MATISSE, the great French painter, had already lived three-quarters of a century when he wrote of his art, ``It's as if I have all of life before me, after all, all of another life.'' The masterpieces of famous painters, often done in their last 10 years, are the subject of a vibrant and beautiful exhibition, ``The Ultimate Work'' (``L'Oeuvre Ultime''), at the Maeght Foundation here until Oct. 4. The foundation, one of the most celebrated art institutions of France, is dedicated to the art of the 20th century. It marks its 25th anniversary with this exhibit, which tracks that ultimate work from C'ezanne to Dubuffet.
The unwritten theme of this extraordinary exhibit might be taken from poet Robert Browning's lines in ``Rabbi Ben Ezra'': ``Grow old along with me!/ The best is yet to be,/ The last of life, for which the first was made./ Our times are in his hand.''
The exhibition bursts with vitality, freedom, freshness, and a vividness of color sometimes unprecedented in the artists' earlier works. The show includes 130 works by artists as diverse as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, Claude Monet, Ren'e Magritte, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Paul Gauguin, Marc Chagall, Edgar Degas, Max Ernst, Georges Rouault, Joan Mir'o, Piet Mondrian, Alberto Giacometti, Wassily Kandinsky, Fernand L'eger, Gustave Moreau, Asger Jorn, Max Beckmann, and Kurt Schwitters. They are artists whose late work marks the route that opens the road to the art of our time, as the exhibit indicates.
This stunning international exhibition is drawn not just from French sources, among them the Mus'ee National d'Art Moderne, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Mus'ee Marmottan, the Mus'ee de l'Orangerie, and the Mus'ee Matisse in Nice. But it also includes works from the Hermitage in Leningrad, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in D"usseldorf, the Fundacio Pilar i Joan Mir'o in de Palma Mallorca, and the Mus'ee d'Art Moderne in Li`ege, Belgium. Art from 50 other private collections, notably the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, makes this an especially rich array. The result is an exhibit gleaming with treasures, many of them rarely seen outside their own countries.
There is the glorious Monet ``Yellow Irises,'' for instance, which fills nearly one wall and vibrates with color so alive the irises seem to be blowing in the wind as we watch. The painting is both tranquil and exciting, cool and warm, the flowers bending like dancers in the breeze. Monet has painted it as though he were shooting a photograph from the ground up, stems and leaves, then the irises reaching for the sky. The color arcs up from a cool blue-green shoot with violet, at the bottom left, to the sun yellow of the irises themselves, and on up to the top right of the canvas, where the yellow flowers are repeated in whorls of white clouds. Vincent Van Gogh's ``Irises'' may have fetched $53 million at auction, but these irises are priceless.
The exhibit also includes a late ``Nympheas,'' the water lilies mingled with light, which had become the obsession and trademark of Monet's late painting.
Then there is Renoir's ``Blonde `a la Rose,'' even more lush and lovely than anything he painted in his salad days. Done one year before his death, it pictures his son Jean's bride, a pensive young woman with red-gold hair. The painting glows with rich rose, gold, apricot, peach, and russet tones in the soft dress she wears, the room, and the flowers around her. Her skin shimmers as though pale pink voile covered it. The painting was done in nearby Cagnes sur mer, at Renoir's last home, Les Collettes, with its huge peachy-gold studio filled with light.
The exhibit includes a painting from the last two years of C'ezanne's life, a dramatic image of the crumbling Chateau Noir, surrounded by pine woods, which was one of his favorite motifs. Also in the show is Matisse's last painting, the bold blue-and-yellow ``Katia in a Yellow Dress,'' so contemporary it might have been painted yesterday.
Another last star: Picasso's final painting, ``Figures,'' with its inexplicable blue and violet look into the future. And Chagall, who died at 95 here in Saint-Paul four years ago, is represented by three beauties painted during his 90s: ``La Grand Parade,'' ``L'Attente,'' and ``Le Village en F^ete.''
``Often men of genius have announced their end by masterpieces: It is their soul which flies away,'' wrote Fran,cois-Ren'e de Chateaubriand. His line is quoted in this exhibit, which includes symbolic images of that flight in several paintings.
Ren'e Magritte, in ``La Grand Famille,'' paints a bird in flight, its body and wings made up of blue sky and clouds, as it takes off over a twilight sea; George Bracque's mysterious ``Les Oiseaux Noirs,'' in which black birds converge in a celestial blue field, and the very blackness seems to fly out of the frame; and Joan Mir'o's ``Personnages, Oiseaux dan la Nuit,'' in which the birds of the night - with huge eyes, beaks, and wings - peer out from an enormous, somber painting that covers an entire wall.
In two other symbolic works, Max Ernst's bird motif appears in sublime tones of blue-green. One is his ``Octobre,'' a zigzag, abstract bird, the other ``Au Moindre Bruit,'' in which the bird images are enclosed in an egg.
In the exhibition catalog, Maeght Foundation director Jean-Louis Pratt notes that some of the artists represented battled handicaps in their last years but refused to let them vanquish their creativity.
He quotes Andr'e Malraux as saying that, if painters discover that they are acquainted with old age, their painting is not acquainted with it. He tells of Matisse, confined to bed, tying charcoal to a fishing rod and drawing the heads of women on the ceiling over his bed, of his scissoring out his famous birds, flowers, fruit, and leaves for a cut-out garden. And of Renoir and Monet, painting at the end with brushes strapped to their hands.
Pratt notes that some of these painters, who were disparaged or underestimated for their last work at the time of their passing have since been rediscovered, and that people have been amazed to find in the later work a contemporary style which links them to modern art.
Pratt also points out that this ultimate work is characterized by a common preoccupation with a great simplicity and access to a new and intense light, defined by incandescence of color as well as infinite variations of black - that the artists continued to create and express with emotion the fleetingness of time they were trying to preserve. Pratt, writing of this flickering of time, calls their ultimate work a miraculous message of awakening, of hope, and of fullness.
``The Ultimate Work'' now fills most of the Maeght Foundation building, a work of art in itself. The foundation's permanent collection of modern masters is not on display now. The foundation is located in the picturesque 16th-century ``perched village'' of Saint-Paul-de-Vence, high in the mountains above Nice.
The Maeght Foundation was created by Aim'e Maeght, a distinguished Parisian art editor and gallery owner, and his wife, Marguerite, in memory of their son, Bernard, who died in childhood.
Architect J.L. Sert, a student of Le Corbusier, designed the foundation headquarters, according to the Maeghts' wishes, as a museum that would harmonize with the Provancecountryside. Its grounds are studded with tall pines, and its velvety lawns are backdrops for major sculpture by Mir'o, Henry Moore, Giacometti, Bracque, Alexander Calder, and others. The foundation also includes a library, film projection halls, an art bookshop, and rooms for artists to live and work in.