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Matisse Paintings: In Search of True Painting

Posted by Susan Benford

The pairs, trios and series of Matisse paintings in the Met’s show, In Search of True Painting, resoundingly dispel the notion that Henri Matisse (1869-1954) painted hurriedly and with ease.

Matisse still life with purro 1 resized 600Rather, we learn that painting was often laborious for Matisse, despite the freshness and looseness of finished canvases.  These multiple Matisse paintings were 

Henri Matisse.  Still Life with Purro I, 1904.  Oil on canvas, 23 14" by 28 1/2".  The Phillips Family Collection.

vehicles by which he could “push further and deeper into true painting”, calculating, adjusting and experimenting all the way.

He was wildly successful. Because a photographer recorded these iterations during the 1930s, we gain an intimate look at Matisse's process and at the process of painting itself. Each is profoundly instructive.

matisse still life with purroMatisse’s academic training required copying old master paintings in the Louvre.  As he began foraging for his own artistic style, Matisse tweaked that traditional technique and began copying works of contemporary artists he most admired:

  • Paul Cezanne (1839-2906);
  • Paul Gauguin (1848-1903);
  • Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), and
  • Paul Signac (1863-1935).

Matisse would also paint a still-life composition in the manner of other artists in his effort to understand their painterly choices.  In the Matisse paintings, Still Life with Purro, I and II, look how he evokes Cezanne and Signac.  While such imitation of 

Above right. Henri Matisse.  Still Life with Purro II, 1904-5.  Oil on canvas, 11" by 14".  Private collection.

other painters’  styles was educational, French critics in the early 1900s concluded that Matisse was unoriginal, with one, Charles Morice, stating that he found in Henri Matisse “no sign of a powerful, creative individuality.”

Starting in 1907 and for a subsequent decade, Matisse created over a dozen pairs of paintings of the same size, with the same subject matter, and in a style of his own. It is these Matisse paintings that start “In Search of True Painting”. 

Young Sailor I and Young Sailor II

One of Matisse's first pairs is Young Sailor I and II, believed to have been created in 1906 during Matisse’s stay in Collioure.  With its hints of Cezanne-like brushwork, Young Sailor I (left) has the hallmarks of Fauvism with its unnatural, expressive color and energetic brushstrokes.  Observe the highly thinned paint running over the model’s matisse young sailor resized 600thumb and thigh, as if Matisse is drawing attention to his painterly process. 

Left. Henri Matisse.  Young Sailor I, 1906.  Oil on canvas, 39 1/4" by 32".  Collection of Sheldon H. Solow.

Right.  Henri Matisse.  Young Sailor II, 1906.  Oil on canvas, 39 7/8" by 32 5/8".  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998.

Young Sailor II has a backstory.  In 1906, Matisse first encountered African sculpture at the same time self-taught, naïve painters like Henri Rousseu – who had been reviled in the Salon des Independents for years – were being praised for their novel styles. 

It was in this evolving, fluctuating visual environment that Matisse painted Young Sailor II.  Note the sailor's almond-shaped eyes, flat color and deformation. When first showing these two works to his friend and collector Leo Stein, an unconfident Matisse claimed that Young Sailor II was created by the mailman in Collioure!

Luxe I and Luxe II 

Matisse had clarified his indifference toward “anatomical exactitude” as he sought the essence of a subject.  This approach is apparent in the Matisse paintings, Luxe I and Luxe II, his next major pair of works.

matisse le luxe resized 600

Left. Henri Matisse. Luxe I, 1907.  Oil on canvas, 82 5/8" by 54 3/8".  Centre Pompidou, Musee National d'Art Moderne, Paris.

Right.  Henri Matisse.  Luxe II, 1907-08.  Distemper on canvas, 82 1/2" by 54 3/8".  Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

Luxe I appeared in the 1907 Salon d’ Automne with the title Le Luxe (esquisse).  An esquisse, or sketch, was a known category of work in 19th century academia; it was a quick or spontaneous exercise to explore a solution to a pictorial challenge, was smaller than its associated final work, and was deemed a private artistic endeavor.

But not so in the hands of Matisse, who not only presented Luxe I (esquisse) as finished artwork but further defied tradition by making it the identical size as Luxe II.  

Le Luxe II depicts nearly the identical motif with only a few compositional modifications from its predecessor. In the second canvas, Matisse has simplified the forms into flat planes of color, nearly eliminating visible brushstrokes. The show's curators postulate that after his trip to Italy in 1907, Matisse may have been referencing Giotto's frescoes in Padua. Certainly his use of distemper in Luxe II yielded a matte effect evoking frescoes.

The Dream

Matisse continued painting in pairs, altering his brushwork, composition, style, color and detail as he created nudes, interiors, views from his window, and the cliffs of Etretat.  In 1916 he began a series of paintings featuring the Italian model, Laurette, abandoning his practice of creating a pair of paintings.  

Critical reception, however, waned.  Critics alleged that his serial paintings were monotonous and his themes were outdated.  With Dada and Surrealism challenging traditional subject matter, Matisse was perceived as antiquated.

In the early 1930s, Matisse retained a photographer to record his paintings as he progressed; in 1945, a Parisian show featured six Matisse paintings and photographs of their evolution.

matisse the dream


Left: Henri Matisse.  The Dream, 1940.  Oil on canvas, 31 7/8" by 25 5/8".  Private Collection.

Right: January 7, 1940 photograph.  Archives Matisse, Paris.

The Dream began as a lovely woman asleep on a marble table amid fruit, plants and an urn.  Ultimately, she "has become an angel sleeping on a violet surface, the most beautiful violet I've seen", as Matisse described to his son.

Subsequent workings of The Dream eliminate the initial ornamentation and decorative elements as details of the figure disappear.  The balance of color and the simplification of her form become the focus of the painting.  

Matisse dream with photos

Met installation of Mattise's The Dream with photographs.

Matisse welcomed the public display of his finished paintings surrounded by photographs documenting his process.  Who could still contend that Henri Matisse worked spontaneously and dashed off paintings? 

Painters and non-painters alike will leave this show even more in awe of Henri Matisse. The freshness and seeming spontaneity of these heavily worked paintings are further proof of Matisse's genius. I can't imagine a more rewarding and education art exhibition.

In Search of True Painting will be at the Metropolitan Museum until 17 March 2013.  

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