered arbors, the gay umbrellas, the bright-colored beach chairs, and the flow of movement of the crowds. In the evening we promenade on the Avenue des Anglais with the beach and the dark blue sea on one side of us and the row of ornate white hotels on the other. Their verandahs are crowded with tables of diners, and inside, the orchestras are blaring out jazz music. The entire Avenue is flooded with dazzling light just like the park. One hotel in particular is so Hollywood-ish looking that it seems just like the backdrop for a musical movie. Any minute one expects a chorus of Rockettes to float out, or Fred Astaire with a dancing partner to waltz out of the doorway.

But the park and the Avenue des Anglais are all that is left of the glamour of Nice. Otherwise it is tawdry. The international crowd of royalty and multi-millionaires which made Nice the playground of cosmopolitan high society before World War I has disappeared. The wealthy European crowd and the exclusive American travelers now seek secluded spots or the coast nearby and the city of Nice has been given over to the "hoi-poloi". The elaborate hotels on the Avenue dos Anglais are patronized by tourists, mostly Americans, who stop over-night, on Cooks or American Express tours, or by those who have their own cars and make Nice their headquarters while they take excursions to nearby Grasse or Vence or other well-known spots in the hill country.

For the most part Nice has a Coney Island atmosphere, with cheap hotels, restaurants, stores and dance halls. Swarms of people are constantly parading the streets in shorts or bathing suits, which they wear throughout the day and evening, even on the glamorous Avenue des Anglais. There are countless little souvenir shops and the main street is dotted with travel agencies, their windows plastered with placards advertising rail-road and bus excursions. You have a great sympathy for the vacationers — plain, hard-working people, getting away from their jobs or their little shops for a few days to inhale the sea air and sun themselves on the beach, and to enjoy the glamour of the famous beach promenade. But this does not make for an attractive vacation resort.

One thing that has struck us is the great number of old people here — octogenarions by the hundreds. Couples mostly, probably pensionaires who have come here to enjoy the mild climate and to take advantage of the low cost of living (rent is low and food comparatively cheap.) They hobble along the streets, or sun themselves in the park, always on the wooden benches, which are free, never in the beach chairs or armchairs, which rent for 8 or 10 francs. Their garb is often as ancient as they themselves, but they are very neat. Sometimes they bring their lunch to the park, occasionally the women do a bit of sewing, but more often they just sit. No psychological problems here — they seem at peace with the world and quietly contented.

On Sunday morning we visited the Russian church, a very fine one, for there was a wealthy Russian colony in Nice before the Revolution. We had some difficulty in finding our way, but finally some young men passed by and Ary said, “Listen, they are speaking Russian". So we followed them, and before long we came to a street marked "Szaravitch Avenue", then "Rue Nicholas II", and eventually we arrived at the church.

The mass was in progress and we stood there (there are no seats in the Russian church) listening to the singing and admiring the handsome gold icons on either side of the altar. After the principal mass a woman and a man and a lovely dark-haired little girl stayed and participated in some sort of a candle service. The singing was magnificent (Moussorgsky used this type of music as source material and the chants sounded to me like "Boris Goudenoff") and the scene was quite dramatic — the priests in their white robes, with long gray hair and flowing beards — the man and woman and pretty child, holding the long white candles, and the background of flowers and flickering candles and the gleaming gold of the icons with their richly colorful designs…

Our only excursion to the hill country was our trip to Vence. It is an hour's ride in the bus, which leaves from the station back of the Casino, and the road winds through the mountains. On the way we stopped for a few minutes at St. Paul, a picturesque old village, with a gay-looking hotel by the side of the road. St. Paul has been a favorite spot for artists for many years. Soutine especially used to frequent this town, and the crooked, up-hill streets formed the theme of a number of his highly personal creations.

Vence was further up the mountain. I thought it charming. It reminded me of our Eastern mountain resorts at home, only with a very French flavor. We went up the road to look for a pension, which we had heard about. Luncheon was being served in the garden, at little tables under colored umbrellas in bright shades of blue and yellow. We ate there and it was extremely pleasant — a delicious salad of tomatoes and black olives, meat, fruit, etc. and red wine to drink. It was so cool and comfortable that we lingered for some time.

At the pension they told us, to our great disappointment, that the Matisse "Chapelle du Rosaire" is open only two days a week, and this was not one of the days. We decided to walk there anyway, although it is quite a distance from the center of the town. When we arrived there we found to our delight that at three-thirty each day it is opened for a short time for a special bus-full of excursionists. So we waited for the bus to arrive, and at three-thirty it pulled up, and the gate of the chapel was opened.

The entire chapel is white — white marble floors, white walls, white stone altarpiece, circular in shape, on an oblong platform of the same stone — sturdy candlesticks of brass with low white, large-sized candles. A small gold crucifix designed by Matisse high on the altar, and a fanciful little oil lamp, also Matisse-designed, on the wall. A light blue rug on the altar and on it a light-colored wooden chair. The choir stalls opposite were also made of the same light wood, with a very simple modern trimming.

The wall back of the altar is white tile and a black figure of a saint in robes, carrying a bible with a cross, covers the wall from top to bottom. On the opposite wail, also white-tiled, is a Mother and Child, very lovely, outlined in black, with large flower designs on either side of the figure. On another large wall are scenes of Christ and the Crucifixion, also in black on white tile.

The three large colored windows are wonderful — one back of the altar, with a typical Matisse flower design in blue, green and yellow, and the other two with a larger, equally decorative design in the same bright colors. The colors are glorious and the play of light through the windows on the white floors and tiled walls is something very exciting. An exquisitely designed door leads into the confessional, which is also in white, with a simple wooden chair, and a reddish-purple curtain in front of the window of the confessional itself.

Our stay was much too brief, but this daily view of the chapel is a special privilege and we couldn't protest when the white-robed nun who was our guide insisted sweetly but very firmly that we must leave. The exit led to the garden, from which there is a fine view of the surrounding country and mountains. The exterior of the chapel, all white, topped with a Matisse metal arabesque ornament, is lovely, but the effect is somewhat lost because the building is annexed to the convent on one side, with a house close by on the other side.

I am not especially a devotee of Matisse, but I feel that if he had created nothing else, this Chapelle du Rosaire would earn him a special place in the history of art and architecture. Of course the whole conception is so unorthodox and so daring that there is much adverse criticism. Undoubtedly however this will give way in time and the Matisse conception will inspire architects in other parts of the world. However, it will be difficult to capture the effect of this Chapelle, for it is not only the simplicity of design that is arresting. It is also the flood of light from the Mediterranean skies; this light playing on white marble and vivid blues and greens and yellows; a light that seems alive and joyous and all-penetrating…

And now we are ready to resume our travels after this very pleasant interlude in Nice. Ary is eager to have a look at the Catalan primitive art, which appealed to him so strongly when he visited the museum at Barcelona years ago. So tomorrow we will set out for Barcelona. The trip is a long one. We shall go from here to the French town of Narbonne, where we will make connections with the express from Paris, which is bound for the Spanish border. We shall have to stop over in Narbonne for the night.

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