Gaia Matisse, the great-great-granddaughter of French painter Henri Matisse, walks into the Museum of Modern Art on a chilly Thursday afternoon wearing silk shorts, a crop top, and a white faux fur coat. Using her left hand, she removes oversized sunglasses from her face and with her right coddles Bambi, her “emotional support” Chihuahua. Bambi is wearing a custom Ralph Lauren sweater with his name monogrammed on it in baby blue script, which compliments his one blue eye. Unfortunately, Matisse left her mother’s all-access Sotheby’s card at her apartment on St. Mark’s Place, so she has to get in the ticket line with everyone else.
As her name suggests, Matisse is not like anyone else in this crowd. Born in Neuilly-sur-Seine just outside of Paris to artists Sophie Matisse and Alain Jacquet, the 22-year-old spent her entire childhood in galleries, (although like most kids, she preferred the gift shops), and summers at "Teeny's" country house — the wife of "Marce" Duchamp, who is her "great aunt or something."
"Literally, you don’t understand; my family is so f—ing confusing," Matisse declares with an eye-roll. She's right, I don't understand. Like many social scions, she's taken her famous last name and made it her own. With nearly 23,000 followers on Instagram, Matisse can be found partying at Art Basel with Paris Hilton and walking in shows at New York Fashion Week with Tiffany Trump, Donald Trump's daughter, and Reya Benitez, daughter of John "Jellybean" Benitez, Madonna's former boyfriend and producer. She has been a notorious New Yorker since she attended pre-school in TriBeCa, which is admittedly where we first met.
“I didn’t bite you or anything, right?” Matisse asks over almond milk lattes at the museum café. “I got kicked out for biting.” She did not, although her pink hair and unique style left a lasting impression. Matisse talks a mile-a-minute and I don't remember her big blue eyes blinking once. She's a charming date, and listens with enthusiasm when I list all the times in my life I've run into her, none of which she recalls. In high school, she was a fixture of the New York teen club scene and rubbed shoulders with the “Rich Kids of Instagram” long before the social media platform was invented. She got her first fake ID in ninth grade and claims to have been arrested twice, but won’t say for what. Here’s all you need to know: “Basically, I got arrested on my birthday while wearing a tiara, a pink North Face, and multi-colored rainbow Dunks.”
"Gaia has always been shameless and a lot of fun to be around," said Andrew Warren, who first met Matisse in middle school. "She would literally wear a t-shirt and boots and get into any club before over-dressed girls and models."
His fondest memory of her is from when they were 16-years-old and staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Someone made a remark that Matisse should cover up, so, as Warren told me: "Gaia literally in just her bikini and a pair of heels pranced through the lobby all the way to the pool not caring about anyone's looks, just to prove a point."
On the third day of Matisse’s sophomore year at Eleanor Roosevelt, a public high school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that she calls "El-Ro," her world was turned upside-down when her father died of esophageal cancer. At the age of 15, she found a therapeutic outlet for her grief in an unexpected place: Elizabeth Kemp's method acting class. She was introduced to Kemp through none other than actor Mickey Rourke, who was seated next to her at a BCBG dinner that she attended with her mother.
When he asked her what she wanted to do, she replied without hesitation: “I’m going to be an actress." “It just came out,” Matisse says. “It was real though; it had nothing to do with [Rourke] being an actor. But at that point it was literally the only thing I could see myself doing.”
Kemp, for her part, trusted Rourke's judgment. "Mickey will send me someone he feels has something special. His intuition is always right," she told me over e-mail. It helped too that Matisse's last name piqued her interest. "Her family heritage is that of art. Gaia Matisse is a Matisse indeed. She honors her ancestry."
It only took one session for Kemp to recognize Matisse's potential. "She was instantly open and her creative instrument was free and powerful," she declared. In class, Matisse went full method, reenacting personal traumas, like her fathers 's death, to connect with her characters, which were all invariably tragic stars, like Francis Farmer and Amy Winehouse. "Her last character was actually a man, Sid Vicious," Kemp volunteered. "Remarkable. I did not see a woman. She transformed."
Hollywood has not yet received the memo. Her IMDb page is sparse, featuring a short film and a dubious web series called Misadventures of an It Girl, though there is an independent film in the works called Forgetting Sandy Glass. Matisee notes she's waiting for the right role that will show off her talents, but for now, she's content on playing herself, preferably in a swimsuit or less. Her Instagram base has grown thanks to her drip, drip, drip of racy selfies and pictures of life in the fast lane: birthdays in St. Bart's with Peter Brant Jr., pajama parties hosted by Dolce & Gabbana, cocktails with Hilton.
“I’m not afraid of showing any part of myself because it’s going to be revealed one way or another,” she says. “No matter what, people are going to think of me as being blonde with big boobs. Like, ‘Oh she’s a slut. She’s never experienced anything hard in her life.’ But people don’t know me. And that’s fine, I don’t mind it…I have a tattoo that says, ‘Perception is reality.’ Because it literally is.”
Matisse stops for a second while sipping her latte through a straw. “Do you know Carl Jung?” she asks me. When she was at New York University, Matisse studied Jung for the program she designed for her bachelor's at Gallatin, which she called “The Self and Other: Integrative Performance and Eastern Psychology." And if there's one thing she picked up from Jung, it’s to not conflate herself with her thousands of selfies.
"I have such a misconstrued persona," she says. "I mean, understandably so because my Instagram is pictures of me going out. I’m not going to post pictures of me sobbing in my acting class, though. That’s my work."
When she enters a fifth-floor gallery and sees her forebear's paintings, Matisse yelps out, "Hey fam!" and laughs.
As she walks around, she is more taken with his colors than with his nude muses. “I look at the brush strokes and I feel so connected,” she says. "Just like, 'Wow.'" She recognized many of the views from Matisse’s windows and also pointed out the Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp, which she played with as a child in "Teeny's" living room. “Marce liked watching things move,” she says. “It’s meant to be spun. He said it’s like fire dancing.”
While Matisse is curious about the other exhibits in the building, alas, Bambi has to pee, so our date is cut short. She gives me a hug and a kiss on both cheeks, telling me that I must come see her apartment sometime. As we part, it strikes me she hasn't once taken out her phone all afternoon.
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