Saturday, July 16, 2016

`I Would See This Light Again'

“The town of Nice is altogether indefensible, and therefore without fortifications.”

Tobias Smollett is the embodiment of the cantankerous, ever griping traveler, which is not such a bad thing. I’ve always suspected the narrator of Travels through France and Italy (1766) is a persona created because Smollett knew that complaining is funnier than a positive attitude. Sterne caricatured Smollett as “Smelfungus” in A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), and while I love Sterne’s novel, it’s not as funny as Smollett’s travel book.

After the death of their fifteen-year-old daughter in April 1763, Smollett and his wife left England in June, and did not return for two years. The novelist spent more time in Nice than any other place in France or Italy. Like his novel Humphrey Clinker (1771), Travels is epistolary in form. Twenty-six of the forty-one letters that make up the book are sent from Nice. While he is famously anti-Gallic, Smollett is never blind to the charms of France. Here he is in Letter XIII, soon after his arrival:

“When I stand upon the rampart, and look round me, I can scarce help thinking myself inchanted [sic]. The small extent of country which I see, is all cultivated like a garden. Indeed, the plain presents nothing but gardens, full of green trees, loaded with oranges, lemons, citrons, and bergamots, which make a delightful appearance. If you examine them more nearly, you will find plantations of green pease ready to gather; all sorts of sallading, and pot-herbs, in perfection; and plats of roses, carnations, ranunculas, anemonies, and daffodils, blowing in full glory, with such beauty, vigour, and perfume, as no flower in England ever exhibited.”

Another celebrator of Nice was Henri Matisse, who lived and worked there from 1917 until his death in 1954. The city is home to the Musée Matisse. One of the first paintings he made in Nice was a self-portrait, The Violinist at the Window, followed by The Bay of Nice. Matisse was a Northerner, born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, 120 miles northeast of Paris, and he reveled in the Mediterranean sunlight. In Matisse in Nice: 1917-1954 (Thames and Hudson, 1996), Xavier Girard, former curator of the Musée Matisse, quotes Matisse in conversation with Louis Aragon:

“Nice, why Nice? Shall I tell you? In my art I have attempted to create a crystalline environment for the mind. This necessary limpidity I have found in several places around the world; in New York, in the South Pacific, and in Nice. If I had painted in the North, as I did thirty years ago, my painting would have been different.”

Girard quotes the painter as describing the sunlight in Nice as “soft and delicate, in spite of its brilliance,” and saying “When I realized that every morning I would see this light again, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.”

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