This film presents a warm and richly painted portrait of the little known and tender relationship that existed between Henri Matisse and the woman he considered "the true initiator" of the revolutionary chapel that he proclaimed the masterpiece of his life's work - The Chapel of the Rosary - in the French Mediterranean perched village of Vence.
The former Monique Bourgeois, now in her mid-80s, was a 21-year-old nursing student and amateur artist living in Nice when, in 1941, she answered Matisse's ad seeking “a young and pretty nurse” to help him cope with multiple ailments. Monique posed for many of Matisse's drawings and paintings and accepted his guidance on her own artistic forays. Their paths diverged during World War II, however, when Matisse decided not to follow artists who were fleeing France in response to coastal bombing threats, but instead took refuge in Vence, situated about 20 miles inland from Nice.
At about the same time, a tuberculosis scare took Monique to Vence, where she had spent part of her childhood. This time she was cared for at a Dominican convent, as serendipity would have it, just across the street from where Matisse was living . She and Matisse were reunited; she continued to assist and to pose for him in the midst of the privations of the war that affected even southern France. In late 1943 she made the surprising decision to join the order of nuns. In 1946, fate once again interceded when she, now Sister Jacques-Marie, was sent back to Vence as a nursing sister.
One day, Sister Jacques-Marie showed Matisse a small sketch she had done that illustrated the Assumption, and he encouraged her to turn it into a stained glass window. This innocent sketch inspired Matisse to move from “color to architecture” as he immersed himself in turning the long-dream of a chapel into a reality. He assumed responsibility for every aspect of the chapel from the monumental ceramic wall panels, to the floors, the windows, altar and chairs.
The personal side of the story is juxtaposed with the social, historic and visual aspects of the chapel project, thematically linked by Sister Jacques' recollections, her preciously guarded notes and never before filmed hand-decorated letters from Matisse, as well as news media and film archives of the period. Included is a rich collection of contemporary photographs of the aged and ailing Matisse at work on myriad studies for the Chapel's monumental hand-painted ceramics and never before seen rushes of Matisse at work. Filmed for the first time are Matisse's miniature hand-painted gouache samples and the matching silk swatches that were used for the priests' vestments that he designed. These precious objects have been hidden away in Sister Jacques' trunks for more than 50 years.
The film offers an enhanced perspective on the times and events surrounding the building of the chapel, which achieved worldwide attention in the years following World War II. As such, it offers a balanced representation of the struggle Matisse had to maintain his autonomy between the competing interests of the religious, artistic and political communities. Upon the Chapel's completion in 1951 Matisse was to write: