Musée Massena
Exhibition “Palm trees, palms and palmettes”

Henri MATISSE - Still life with pomegranates, 1947
Oil on canvas
Musée Matisse, Nice
© Estate of H. Matisse
Photo: François Fernandez

A word from the General Curator

“I would like to thank Louis Mézin, Conservator of the Musée Masséna, for hosting this exhibition for which we are joint curators. It also gives me pleasure to experience once more the real intellectual excitement which a curatorship affords. The last time I had that pleasure was in Venice, with the exhibition “Rome and the Barbarians”. In Nice, as in Venice, I have always been fascinated by the relationship between History and the History of Art, between the history of ideas and the history of forms, between subterranean continuities and apparent rupture. The History of Art like that of the world is made up of this subtle alchemy.”Jean-Jacques Aillagon

Presentation by the curator of the exhibition

Whoever takes the time to stroll around Nice is immediately struck by the number and variety of palm trees which adorn the streets, squares and gardens. However, although the family of palm trees, known as Palmaceae, includes some 3,000 species distributed all over the globe, there is only one indigenous example found on the shores of southern France, Chamaerops humilis, so called because of its small stature. It was admired for its decorative properties, yet supplanted at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the acclimatisation of the first tropical species. This phenomenon was to increase throughout the century, to the point where people referred to the Côte d’Azur being colonised by the palm tree. The fashion for the palm tree was not, however, restricted to Mediterranean France. Even Brittany was to be won over by this fashion. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the palm tree became established, from the end of the nineteenth century, as the true symbol of the Côte d’Azur where it has ever since been considered as a sort of indigenous species. One only needs to look at the abundance of advertisements promoting the Côte d’Azur as a tourist destination, from the Belle Époque to today.
This invasion of the landscape by the palm tree is, moreover, one of the symptoms of the development of seaside tourism. The consecration of the palm tree therefore followed the development of seaside tourism on the Côte d’Azur which the English, pioneers in the matter of holidays, call the French Riviera. The Russians in their turn succumbed to this fondness for holidays. The inauguration of the orthodox church of Saint-Nicolas-Sainte-Alexandra in 1859, illustrates how early the Russians had established a presence in Nice. In their turn, artists responded to the call of the Mediterranean and its light. In 1882, Renoir marvelled at L’Estaque where he met Cézanne. The following year, he took Monet for a study visit to the Riviera. Monet felt that he was discovering “a magical country”. The habit was established and the Mediterranean became a sought-after destination for artists. In 1904, Henri Matisse travelled to Saint-Tropez at the invitation of his friend Signac. From this was to come a masterpiece, Luxury, calm and pleasure.
Subsequently, Matisse’s painting was full of azure blue themes. They were structured around three principal elements: the window, opened to the outside, the shutters which were often associated with it, and the palm tree. In the wake of Matisse, other painters, starting with Picasso, Bonnard and Dufy succumb to the influence of the Mediterranean and incorporate into their paintings the now inescapable palm tree.
Despite the relatively recent nature of this enthusiasm for this particular plant, one should remember that the palm tree and the palm have been part of the repertoire of iconography of the western world since Antiquity. The Homeric Hymns recount how Leto gave birth to Apollo on the island of Delos, clinging onto a palm tree which thus became one of the symbols of the god. So, from the depths of Antiquity, the palm tree has contributed to mythological exoticism This early exoticism leads to another, this time biblical, as both the Old and New Testaments are imbued with western culture, and hence its artistic realisations. At the time of the Flight into Egypt, the Holy Family invariably rest beneath a palm tree, while Christ enters Jerusalem acclaimed by a jubilant crowd waving palms. This second exoticism is echoed in a third, the product of the maritime enterprise of European States aiming both to discover unknown lands and to build colonial empires. It can be seen in the illustrations of the Campaign in Egypt, at the very end of the eighteenth century, or, from 1830, those of the Conquest of Algeria. This exoticism was spread by orientalism, a trend in western painting through the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth.
Just as the palm tree is a symptom of the need for exoticism, the palm fulfils a symbolic function which also crosses through the whole of art history, the symbol of Victory, in sporting contests or military combat, the symbol of the triumph of faith over Apostasy, a symbol of martyrdom, and thus an attribute of martyrs.
Finally, the palmette, a stylised derivative of the palm tree, has been present throughout decorative art from Antiquity to the twentieth century. Under the First French Empire, it was used both extensively and intensively. One only needs to think of furniture, console tables, armchairs, cupboards and side-tables, all bearing the motif of the palmette, whether in gilded bronze or painted wood. The end of the Empire, in 1815, did not shake the hold of either the palmette or the palm tree as decorative motifs. From the Restoration onwards, wallpaper manufacturers began to use them too. A century later, in the Art Deco period, the palm tree was once again honoured, both in furniture and textiles.
The Villa Masséna, as its name suggests, was built by Prince d’Essling, a descendent of Masséna, Marshal of the Empire. In memory of his ancestor and of the era which made his family’s fortune, the prince decorated the reception rooms of his villa in Empire style. As palmettes abound there, this was the obvious choice as the setting of an exhibition themed around palm trees, palms and palmettes which constitute both the smallest and the largest common denominator between Matisse and Nice. You will therefore see the extent to which a powerful theme in the work of Matisse is rooted in the history of art and, at the same time, in that of the landscape of Nice.
Jean-Jacques Aillagon

A word from the General Curator

“I would like to thank Louis Mézin, Conservator of the Musée Masséna, for hosting this exhibition for which we are joint curators. It also gives me pleasure to experience once more the real intellectual excitement which a curatorship affords. The last time I had that pleasure was in Venice, with the exhibition “Rome and the Barbarians”. In Nice, as in Venice, I have always been fascinated by the relationship between History and the History of Art, between the history of ideas and the history of forms, between subterranean continuities and apparent rupture. The History of Art like that of the world is made up of this subtle alchemy.”Jean-Jacques Aillagon


Pablo PICASSO (known as) Pablo RUIZ PICASSO (1881-1973)
The Bay of Cannes
19 April - 9 June 1958
© Estate of Picasso - 2013
Location: Paris, Musée Picasso
© RMN-Grand Palais / Franck Raux



Youssef Nabil, Self portrait with the sunset, Rio de Janeiro, 2005
Courtesy of the artist and Gallery Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

Practical Information

Musée Massena

65, rue de France - 06364 Nice cedex 4
Tel: (+33) 04 93 91 19 10
www.nice.fr/Culture/Musees-et-expositions/Villa-Massena
- Every day from 10m am to 6 pm except Tuesdays, 1 January, Easter Sunday, 1 May, 25 December
- Access possible via 35, promenade des Anglais
- Bus n°3-9-10-14-22-52-94: stop Rivoli

Activities @ Musée Massena

Saturday 22 June
Guided visit of the exhibition “Palm trees, palms and palmettes” by Jean-Jacques Aillagon, exhibition curator
Espace Presse Contact