The prospect of seeing forty-nine of Matisse’s finest works should be enticement enough, however, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has upped the ante by arranging this somewhat thematic exhibition in groupings, which show the painter refining his personal explorations in modernist paintings through endless, subtle variations. Although the pedagogical aspects of this might seem a little staid at first flush, upon close study one becomes entranced by the intricate, reductive logic that lay at the heart of all of Matisse’s works.
From the start Matisse was an equal-opportunity gatherer and collector of other artists' styles and sensibilities: Giotto, Moreau, Cézanne, and van Gogh, to name a few. This is apparent right from the start of the show. Two paintings, Still Life with Compote and Fruit (1899) and Still Life with Compote, Apples and Oranges (1899), show Matisse moving already toward a reductive approach to paint. The former is all Seurat-inspired semaphoric dots and dashes, whereas the second anticipates Morandi’s minimalist nature mortes. In the next gallery we see something similar with Seated Nude (1909) and Nude with a White Scarf (1909). White Scarf, with its thick, muscular strokes and black outlining speaks to German Expressionism, particularly Max Beckmann. Seated Nude, apparently done after Scarf as a sort of souvenir, partakes of something like Picasso’s perverse personal Surrealism, in spirit. Here the model is lightly sketched in, with amputee arms, BTK legs, and missing breasts. Unlike the refined Scarf, Nude reveals her bare snoopie, creating a frisson of peep show action—something that seldom happens in Matisse's work from models.
Henri Matisse, Le Luxe I, 1907, oil on canvas, 82 11/16 x 54 5/16 in. / 210 x 138 cm; © The artist / courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In a 1912 interview Matisse said about his working method, “I never retouch a sketch: I take a canvas the same size, as I may change the composition somewhat. But I always strive to give the same feeling while carrying it a little further…” This is true in the three variations of Le Luxe (1907–08) where we get to compare and contrast the original, a revised version, and a charcoal sketch (made for his personal consumption). In the several paintings of the model Laurette (particularly Laurette in a Green Robe, Black Background ), Matisse begins to play with black—what would become a lifelong fascination. In Green Robe, blacks define background, the delineation of the armchair, and the figure—subtle, and revealed only by patient gazing. In a later series of works, studies of the beach at Étretat, where Monet and Courbet had already created programmatic, methodological groups of works depicting the beach and distinctive seaside cliffs, Matisse combines subject and style seamlessly. In simplified studies of a beach clambake, he reduces both the naturalistic detail, and metaphorically, the beach snacks: from a seaweed-wrapped chowder of fish, skate, and clams, to (in the final variation) a solitary eel. Only a boat’s sail, emerging along the waterline in the background, like a shark’s tooth, provides a steady, metronomic beat to these fugue studies.
Left: Henri Matisse, The Large Blue Dress, 1937, oil on canvas, 32 1/2 x 29 in. / 92.7 x 73.7 cm; © The artist / courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / Right: Photograph documenting Henri Matisse's process of painting The Large Blue Dress, 1937, February 26, 1937, photograph, 5 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. / 14.6 x 11.4 cm; © The artist / courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
One of the big problems in making such sweeping statements like “I never retouch a sketch…” is that eventually one will probably end up doing exactly the opposite. By the time we get to The Dream (1940), Matisse had begun to seriously rework every canvas he painted. His assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, had taken on the role of chief documentor of his progress, having each day’s work photographed. Beginning with The Large Blue Dress (1937), showing the progress between February 26 and April 3, we see how he winnowed down the composition, from something approaching naturalism to the final, highly stylized, cut-out masterpiece. With The Dream, which tackles a theme that Picasso was wrestling with in serialized fashion, we get the whole process. In his 1945 Galerie Maeght exhibition, The Dream was hung surrounded by large black-and-white photos of its creation (faithfully recreated at the Metropolitan). He insisted to Maeght that the purpose of such a novel hanging was pedagogical; showing the development of the work through its various respective states toward a definitive conclusion clarified his intent. What might have seemed a silly, and possibly pretentious, idea at the time turns out to have been prescient. Looking back at Matisse's work a century later, we sometimes forget just how far he took painting into a new visual language. The man who was chided as being a “wild beast” at the beginning of his career, was, in fact, a painter of great perception, refinement, and delicacy, in the end.
(Image on top: Henri Matisse, Laurette in a Green Robe, Black Background , 1916, oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 21 3/8 in. / 73 x 54.3 cm ; ©The artist /Courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)