In 1941 Matisse told Pierre Couthion: ‘The chief goal of my work is the clarity of light’. And it was the special quality of light that Matisse was seeking when he arrived in Tangier with his wife Amélie on 29 January 1912 on the packet ship SS Ridjani from Marseilles. He was also inspired by the legendary Orientalist painter of Morocco, Eugène Delacroix, who lit the flame of artistic passion for the unique light, colours and cultural landscapes of Morocco.
Matisse excitedly stated that he had ‘found landscapes in Morocco exactly as they are described in Delacroix’s paintings.’ Unfortunately when they arrived it had been raining continuously for 15 days, and to Matisse’s consternation continued to do so for most of February. The couple were installed in the Grand Hôtel de France. Their room overlooked the Grand Socco, St Andrew’s church, the medina and the beaches along the bay, all of which Matisse drew and painted. Because of the rain, his first paining in Tangier was a vase of irises.
Shortly after his arrival, Matisse’s old friend, the Canadian painter James Wilson Morrice landed from Montreal and checked into the same hotel. They had not known of each other’s travel plans but they renewed their friendship and, once the rain stopped, explored the city together, setting up their easels in the medina.
Amélie returned to Paris in March; Matisse followed two weeks later after he had finished a painting. The rain produced luxuriant foliage, and Matisse gained access to a private garden attached to Villa Brooks, where he worked for over a month on Park in Tangier. He loved the intensity of colour in the lush vegetation, and when his friends back in Paris exclaimed delightedly over his painting he demured, “That’s not how it is, it’s better than that!’
He did three paintings of a Jewish girl called Zorah (main image) whom he found in the medina. He had to obtain permission from the hotel, which let him use a studio where the guests would not see her entering. It was easy to find male models and he did a number of studies of Sudanese mercenary soldiers as well as Riff tribesmen.
Inspired by the work he achieved in Tangier, Matisse returned on 8 October and stayed once again at the Hôtel Villa de France. He only intended to stay for a short time, but his work went so well that he changed his mind. Amélie joined him in November, travelling there with their mutual friend, the painted Charles Camoin. Together, the artists painted and sketched in the streets and cafés.
Morocco was a turning point for Matisse. Coming at the end of his Fauvist period, it ushered in the glorious decorative canvases that are his best-known work. He wrote: ‘The trips to Morocco helped me to accomplish the necessary transition and enabled me to renew closer contact with nature than the application of a living (which the) somewhat limited theory such as Fauvism had …made possible.’
Though he never returned to Tangier, its influence stayed with him. The wooden screens and embroidered wall hangings he collected became key motifs in many of his subsequent paintings. Elements of the work he did in Morocco are present even in his last great work, the 1951 chapel at Vence where the robes of his figures echo those of Zorah, all those years before.