MATISSE AT VILLA LE REVE

By Marie-France Boyer

Thames & Hudson. 2004. $24.95.

The interiors painted by Henri Matisse explode off the canvas with their intense colors, exaggerated patterns, impossibly plump armchairs, tables with curlicue legs and, everywhere, vases, jars and jugs stuffed to overflowing with flowers.

The exhibition "Matisse, the Fabric of Dreams: His Art and His Textiles," which opens June 23 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will trace some of these paintings back to the domestic sources that inspired them, especially trunks full of curtains and costumes not opened since the artist's death in 1954.

But an intriguing little book, "Matisse at Villa Le Reve" (Thames & Hudson, 2004, $24.95), offers an even better view. There is little to read, but much to contemplate. It puts the artist in the center of his rooms.

The scene is a Mediterranean villa, near Vence in the South of France, where Matisse resided from 1943 to 1948. He was in his seventies and painting with startling vigor. As the writer Marie-France Boyer recounts, the artist shared the house with his model and assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya.

The model's cousin, Helene Adant, brought a camera on frequent visits. She photographed the artist, the house and the garden with the extraordinary palm tree that appears through the window in Matisse's 1948 "Interior With Egyptian Curtain." at the Phillips Collection.

Indoors, Adant scanned the rooms with her lens, capturing such familiar props as a marble-topped table with curled steel legs, a rococo chair, melons and ubiquitous bouquets.

At the center of this decorative splendor is Matisse at his easel. A model -- he had several -- poses on one of the many curious chairs. Panels of flamboyant curtain fabric serve as backdrops. The walls are hung chockablock with works including "Interior in Venetian Red" (1946).

For a leading artist, it's a strikingly bourgeois interior. Were the walls red? Adant's black-and-white images keep the secret. Readers are left to imagine, which is the delight of returning, again and again, to this book.

-- Linda Hales, design critic

Direct from Matisse's garden: His "Interior With Egyptian Curtain," 1948.