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Friday, 29 November, 2002, 14:29 GMT
Fresh outlook on Matisse's early years
Matisse museum
The museum is a good introduction to Matisse's works

Tucked away in a quiet corner of rural France is the birthplace of one of the founders of modern art where he spent the formative years of his life.

Henri Matisse, associated in most minds with the south of France, was born in the small town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis in the industrial north - far removed from the glamorous life of the Riviera.

As a way of honouring his birth town, he set up a museum in 1952 by donating some of his works - which makes it one of the few museums created by an artist in his lifetime.

Matisse's birthplace, Le Cateau-Cambrésis
Matisse created the museum to put his town on the map
Now the small 18th-Century palace which houses the collection has been renovated and a new building added to accommodate a very respectable selection of his works - the third largest behind the Pompidou centre in Paris and the Matisse Museum in Nice.

It is also very diverse, with a number of paintings, drawings, sculptures and some of his famous gouache cuttings.

In a message of thanks to his town displayed in the museum, Matisse, who was born in 1869, explains that his passion for art only hit him later on in life, after his initial start as a lawyer.

The museum, he says, "is one part of the result of the life of labour which was imposed on me by destiny".

Revelatory trip

His initial paintings are rather grey - not quite the colourful concoctions he is famous for.

But all that changes after a trip to Corsica in 1898, where he develops his passion for colour and light.

A few years after this revelation, he remarks: "The quest for colour did not come to me from the study of other paintings, but from the outside, ie from the revelation of the light in nature."

Matisse museum
The venue has already attracted thousands of visitors

There are only a handful of the master's oil paintings on show including his very last one - Femme à la Gandoura Bleue (1951).

One of the highlights of the visit, however, is the portrait of his three grandchildren, which he sketched on a ceiling with the help of a fishing rod so he could see them while in bed.

A reclining chair allows visitors to be Matisse for a moment and imagine what he might have felt contemplating the ghostly figures floating above him.

But Matisse is not the only artists featured in the museum. Illustrations for an art journal created by luminaries of the art world such as Picasso, Chagal, Miro, Giacometti, Le Corbusier and Leger can also be seen.

Visiting frenzy

The newly reopened gallery may in some ways be a victim of its own success with visitor numbers tripling since its relaunch, as long queues outside the museum testify.

On the day BBC News Online visited, they had run out of audio guides and museum information sheets so overwhelming was the demand.

The town itself has gone Matisse-mad. At the local restaurant, patrons are offered Matisse chocolates, and every other establishment displays some sort of Matisse memorabilia.

Aficionados planning a visit would probably be well advised to wait a while for the frenzy to abate or visit on a weekday.

In any case, they will not be disappointed by their trip to the birthplace of one of the world's greatest painters.

They may not see his most famous works, but they will gain a better understanding of how his artistic genius emerged.

The Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis is open every day except Monday, between the hours of 1000-1230 and 1400-1800 from September to May and 1000-1800 from June to August. It is 90 kilometres (60 miles) from Lille and 170 km (100 miles) from Paris.

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