Henri MATISSE: A deceptive genius? An Artist for the Supreme Fiction

Henri MATISSE (31 Dec.1869 – 3 Nov. 1954, 84).

The deceptive tortoise to Picasso’s hare.

The cat who walked alone.

 “No worries!” Matisse fearlessly affirmed Man’s raison d’ être.

A pretty boy? Travails of Modern Life passed by art of the the soothing Neo-Romantic Mediterranean Colorist?

No! His grand aesthetic allegorical affirmation of the communal “Good Life” was timely, trumped the grumpy Realists.


FEATURED IMAGE: 1916 (Late summer), The Piano Lesson, Oil on canvas, 245.1 x 212.7 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

COMMENT:  In this marvellous painting from Matisse’s curious and uncharacteristic WW1 period the artist was provoked by war, and the recent radical art movements of Cubism and Abstraction to conjour tension, anxiety in a large emotionally powerful personal  image.

Thus“crisis” – especially the sudden and unexpected outbreak of war – leaned on Matisse and coaxed from him, 1913-17, a series of abruptly different paintings.

Obviously he was not alone in being affected by the war but Matisse by nature was not usually calm in peacetime let alone when the Germans invaded, quickly capturing his family’s base in far north France.

The Piano lesson “..depicts the living room of Matisse’s home in Issy-les-Moulineaux.. outside Paris [suburban east], with his son Pierre practicing the piano. A candle sits on the instrument, illuminating a triangle of lawn. .. bottom left corner is a representation of one of Matisse’s sculptures, Decorative Figure (1908), while the severe “teacher” in the opposite corner is .. a representation of the painting “Woman on a High Stool” (1914)…”  (Wiki).

Pierre said of the boy in The Piano Lesson, “Yes, it was me, and you have no idea how much I detested those piano lessons.”” (Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005)

First it is unusually large, especially for a quiet domestic interior. Then the flat stylized quasi-abstract image of an apparently innocuous subject, a casual family domestic encounter, is imbued with tension. Father and son seem at peace, the son making music, and music was important in Matisse’s recent major visual meditation of the theme of Arcadia. The small sculpture in the corner references these images too.

But somewhere outside, through the window (a favourite visual device), the war still rages, now for near two years, and they father and son know it. And 1916 was a bad year for France in that war.  Pierre was 16 in 1916 when this was painted, and presumably will face call up into the war, but poignantly he is shown much younger than 16 in the image. Anxiety we see in the alien like face of the staring boy, where a bolt of shadow from the window, like an incoming projectile, blinds his right eye.

The candle and the metronome speak of passing time.

The elongated woman rear right is maybe the teacher, or a ghost, an allegorical device.

In late 1917 Matisse moved his base to Nice. Then the war over in 1918 his style relaxed, reverted by and large to “pretty pictures”, but still then in their own way fashioning his message to Man, his Arcadia, which after Dance, c1910, will climax again after WW2 when ailing health – another “crisis” – will restrict his manual skills, and body mobility, and compel him to retreat to decoupage, crude colourful geometric quasi-abstraction conjoured in timeless evocative images.

This painting struck one, which is why it features here. Then one reads that the articulate art critic in the New Yorker (Peter Schjeldahl) chooses it as “my favorite work of twentieth-century art.” The chap who is not so keen on Edgar Degas!

,

End to end……….

01

Age 21: 1890 Still Life with Books and Candle, 45 x 38 cm private; COMMENT: “What he called his first picture”.

02

Age 84: 1953, La Gerbe, 294 x 350 cm. LACMA, Los Angeles, CA.

Matisse writes in a letter to friend painter Charles Camoin (1879-1965), then in the French army, October 1914:

“I know that Seurat is altogether the opposite of a romantic and that I am one, a Romantic, but a good half of me is a scientist, a rationalist, and that’s what causes the struggle from which I sometimes emerge the victor, but exhausted.”

 

Contents

1/ Summary: The deceptive tortoise, an uncanny and timely aesthetic affirmation of Man’s higher calling!

2/ Matisse or Picasso? No contest? The hare and the tortoise? Different tacks but ultimately both on the same team.

3/ Matisse the painter: it did not come easily.

4/ Feeling his way: c1891-1905: early years to the Fauves.

Introduction.

Before Fauvism, c1891-1905

Fauvism and its roots

5 Finding his feet! c1905-14: thematic purpose appears.

Matisse’s “theoretical” approach

Wider context– Cubism and Abstraction

Matisse’s art: first path, intimate: decorative , ornamental interiors

Matisse’s art: second path. The high note: a grand, pared allegorical sequence on the Good Life, Man’s raison d’ être!

Luxe, Calme et Volupté

Le bonheur de vivre

In the wake of Le bonheur de vivre

Dance and Music

6/ WW1 c1914-17: the first “crisis”. WW1 tips Matisse – jolted by Cubism and abstraction – into the experimental, reflective “black period”, 1914-16.

7/ Portraits to 1918: generally drawing on the pared, stylised “Primitive”.

8/ Post WW1: Matisse relaxes, returns to naturalistic “decorative” figuration.

9/ Post WW2: the disruptive second “crisis” compels Matisse to innovate through decoupage (cut-outs).

ATTACHED: LIFE

 

1/ SUMMARY: A deceptive genius?  oise, an uncanny and timely aesthetic affirmation of Man’s higher calling!

 Was Matisse simply a towering Neo-Romantic, a nostalgic escapist, the self-indulgent Grand Aesthete, devoted to seducing the world with soothing, flat colourful other-worldly images, Pretty Pictures”? To relax his customers like does “a good armchair”(Matisse, 1908).

Matisse’s long life overlapped extraordinary events, historically unparalleled political and economic drama for his country, continent and the world, including two calamitous world wars and the Great Depression.

But you’d never know from his art? For strikingly his work addressed none of this drama, at least objectively, directly.

Realism appeared to pass him by? He did not paint Modern Life as such, in striking contrast to some other modernists, like the German Expressionists and war artists.

And, after his rich creative period before and during WW1, his apparently gratuitous escapism is no better developed than in his flurry of “odalisques” (strictly chambermaids but typically portrayed erotically as concubines), painted in “fake, absurd, amazing, delicious” Nice, mainly in the 1920s. “The transition from grand decorations [and the grand allegorical “murals”] to an equally fervent vapidity leaves everyone at a loss for words..” (Julian Bell, LRB, 2006). Like his friend, and collector, Marcel Sembat. Though his final coruscating outburst of découpage works generally relaxed some doubters.

But no! “Art for Matisse was a vision of Paradise”. (C. Turner, in “Matisse”, Queensland Art Gallery, 1995) (1).

Bullseye!

So Matisse was not nonchalantly disregarding wider contemporary turmoil, not ignoring “modern life” at all. As he said in 1908, “All artists bear the imprint of their time..” (2).

No, rather he was responding legitimately, in his own way to life’s challenges, to his understanding of the world about him.

Intentionally, if perhaps feeling his way, and drawing on an extensive supporting cast – especially on his response to the European pastoral tradition of the Golden Age – he issuedun [Baudelairean] invitation au voyageto viewers: developed a constructive, even heroic, antidote for the Travails of Modern Life, not indulgently as a hedonistic self-absorbed Grand Aesthete but by applying, constructively, an optimistic eye on the wider human argument, consciously affirming Man’s informing wider purpose: the goal of the cooperative Good Life, aiming for a personal Paradise, which thrust was his ultimate raison d’ être.

This overarching theme informed, became the life mission of Matisse’s work.

His Pointillist Luxe, Calme et Volupté  (Luxury, calm and sensual pleasure) of 1904-05 was the prologue of an allegorical sequence / cycle (c1904-12) which, in the wake of his declamatory summer 1905 Fauves experience, fell into place c1905-06 with the large (1.8 x 2.4 metres) Le Bonheur du vivre and climaxed with the even larger (near 2.5 x 4 metres) Dance (1909-10, in two versions) and then Music (1910).

As he wrote in 1951 (age 82): “From Bonheur du vivre .. to this cut-out… I have not changed.. all this time I have looked for the same things… perhaps.. by different means..” (quoted C. Turner, op.cit.).

So indeed, from the time he found his metier, c1905 – and notwithstanding his apparent wide compass – arguably all his art more or less fits somewhere within the same grand theme, demonstrates a broad continuity: from his energetic quasi-abstract Fauvist colouration to the grand allegorical statements before WW1, to his lavish decorative interiors, later the pyjama ladies, to his many still lives and finally to his decoupage. Thus “The last great papiers decoupés..  are well viewed as a final, spiritualized journey to Baudelaire’s world of luxe, calme et volupté.” (Golding, LRB, 1985). Though some critics are happier with some chapters of Matisse’s career than others, cf the lively discussion by Jed Perl and respondent Professor Krauss, NY Rev. Books, May 2016.

But perhaps Matisse’s most interesting period was during WW1 when “crisis”knocked he and his art sideways, compounded by him still digesting the stll fresh twin disruptions of Cubism and Abstraction.

So overall “Matisse’s art [consciously] transcended his time” (3).

But importantly while Matisse for his purpose borrowed the traditional reactionary notion of the Golden Age, arguably his take was not literal, not deluded nostalgic escapism, though not everyone agrees on this. (4).

Nor was his allusion to paradise in any way religious or spiritual, let alone Christian (despite later decorating the chapel at Vence). No, he was declaiming after the Death of God, famously broadcast in late 19th C by Wagner and Nietzsche.

And he was looking ahead not behind, arguing that it was precisely at times of trouble that Man needed to keep in mind a wider perspective, and for Matisse that perspective – right or wrong, and addressed to every individual prepared to listen – was not religiously driven but instead secular, campaigning for a constructive, affirmative commitment to the communal Good Life.

 

Complicating Matisse’s seductive allure is that his perspective was not trying to be razor sharp in its clarity (like most religious dogma), but inherently imprecise.

As he wrote (1908): “What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter—a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue”.

So where is the truth? As he said (somewhat like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics) in balancing the here and now with all the demands of the wider context, balancing the aesthetic and the moral, there is no precise answer.

And it will vary for different participants and for different moods of the one participant.

 

The cat who walked alone!

Above all, highlighting his singular distinctive importance is that beyond his experience leading the brief Fauvist movement, c1905, Matisse stands alone. He painted alone, is associated with no other recognised modern art movement.

Peter Schjeldahl (New Yorker, 2005) wrote “The key fact is his self-invention as a painter, entering art history from essentially nowhere, as if by parachute. Never having had traditional lessons to unlearn”.

But while Matisse’s training path was perhaps not fully conventional, he did study with important painter Moreau and others, including much time copying and viewing at the Louvre, and he also visited Italy, London an Spain. So he certainly did become well acquainted with Western art, and indeed referenced many past painters in his art, eg particularly Le Bonheur de vivre.

 

Matisse was raised in the dark north, in a polluted, industrial pocket in far north France, alleviated for him by its textiles context. Then, via Paris, he eventually painted mainly in the sunny south. But his gloomy grimy cradle may have helped fired, inspire his later sustained embrace of the bold and colourful.

 

Ironically the gelling of Matisse’s ideas on his approach to art, c1905-10, its overall purpose – ie starting about 15 years after he started painting – happened, unbeknownst to him, on the doorstep of three decades of unimaginable calamity, two world wars and the Great Depression.

 

Ironic too, given the sustained, sunny, aesthetic disposition of Matisse’s oeuvre – be it in the grand frescoesque allegorical “murals” or the densely ornamented decorative interiors – is that Matisse’s creative artistic work purpose was apparently hard fought personally. In a way he was the tortoise to Picasso’s hare.

 

Matisse’s affirmation of Man’s wider constructive cooperative endeavor in the face of unrest and adversity bears some comparison with other painters. Aesthetic preoccupations informed Monet ’s very long career, and Pissarro most of the time? And another striking case is the American modernist Stuart Davis (1892-1964), just over 20 years younger. Davis was also keen on flat bold figurative color, but geometrically hued, and, like Matisse, his art remained oblivious to both world wars and the Great Depression. Rather he seemed rather to record, even celebrate, the ongoing dynamic creative energy of the USA, notwithstanding some blatant defects, particularly race.

 

Notes: (1) “Paradise” was the word Matisse used recalling how, recuperating from an appendectomy 1890, a “box of paints” had transported him into “a kind of Paradise” (quoted by Jack Flam in “Matisse: the man and his art, 1869-1918”).

(2)  quoted by Jack Flam in “Matisse: the man and his art, 1869-1918”.

(3) quoted (C. Turner, in “Matisse”, Queensland Art Gallery, 1995.

(4) “.. as seen by so many reviewers after the [1992-93] MOMA retrospective..”. (C. Turner, “Matisse”, Queensland Art Gallery, 1995.

 

2/ Matisse or Picasso? No contest? The hare and the tortoise? Different tacks but ultimately both on the same team.

Matisse is commonly regarded alongside Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)also long-lived, but 12 years younger – as a founding giant of 20th C modern art.

Matisse was slower out of the blocks, was around 35 when his first “masterpiece’’ arrived in 1906 with Le Bonheur d vivre, his first pioneering statement. While Picasso was 27 in 1907 when he painted Les demoiselles.

They crossed swords soon after meeting at Gertrude Stein’s in Paris in April 1905. Picasso was stirred by Matisse’s large dramatic statement (Le Bonheur de vivre) at the April 1906 Salon des Independants, and again – by Blue nude, Souvenir de Biskra – at the same show in 1907.

Maybe here Matisse thus ‘influenced” Picasso, at least generally in terms of stirring his creative juices, though not necessarily in detail. The style and content of Picasso’s Les demoiselles was very much his own creation? Though, like Matisse, he was inspired by diverse earlier art expression (refer below). Perhaps though the sheer size of Demoiselles (2.4 x 2.3 metres) – much bigger than anything Picasso painted before – owed much to the scale of Le Bonheur (2.4 x 1.8 metres)?

Meanwhile the contrast in content between Le Bonheur and Demoiselles shows the two artists were on different tacks in terms of detailed style and content.

 

Who ultimately “won”? Arguably Matisse’s “fellow titan” sewed more and richer crops? His restless energetic imagination, and sustained prolific work ethic, explored more rooms in the vast house of art – both in his working style and his subject matter – and in one famous example he certainly did directly engage Modern Life with Guernica (1937).

However one might argue that the total oeuvre of Matisse (the tortoise to Picasso’s hare?) – over his long (near 40 years) career from c1905 when he found his métier – was steadier, and above all more continuous and coherent?

 

However stepping right back one might argue there was really no contest in that perhaps both were ultimately viewing their world from the same broad philosophical vantage? Both were on the same team? Both argued for a constructive humanist take on Man’s wider purpose?

 

3/ Matisse the painter: it did not come easily.

A clear distinction between Matisse and Picasso is that art did not come easily to Matisse, as explained in Hilary Spurling’s biographies. “Matisse’s harmonies of colour and design were hard won, wrested from a temperament under siege from discord and disorder. ..  the professional appearance, like the serenity he strove for in his painting, lay precariously on him. Matisse once said that what drove him to paint was “the rising urge to strangle someone”, and that he always “worked like a drunken brute trying to kick the door down” (The Economist, Oct.2001).

He started late, at around 20, supported by his mother but not father. Then he labored hard to produce art and at least early on, especially 1905-10, he battled professional criticism. ‘’Young artists and intellectuals in Paris at that time overwhelmingly favored Picasso’s analytical rigor, to the extent of attacking Matisse in print and snubbing him in public.” (Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, 2005)

And generally he struggled early, was financially stretched for around 15 years to 1905.

Later in 1910, following the big effort to execute the major commission for Schlukin he had a virtual breakdown.

And he worked hard at painting. “Throughout his career, he questioned, repainted, and reevaluated his work. He used his completed canvases as tools, repeating compositions in order to compare effects, gauge his progress, and, as he put it, “push further and deeper into true painting.” (Met introduction to Matisse: In Search of True Painting, 2012). Thus in the 2012-13 Met show we see Still Life with Purro (1904-05,) painted twice, one styled after Cezanne and the other Signac. And Cezannesque Apples/ Oranges he painted thrice in 1916.

Ironically also, France was slow to welcome Matisse. “Virtually all of Matisse’s important early patrons and collectors were foreigners:..  not until 1922, when Matisse was in his 50s..  the French government purchased a work for the Musée du Luxembourg.. [the] somewhat conventional Odalisque with Red Trousers” (Golding, LRB 1985). Golding also notes that in the 1920s Derain was generally more highly rated than Matissee and that “Most of the best writing on Matisse—and for that matter on French nineteenth- and twentieth-century art in general—has been in English”.

Reviewing two books on collectors of Matisse (Jewish Review of Books, Summer 2012), Matisse biographer Catherine C. Bock-Weiss highlights early (American) Jewish “patrons” of Matisse, particularly the Steins and the Cone sisters, both of which parties were pivotal in supporting Matisse after c1905. Then c1910 Gertrude moved on to Picasso and Leo to Renoir, but Sarah (Michael’s wife) was resolute in supporting Matisse, down to constructive exchanges on his art.

And also Jewish dealers mattered, like “Bernheim-Jeune, Léonce and Paul Rosenberg, Georges Petit, and Valentine Dudensing”.

His habits were incredibly regular.” (5)

 

Note: (5) “His habits were incredibly regular. On a typical day in Nice, in 1917, Spurling tells us, he “rose early and worked all morning with a second work session after lunch, followed by violin practice, a simple supper (vegetable soup, two hard-boiled eggs, salad and a glass of wine) and an early bedtime.” Spurling knows her man so well that you readily tolerate her occasional reading of his mind: “By the seventeenth it was so hot he stayed indoors all day, drawing fruit, reading or dozing on the studio couch, feeling his feet swell and thinking about his ‘Still Life with Green Sideboard.’ “(Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005).

 

4/ Feeling his way. c1891-1905: early years to the Fauves.

Introduction.

Prima facie Matisse was “pretty pictures”, colorful landscapes earlier, seascapes (and little of busy polluted cities), some portraits (including the odd self portrait), many of women (including the odalisques), some decorative peopled interiors, many still lives. Later, as failing health curbed his manual dexterity, he delivered the same message through his découpage works, his “cut-outs”.

But they were “pretty pictures” with a purpose, belying an underlying subtle if serious polemical mission, which emerged in his mid 30s, from around 1905 when he found his feet, set his sails, and blossomed c1905-18 (ie age approx. 35-48), Matisse’s purple patch.

 

Before Fauvism, c1891-1905

After around age 22 when he embarked on an art career the first important painter he met was Gustave Moreau (1826-98), with whom he trained for near 5 years in Paris from 1892, alongside Georges Rouault (1871-1958) and Henri Manguin (1874-1959). Moreau was much older but unconventional, not enamoured of the Salon system, and who in his Symbolist later years produced a number of radical colourful quasi-abstract works around 1890, which Matisse presumably saw.

In addition it seems Matisse also benefited directly from Moreau’s drawing styles (cf Matisse, Jean Guichar-Meili, Praeger, 1967), evident in Matisse’s heavy well modelled figures, in his simple, lined figures, and in sinuous arabesques. Matisse also may have noticed Moreau using areas of detailed ornament and decoration.

In the early 1890s he studied, copied works at the Louvre, especially Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau and Raphael (eg copied his famous Baldassare Castiglione).

The seminal break for Matisse’s art appeared to come in the mid 1890s with three consecutive summer visits to the islet of Belle-Ile on Brittany’s Atlantic coast (1895-97), his first sight  of a wild rocky coast. 1895 he lasted only 10 days, “Everything seemed.. highly original.. but colossally difficult” he wrote. But 1896 he stayed 3 months and met, interacted with the sociable well-connected Australian painter John Peter Russell (1858-1930), independently well-off,  who was resident there 1888 to 1908 and who became an important mentor and go-between for Matisse.

Russell in 1886 had there met and befriended Monet (1840-1926), painted with him. Earlier from Paris Russell also knew Van Gogh (1853-90). So Russell 1896 talked to Matisse of Impressionism, and van Gogh, and also that summer he “gave or sold Matisse a van Gogh drawing, Hayricks” (Flam). Thus Russell encouraged plein air painting, and the Impressionist style / palette. Also his house was hung with some collected Impressionist works.

Winter 1896/97 Matisse then met the much older (then 68) Camille Pissarro (1831-1903), along with Monet a surviving beacon of Impressionism, and who subsequently mentored Matisse regarding Impressionism and Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). In 1897 they visited together Gustave Caillebotte’s impressive (mainly Impressionist?) collection, recently installed at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. As he noted, this was his first substantial sight of an Impressionist collection.

Brittany 1896 importantly advanced Matisse’s education but 1898 was when the breakthrough evidenced in his art.

First, in January he visited London (on his honeymoon) and there, on Pissarro’s advice, saw the work of famous “proto-Impressionist” English painter JMW Turner. He and his new wife then summered in Corsica where his art suddenly came alive in terms of bold colour and brush strokes, especially in his landscapes, but also an interior (Woman reading), works recalling Turner and also Van Gogh. After Brittany he had seen Van Gogh’s works in 1897 at Vollard’s gallery in Paris.

Then importantly in 1899 he met and studied with the boisterous, flamboyant younger painter Andre Derain (1880-1954), and bought a Cezanne off Vollard.

The Corsican breakthrough now stayed in his art, especially in a number of still lives, like Still life with oranges (II) (1899, which suddenly is flatter), Blue pitcher (1901), and Luxembourg Gardens (1901).

Color and flat spare linear compositions arrived with 1901’s progressive Pont Saint-Michel, and 1902’s Notre-Dame, une fin d’après-midi (“A Glimpse of Notre-Dame in the Late Afternoon”).

From about May 1902 to August 1903 there was a hiatus in his progress, his “dark period”, owing partly to a financial scandal which engulfed his parents in-law.

But 1904 he jumped ahead again. He summered at St Tropez with Neo-Impressionist Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Henri-Edmond Cross (colleagues of the late pioneering short-spanned Georges Seurat (1559-91)) then responded with Luxe, Calme et Volupté, a homage to colorful pointillist Neo-Impressionism, which Signac bought which launched his Fauvist break.

 

Fauvism and its roots

His art found its feet initially through his pioneering colorful Fauvist collaboration with the younger Andre Derain and also Georges Braque (1882-1963), and Maurice Vlaminck (1876-1958), during summer of 1905 at Collioure, in far SW France,on the Mediterranean, near Perpignan.

The group launched at the 1905 Salon d’Autumne in Paris where – like most radical movements – it was greeted with scorn by the public and most critics. Matisse’s Woman with a hat (a portrait of his wife under an elaborate hat) drew the most ire? Leading critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the eponymous phrase, writing of ”Donatello among the wild beasts [ie fauves]”. The term was in common use by 1907, and now Fauvism is popularly hailed as the first radical art movement of the 20th C.

The bold patchy coarse textured colouration in some of Matisse’s 1905 Fauve paintings (and Derain’s) leans far towards abstraction, particularly in La Japonaise, woman beside water, and the MOMA Landscape at Collioure.

 

However Fauvism – the bold coarse-brushed colorful art style applied to landscapes and some portraits – was less radical than it appeared. It basically adapted, energised the coarse-brushed colourful naturalism of Impressionism, and the exploration of bold “unnatural” colour by the Post-Impressionists and then the Nabis / Symbolists.

 

Thus Matisse had obviously “discovered” colour through his training and associations during the 1890s, built around studying under Gustave Moreau for over 5 years from 1892.

He was impressed by the colour indulgence of Post Impressionists like Van Gogh (1853-90) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

Matisse said in 1945: “From Delacroix and Van Gogh and principally through Gauguin…one can follow the rehabilitation of color, and the restitution of its emotive powers.”

In 1905 he saw some of Gauguin’s South Sea works with Daniel de Montfried. Though John Golding (LRB, 1985) suggests Matisse was “ambivalent” about Gauguin, was put off by Gauguin’s underlying melancholy”, compared with Cezanne who was “more sympathetic as a personality, and because his art seemed to open endless new paths of discovery”.

Gauguin in turn directly inspired the Symbolists (cf literary manifesto 1886  by French poet Jean Moréas) who dominated the avant-garde in the 1890s, now opposed to Realism and Naturalism and who saw ideas as the “supreme reality”, in favour of delving “the ineffable, the irrational and the subjective”, and at a time too when interest in the occult was growing fast.

So Matisse would have seen striking colourful works by Moreau, and by Nabis / Symbolist close contemporaries Paul Serusier (1864-1927), Maurice Denis (1870-1943) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) etc.

This group was joined from round 1890 by the older artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) who was born the same year as Monet but whose art and mindset completely bypassed the Impressionists, who was closely sympathetic to Symbolism, exploring fantasy, the eerie and spiritual. Then from around 1890 he too suddenly discovered colour, expressed especially through pastels.

Meanwhile most of the Nabis painters also succumbed to allure of Japanese prints and paintings, the colour and the cropped skew compositions. In Matisse’s time there was a show of this art in 1890 at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and 1893 at prominent dealer Durand-Ruel’s.

Finally Matisse said his Fauvist experience with colour helped him understand Byzantine art, mosaics, when he encountered it in Ravenna (1907) and Moscow (1911)

 

So, broadly speaking the Fauvist “break” simply continued the Post-Impressionist /Symbolist thrust, of setting decorative colour free from simply describing a natural scene, using it “unnaturally”, to tell a story or express emotion, or moralise, whether intimately or grandly, people or landscapes.

 

5 Finding his feet! c1904-14: thematic purpose appears.

 

Matisse’s “theoretical” approach

Matisse quickly moved beyond Fauvism, now thinking more deeply, “theoretically”, about the wider purpose of his art.

Thus he thought ahead when painting, in his late 1908 Notes of a Painter said, “For me all is in the conception. I must therefore have a clear vision of the whole from the beginning”.

Regarding a painting he said, “..A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety ..What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter”.

And content, “What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape but the human figure”.

He acknowledged debts to others. Interviewed by Guillaume Apollonaire in late 1907 he said, “I have worked to enrich my mind… striving to ascertain the different thoughts of ancient and modern masters… I have never avoided the influence of others…

And regarding the method he said, “The simplest means are those which best enable an artist to express himself

 

Wider context – Cubism and Abstraction

Matisse was not a Cubist though he was of course famously there at the birth, as a selector on the jury for the pathbreaking 1908 Salon d’Automne which rejected George Braque’s three pioneering Cubist works (6).

The immediate pronounced public impact of the radical new movement apparently unnerved Matisse, not least because it displaced he (and the other Fauves) from centre stage.

The other great radical shift in art emerging about then, from c1910 onwards, again mainly in Paris, was Abstraction.

 

So from 1908 Matisse was shaken by the emergence of two radical new styles – a pivotal moment in Western art – seeing the former Fauvist colleague George Braque switch to, launch Cubism in 1908 with Picasso, and seeing the avant-garde abstraction movement gather pace from around 1910, like at the famous 1910 Salon d’Automne, which showed abstract works by Picabia, Kupka and Delaunay, ironically the same show where Matisse showed his now iconic Dance and Music.

 

In the years from 1908 to the outbreak of war in 1914 Matisse’style reacted in its own way, on and off, to the radical shifts of Cubism and Abstraction.

 

But unsettled by the shift in the avant-garde, by the poor reception for his work at 1910 Salon d’Automne, and also by his father’s death, Matisse retreated a time from the commercial art world, travelled: to Munich (Oct.1910), Spain (late 1910), Collioure (summer 1911), Moscow (Nov.1911), and Morocco (Jan. – April 1912, and October 1912 to April 1913, including Corsica, early 1913).

 

Matisse’s art: first path, intimate: decorative, ornamental interiors  

 

Broadly speaking, from 1905 Matisse’s art progressed on two parallel fronts, simultaneously, one intimate, the other grand.

 

First he continued exploring colour, down an ornamental “decorative”, “tapestry” / “wall-paper” path, as opposed to the “sculptural” path for his important figurative works.

The decorative path was brilliantly established in 1908 with the large (1.8 x 2.2 metres) lush decorative interior genre scene, Harmony in Red commissioned by the same Moscow businessman, Mr Shchukin, who bought Dance and Music.

And, in the wake of Dance and Music, Matisse unleashed his “four great interiors of 1911: first The pink studio (1.8 x 2.2m), then The painter’s family (1.4 x 1.9m), Interior with aubergines (egg plants) (2.1 x 2.5m), and late 1911, the smaller L’Atelier Rouge (The red studio) (1.6 x 1.3m).

 

As explained Matisse’s interest in colour was first profoundly aroused by his 1890s exposure to his French associates, but it was then extended, reinforced by visiting Algeria (Biskra) in 1906, then Italy in 1907, eg there impressed by Giotto’s famous frescoes at Padua.

Then he was much affected by a major Islamic exhibition in Munich late 1910, then by the two visits to Morocco (29 Jan. to 14 April 1912, and 8 October 1912 to mid February 1913), mainly to Tangier, which reinforced his appetite for colour and light, first triggered by visits to the French Mediterranean, to Saint-Tropez in 1904 then Collioure.

He was struck too by the exotic panoply of people, places and life, which he fitted to his grand thematic work purpose of elaborating on a personal Arcadia.

 

Additional important specific influences on his “decorative” style were:

1/ Gustave Moreau’s art and early mentorship.

2/ Islamic art arabesque decoration, via Munich and Morocco..

3/ Textile patterns. Hilary Spurling’s biography of Matisse highlights the influence on Matisse’s intense decorative images of his early exposure to textiles and clothmaking in the region of his upbringing and youth, in Picardie, far north France. This connection was recognised in the 2005 exhibition (Royal Academy, and Metropolitan Museum of Art) on Matisse, His Art and His Textiles — The Fabric of Dreams. “It argues persuasively that textiles were fundamental to Matisse’s formidably decorative art, with its saturated colors, positive-negative ambiguities, pulsating patterns, distillations from nature and the sense of folded structure and ironed-out space that was his answer to Cubism” (Roberta Smith, NY Times, 2005).

Across the years Matisse carefully compiled a library of these items.

Interesting too is that the business of Matisse’s pivotal wealthy Russian patron (who had 37 of his paintings by 1914) was in textiles.

 

Within his important evolving interest in the flat, decorative and colorful, like in The red studio (1911) he sometimes also leaned towards abstraction, like in the large (around 2 x 2.5 metres) Interior with aubergines from summer 1911 (Grenoble).

Also from his first visit to Morocco we see two quasi-abstract paintings based on vegetation. Moroccan garden (early 1912) could be a detail from Le Bonheur etc. And we see two flat colourful “blue” townscapes, one a doorway to the casbah, the other a window view.

The second visit, after a spell back in Paris when he painted two quasi-abstract goldfish interiors, produced more variety, from the striking simple Moroccan coffee (early 1913), to the flat angular “blue” still life of flowers and a plate.

Matisse’s art: second path. The high note: a grand allegorical sequence on the Good Life, large, pared and aesthetic. Man’s raison d’ être!

Second, having gained self-confidence from his Fauve exercise, Matisse started thinking more about the wider purpose of his art, and in so doing drew on diverse sources in art, and literature, poetry.

What emerged was a quiet importunate campaign for Man – preoccupied with the pressing mundane – to not forget his wider collective driving ethos.

Thus Matisse embarked on his tour de force, a grand allegorical sequence or cycle on the communal Good Life, c1905-12, using lashings of colour, and pared, linearised figures influenced by Cezanne, then informed by the sudden discovery in Paris of stylised “primitive” African art, reinforced by the visit to Algeria in 1907, evident in the important Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra) from 1907.

Through a sequence starting with Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-06) Matisse fashioned a kind of personal Arcadia, a personal vision of a “Golden Age”, culminating in Dance: Dance I (1909, MOMA, a draft for Dance II) / Dance II (1910, Hermitage), and also Music (1910 Hermitage, like Dance II, painted for merchant Sergey Shchukin in Moscow), all large images, and emphatically pared and coloured  – a grand overarching exercise addressing no less than Matisse’s take on the Human Condition, exhorting Man to look on the bright side, to be defined by communal collective purpose.

Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance (1912, two versions, MOMA and Pushkin) was an important coda, bringing the theme into everyone’s domestic lounge room.

Later, c1932, another version of Dance was commissioned by the Barnes Foundation in the US.

 

He rose no higher than in these powerful, evocative images, applying his new awareness of color, and Cezanne’s “structural” / figurative legacy, to this grand allegorical discourse, depicting the timeless motive of Man’s collective existential circumstances: harmonious co-operation for a greater good.

Clearly Matisse was drawing inspiration from the European pastoral tradition of the Golden Age, going back ultimately to ancient Greece, to Hesiod’s Works and Days.

“..if La Joie de vivre is a revolutionary work it also kept alive a tradition of art that goes back to the [pastoral] Renaissance bacchanals of Bellini and Titian and in turn to the classical world” (Golding, LRB 1985).

 

There is also an obvious Christian association because Christianity adapted the “pagan” Golden Age notion of paradise for its purpose, it becoming the Garden of Eden, the dreadful arena for Man’s Fall, with all its allegedly ominous consequences, the crucible wherein incautious, corrupt Do-it-Yourself Man fashioned his inauspicious debacle.

 

But despite allusions to Paradise, Matisse was not resorting to conventional religion. He was not a conventional believer. “Matisse’s most forthright pronouncement on his religious beliefs came in his text to Jazz,  in 1946, when he asked…  “Do I believe in God?” to which came back the answer, “Yes, when I am at work.” (Golding, LRB, 1985). And in 1951, in connection with the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, Matisse said, “All art worthy of the name is religious. Be it a creation of lines and colours if it is not religious it doesn’t exist.” (Golding, 1985).

But he was not being narcissistically arrogant, claiming godliness, but simply affirming that he was his own master, the Maker of his own “religion”, his own motivating world view, and was not aligned with any organized religion, let alone Christianity.

So each artist thus brings his own “religion”, his own view of life, to the canvas.

 

However in resorting to adaptating the Golden Age neither was Matisse offering a reactionary Romantic nostalgic argument, based on recovering some lost utopian past. Though some observers might debate this.

Rather he was simply outlining a core practical inspirational objective for Man to saddle bag going forward, for each person to use as they see fit, not intending it to be taken literally.

 

Matisse’s art did not directly engage modern life, but arguably this allegorical sequence was provoked by it. He offered it as a serious antidote to the then profound and disruptive eruption in industrial activity and in knowledge across science and culture. He was suggesting that whatever life throws up Man should remember this guiding ethos.

 

Luxe, Calme et Volupté

Matisse’s first painting in this sequence, the prologue, was his exploratory Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, calm and sensual pleasure) from summer of 1904 when he summered south with Paul Signac, the title coming from Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Invitation to a Voyage (1857), in which a man invites his lover to travel with him to “paradise” (“there is nothing but order and beauty, luxury, calm and sensual pleasure”.

Baudelaire (1821-67) was an inspirational cornerstone of Modernism in mid 19th C France, “credited with coining the term “modernity”. His poetry advocated a searing fearless no holds barred realism, ie that Man abandon all the trappings of tradition in facing the future, open eyed, and visionary.

Recourse by Matisse to this Baudelairean refain is an emphatic (and deliberate?) christening for his allegorical journey, first by pointedly “inviting” his viewers to do just that, to join him in his painting journey, and second, to outline succinctly his overarching polemical theme from the beginning, ie to look on the bright side.

 

Le bonheur de vivre

Following Matisse finally capturing the critics’ attention for his Fauve “explosion”, the year after he delivered, at age 35, arguably his most famous painting, the large, striking, pioneering and ambiguous Le bonheur de vivre (Oct.1905 – March 1906). Befitting its import it was the only painting he showed at the (April) 1906 Salon des Independants, where in due recognition of its importance it was generally greeted with reserve or scorn.

 

This is arguably Matisse’s most famous and important painting, more so even than Dance.

It was his only submission to the (April) 1906 Salon des Indépendants, and obviously it was noticed, for its size and its shift in style and, in particular, its enigmatic content. Important critics like Charles Morice and Louis Vauxcelles were reserved, Jean Tavernier “generally favourable”, and painter Paul Signac “one of the most vituperative critics”!

The painting was soon bought by the perceptive Gertrude Stein in Paris, and later acquired by the keen and well-resourced American collector Albert Barnes, who then did not allow its reproduction in colour, thus inhibiting wider appreciation of the image. The Steins had displayed the painting prominently at their Paris base, where Picasso soon saw it, understood its pioneering impact.

The painting is an ambitious blockbuster, which opened Matisse’s core allegorical flourish, first called “My Arcadia”.

First and obviously it is large.  And secondly the style and content leaves the Fauves period far behind, now reflecting a thinking Matisse, showing a wide range of influences.

Strikingly it is one of Matisse’s few imaginative paintings, depicting not some real scene but a purely fictive assemblage.

It uses bold colors but not in a coarse brushed Fauvist fashion, rather in a pattern of delineated colour patches which in the top half of the painting looks forward to the cursive colorful abstraction of Kandinsky.

Below we see naked leisuring in a mysterious landscape, a scattering of figures or groups of figures which for the most part do not interact.

Some of the figures recall Cezanne’s various paintings of Bathers. It was painted before the major Cezanne retrospective at the Sep. 1907 Paris Salon d’Automne so Matisse would not have seen Cezanne’s famous final three versions of Les Grandes Baigneuses/ The Large Bathers (all 1905-06).

But he would have seen earlier smaller versions, eg at the 1904 Salon d’Automne (October 15–November 15, four Baigneuse / Baigneurs works, from 1876-77 to c 1890) and again in 1905 Salon d’Automne (October 18–November 25, one work). Also he had earlier exposure to Cezanne, viz the 1895 show at dealer Vollard’s, after which, in 1899 he bought a Cezanne (Trois Baigneuses) from Vollard.

The content draws widely for inspiration such that no single interptretation can be sustained.

Most scholars (eg Jack Flam, 1986) agree the work closely relates to the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarme’s (1842-98) poem Apres-midi d’un faun,his best-known work and a landmark in the history of Symbolism in French literature.” Matisse was well aware of Mallarme, influenced by Baudelaire but who moved on, especially in developing a new language which avoids the objective, is allusive, offering “suggestion without explanation”. “This complex abandonment appears in Flaubert’s free indirect style and, later, in Surrealism’s automatic writing” (Ewa Zubek). Later Matisse returned to Mallarme with his important French window , Collioure, in late 1914.

Testifying to the popularity of the subject many painters are suggested by the painting.

Perhaps most obvious is Edouard Manet with his famous Dejeuner sur les herbes (1863), which had caused a sensation when displayed in Paris and is a candidate for the first painting of “modern art”.

Alfred Barr also points to the long lived JAD Ingres (1780-1867) who had a major retrospective hanging at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, where Matisse would in particular have seen his Golden Age (1862), and also Odalisque with slave (1839-40).

Another important and influential recent French painter was Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98), ostensibly old fashioned, who overlapped the Impressionists who did not modernize his style like them, yet whose work had a pervasive influence on modernist art. Thus he developed an allegorical Neo-Romantic mindset which commingled the real and the timeless transcendental, which Matisse adopted in Le Bonheur de vivre.

Jonathan Jones (Guardian, 20 Jan.2008) sees Matisse saluting JMW Turner, particularly his Apullia in Search of Appullus (1814) and The Golden Bough , Exhibited (1834), which art Matisse saw in London on honeymoon in 1898.

Also “James B. Cuno and Thomas Puttfarken suggest that the inspiration for the work was Agostino Carracci’s (1557 – 1602) engraving of “Reciproco Amore” or Love in the Golden Age, after the same named painting (1585-89) by the 16th-century Flemish painter Pauwels Franck (c1540-96)” (Wiki).

It can also call on Titian (1490-1576) for his Pastoral Concert (c1509), which also impacted Manet’s 1863 Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, and his Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-26); on Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472 – 1553) for The Golden Age (c1530), two versions, both showing a circle of dancers, an cavorting couples; and “Watteau, Poussin, Japanese woodcuts, Persian miniatures and 19th century Orientalist images of harems (cf Ingres’s “La Grand Odalisque”)..” (Art Story).

 

In the wake of Le bonheur de vivre: Blue nude.

Later in 1906, the year of Le bonheur de vivre, Matisse’s submission to the November Salon d’Automne was unremarkable, 5 paintings, including Marguerite reading (1906) and 3 still lives, but not either of the Young sailor.

But at the (April) 1907 Salon des Independants he revisited the shock he caused at the 1905 Salon d’Automne by showing his Blue Nude (of Biskra), triggering another furore. The muscular Rubensesque reclining nude responded to the luxuriant sub-tropical Biskra oasis in Algeria, but also to recently encountered “Primitive” / African art.

 

Picasso soon saw Le Bonheur, understood its pioneering impact. Some suggest it may have jolted him, helped impel his radical statement in his momentous mid 1907 Demoiselles d’Avignon. Picasso’s style certainly shifted markedly in 1906 after his Blue Period from c1901, as he developed more stylised simplified faces, eg in his self portrait of that year, and his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Then Matisse’s Blue Nude, shown April 1907 was a further stimulus.

However the detailed content of Demoiselles, drew on a range of sources, especially ancient Iberian sculpture (he knew from Spain) as well as African art (seen in Paris). But he also drew on Cezanne (like Matisse), Paul Gauguin (his sculpture and painting, eg following a big Gauguin show at the 1903 Salon d’Automne, and another in 1906), also on El Greco (his Opening on the Fifth Seal).

Demoiselles was a shock. It was very big (2.4 x 2.3 metres) and very confronting. It was slow to emerge publically, was not shown until 1916. But his painting associates quickly saw it.  Braque and Derain were initially puzzled, then supportive. The dealer D-H Kahnweiler was impressed.

But Matisse was unimpressed, was “fighting mad” at Picasso’s “hideous whores”, and also annoyed at losing the limelight to Picasso? Who then charged on by 1908 into (with Braque) full blown Cubism, and beyond.

Demoiselles was radical, and more so than Matisse, in its blunt content, depicting prostitutes, and overtly mixing European and African imagery. The wry title came from (approving) critic Andre Salmon, displacing Picasso’s Le Bordel d’Avignon!

 

Dance and Music

Then came a break for Matisse early 1909 when Moscow merchant Shchukin commissioned paintings for his palatial residence and Matisse unfurled a pair of masterpieces, Dance and Music, paintings breathtaking in their simple but profound message, in their presentation: pared stylized bold images, in “blazing” coloured simplicity, and large. The package

For Dance Matisse homes in on a detail in Le Bonheur, the small circle of dancers in the middle ground, and taps, borrows from a range of other painters. Thus the sculptural bodies of the dancing figures again recall Cezanne. And the figures also reflect the then new awareness in “primitive” African art (ie especially wooden sculpture), also impacting Derain, Vlaminck and Picasso. Around 1906 they saw works in museums (especially the Trocadero in Paris, also in London for Derain), in shops, in cafes.

But in Dance the flat simplified compositions, against a stark blue and green backdrop also recall Giotto’s frescoes?

Jonathan Jones (Guardian, 20 Jan. 2008) makes a case for Matisse citing images from JMW Turner (particularly Apullia in Search of Appullus (1814) and The Golden Bough (exhibited (1834)), whose art Matisse saw in London, 1898, where he may also have seen William Blake’s Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing.

 

Similar allegorical works from 1904-06 by colleague Andre Derain (1880-1954) Like 1906’s The dance) may also have touched Matisse.

 

Befitting their pioneering “shocking” implications, the two paintings, unveiled at the 1910 Salon d’Autumne, were roundly criticised, by the critics and the public.

However despite the shock of his presentational style Matisse’s allegorical journey stayed well within the Western tradition, especially in him developing his ideas through a Classical pastoral template.

The wider context: Dance and Music

The timeless notion of couples, groups engaging through dancing resonates with TS Eliot’s (1888-1965) depictions in East Coker:

                        In that open field

If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,

On a summer midnight, you can hear the music

Of the weak pipe and the little drum

And see them dancing around the bonfire

The association of man and woman

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –

A dignified and commodious sacrament.

Two and two, necessarye coniunctiuon,

Holding eche other by the hand or arm

Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire

Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,

Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter

Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,

Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth

Mirth of those long since under earth.

This is ironic for there are two broad alternative available philosophical responses to Nietzsche’s Death of God, then the horrors of the first half of the 20th C: cling fast to delusional resort to self-serving self-medicating fabricated religious belief, ie to therapeutic religious artifice, or Man standing on his own feet, facing the facts, throwing away the God crutches and taking intellectual responsibility in contemplating his predicament.

Eliot clung to the former, worried about “the decay of sacred authority”, posing “a crisis of community” (Prof. Langdon Hammer, Yale).

 

But speaking of poets, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) on the other hand chose the latter, saw the predicament of (modern) Man as an opportunity (like Hart Crane, and Lucretius and the Epicureans), and thought “.. modernity shows us that the truth of religion was always a fiction, a fundamentally poetic construction…”.  Thus Stevens’ approach through his poetry is one more individual’s approach to life after the Death of God (7).

 

And one might argue that Matisse was a fellow traveller. Stevens, like Matisse, argued for Man taking the wheel, and in particular saw poetry as “a means of redemption”. So poetry can be the “supreme fiction”.

Arguably art can lend a hand, is a vehicle of cultural expression suited to the same task.

Stevens was keen on art, especially the two Pauls, Klee and Cezanne, and in the tradition of Ut pictura poesis (“as is painting, so is poetry”, cf Horace) saw poetry and painting as fraternal cultural endeavours, both bringing “imagination” to the task of, in this case, Man confronting his predicament through curiosity and wonder, without delusional religious artifice, centred on some fabricated deity.

The Hartford wordsmith wrote (1934, at Key West, before going a round with Hemingway, wrote of his chanteuse in The Idea of Order at Key West:

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   

Whatever self it had, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker.

 

Matisse’ art fits this same category. He is another artificer of “Order”.

 

And Stevens in “Angel Surrounded by Paysans” (1949):

I am the angel of reality,
Seen for a moment standing in the door.
…….

 

I am one of you and being one of you
Is being and knowing what I am and know.
Yet
I am the necessary angel of earth,
Since, in my sight,
you see the earth again,
Cleared of its stiff and stubborn, man-locked set

 

Notes

(6) Matisse is reported as saying “Always the cubes, the little cubes” (Jack Flam,1986). The critic Louis Vauxcelles (the same critic who coined Fauves after the same show in 1905!) commented on the 1908 Salon d’Automne: “M. Braque scorns form and reduces everything, sites, figures and houses, to geometric schemas and cubes.”.

(7) Peter Watson runs through candidates in The Age of Atheism: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God, Peter Watson, Simon & Schuster, 2014. 626 pp.

6/ WW1: c1914-17: the first “crisis”. WW1 tips Matisse – jolted by Cubism and abstraction – into the experimental, reflective “black period”.

For Matisse the unexpected sudden and calamitous outbreak of war in 1914 abruptly reinforced a distinctive period of idiosyncratic personal quasi-abstraction underway fitfully before the war, particularly in response to the momentous Cubist and Abstractionist revolutions.

The combination of shocks brought forth works in the period c1911-16 (cityscapes, interiors, portraits, some landscapes, and sculptures like his ”Back” reliefs) quite unlike those on either side.

For Matisse personally this period was hard going, psychologically arduous, though obviously less arduous than for his colleagues like Braque, Derain etc who were called up for active war service, for which Matisse at 45 was too old.

In 1914 he summered at Collioure, 1915 and 1916 he was resident mainly in Paris, 1917 he moved to Nice where he caught up with the ageing Renoir (then 76, ie 28 yrs older) at nearby Cagnes.

 

The importance of the period was recognised in a recent (2010) exhibition by MOMA / Art Institute of Chicago, Radical Invention (1913-1917). As MOMA’s introduction wrote: In the time between .. Matisse’s.. return from Morocco in [April] 1913 and his departure for Nice in 1917, the artist produced some of the most demanding, experimental, and enigmatic works of his career—paintings that are abstracted and rigorously purged of descriptive detail, geometric and sharply composed, and dominated by shades of black and gray.”

 

However the sudden and near totally unexpected onset of Continental conflict, renewed war with Germany, did provoke an abrupt shift in Matisse’s art. After a tantalising hint in Notre-Dame, une fin d’après-midi (1902), he was suddenly persuaded by the outbreak of war to dive much deeper into abstraction.

From late 1914 through 1917 emerged a series of suddenly bolder quasi-abstractionist works, especially the near completely abstract French Window at Collioure (Porte-fenêtre à Collioure) (c Oct. 1914), which obviously anticipates later abstraction approaches and which is a striking reaction to the outbreak of war. It may have been influenced by him meeting there then his friend Juan Gris, the Cubist painter.

Other striking works were the evocative View of Notre-Dame (spring 1914), Le rideau jaune (The Yellow Curtain) (1915), and finally the monumental The Piano Lesson (late summer 1916), father painting his son, another response to the war, large (near 2 x 2.5 metres) and emotionally powerful.

All four are successful excursions, and all involve windows.

 

Three other later works are more complicated:

a/ Still Life After Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s ‘La Desserte (summer-fall 1915). A half-hearted dip into Cubist country?

b/ The Moroccans (Les Marocains) (late 1915 to autumn 1916). This is a complex memory play from his visits to North Africa,

and c/ Bathers by a River (1909-1916.This was executed in three bursts, March–May 1909, fall 1909–spring 1910, May–November 1913, early spring–November 1916, January–October 1917). It is another thoughtful ambiguous work, again using Primitivist Cezannesque bathers, now more abstract and against a stylised abstract background. He laboured on this work but maybe tried too hard? The work is large like The Dance, but does not deliver a simple powerful comprehensible message.

 

The meaning of all these “war” works is debated, though many observers generally agree that the colour black is an important thread, a colour he employed in near all the paintings, and for perhaps obvious reasons?

 

One of Matisse’s later wartime paintings, Interior with a Violin (1917-18), seems to pair with the French window at Collioure he painted in 1914, soon after the guns opened. But the later painting now hints at impending relent from the violence? Now the view is out of the window not in, and there is light outside, albeit through the shutters (at Nice), and the violin (music) awaits its recall to civilised peacetime duties.

And then finally in Violinist at the window (1918), also painted in Nice, we see the violin being played at an open window, like Matisse can see peace ahead an like the “faceless” violinist (Matisse was a violinist) is a reference to the unknown soldier,

7/ Portraits to 1918: generally drawing on the pared, stylised “Primitive”.

Matisse painted few portraits before his Fauvist breakthrough c1905, notably two self portraits in 1900, both conventional.

Then three striking 1905 portraits change the game, one of his younger Fauve colleague André Derain, and two of his wife. All three are busts, using bold raucous broad brushed colour.

Thereafter, recalling the influence of African masks and his 1908 comment: “the simplest means are those which best enable an artist to express himself”, Matisse retreated from the busier 1905 style and the pared simple “Primitive” face became the hallmark of near all his portraits through to 1918, generally against neutral or abstract backgrounds. Two stand out for having decorative backdrops.

Of these the 1914 portrait of Yvonne Landsberg is the most abstract or stylised.

The two versions of his portrait of Auguste Pellerin – before and after – illustrate well Matisse’s modernistic approach.

All his portraits have little to do with Cubism, but he does lean towards abstraction.

8/ Post WW1: Matisse relaxes, returns to naturalistic “decorative” figuration.

After the “Good Life” allegorical sequence was completed around 1912, and once the disruptive jolt of WW1 passed, Matisse appeared to relax from his objective polemical endeavours, and return to “pretty pictures”, back to colourful naturalistic figuration.

However all his later work seems to at least loosely align with his grand theme of delineating a personal Golden Age.

There were lots of women, especially the many exotic odalisques, mainly through the 1920s, generally set in lush colourful interiors.

But there were also plenty dressed, conventional, again in colourful decorative settings. The ladies may be seen as “bourgeois metaphors for an Islamic Garden of Delights”. (Golding, LRB, 1985)

Through the 1930s some paintings became more adventurous, more stylised, flattened, but still colourful and elaborately decorative. Like his “Blouse” series, eg Romanian blouse (1937). And like Woman in a Purple Coat (1937), Woman in blue (1937), and La musique (1939).

Also in the mid 1930s we see simpler sparer works like Pink nude (1935) and The Dream (1935) which clearly speak of Picasso.

One distinctive work (The arm (1938)) is nearly completely abstract.

A handful of works try harder, offering a narrative, like the two piano works in the 1920s, both busy decorative images recalling The painter’s family (1912), and particularly the nostalgic, reflective 1947 The Silence that Lives in Houses, one of his last paintings.

There were some unremarkable landscapes and many still lives, especially later during the 1940s.

 

9/ Post WW2: the disruptive second “crisis” compels Matisse to innovate through decoupage (cut-outs).

Matisse’s popular famous Cut-outs, his great papiers decoupés, the endearing final flourish of the old ailing artist can be viewed as a final leg of his aesthetic journey to Baudelaire’s world of luxe, calme et volupté.

It’s ironic that just as WW1 – Matisse’s first “crisis” – had suddenly disrupted the artist’s career and provoked some compellingly different works so did WW2 coincide with his second unexpected “crisis”, now his ailing health, which provoked a second productive swerve in his oeuvre.

His second “crisis” started 1939 when WW2 commenced and also when “a bitter separation dispute with his wife meant that by late summer 1939 everything on his studio walls had been taken down, crated and stored in bank cellars for lawyers to fight over.” (Spurling, 2014). Then in 1941 he near died from an operation, became invalided, in Nice. 1943 his daughter Margurite (subject for many of his paintings) was captured and tortured by the Gestapo at Rennes, later railed east to Ravensbruck Camp, but escaped. Then the Germans invaded southern France and fighting in Nice forced him to Vence, in the hills to the northwest.

In 1943 he commenced his cut-outs. Being invalided he could no longer paint, was reduced to découpage (“cut-outs”), collage works made of painted cut out paper shapes.

This restricted art method was used to express the thoughts of an old (mid 70s) experienced artist whose country was at war again, whose family was threatened, and who as an old sick man was approaching death.

The decoupage / cut-outs (c1943-53, age 74-84) were  marked by broad, flat geometric colouration, quasi to total Color Field abstraction. Ironically the beguiling simplicity of these images, some very large, was driven by his ailing manual dexterity.

There is a clear stylistic break with the Cut-outs but arguably the works fit with the rest of Matisse’s long previous oeuvre.

They are all realistic, all given specific titles, but some like The bees (1948) and The snail (1953) could be fully abstract.

The subjects are diverse: ranging from banal observations like a boat or a snail, to memories, like a recollection of the Pacific, to serious reflection over a long career, especially the large (near 3 x 4 metres) elaborate colourful abstract work titled Sorrows of the King (1952), which is an elaborate, moving, final self portrait.

The decoupage works were prescient, looking ahead to “Minimalism Conceptualism..  an aesthetic based on immateriality and flux.” (Cotter, NY Times, 2014).

Finally he was persuaded to help decorate the chapel at Vence, Chapel of the Rosary, the idea born 1948.

 

ATTACHED:  Outline of life

He was born 1869 in far north France (Le Cateau-Cambrésis). From a family of weavers, his father was a grain merchant who ran a hardware, his capable, supportive mother (Amélie Parayre) from a family of tanners. He was raised (till 10) in the important industrial textile centre of Bohain-en-Vermandois.

He studied law in Paris 1887-88, but 1890 (21) decided on art -against his stern father’s advice – when recovering from an appendectomy.

He began art study 1891, initially at Ecole des Arts decoratifs (where he met Albert Marquet) then to Académie Julian with conservative Academician Adolphe-Guillaume Bouguereau, just after Serisier left with Vuillard / Bonnard / Denis, but briefly there too. That year the Salon des Independants showed 16 Van Gogh works, the year after he died.

In 1892 he was copying at the Louvre (favouring “subtle colorists”like Poussin and Chardin, and Watteau, versus say Rubens and Delacroix).

Then importantly he met painter Gustave Moreau, by chance in the courtyard at Ecole des Beaux Arts. He then studied with Moreau for 6 ½ years, thereby also meeting Georges Rouault and Manguin.

1892 there was another hanging of Van Gogh, by a dealer.

From 1894 (till 1908) he painted from a 5th floor studio at 19 Quai Saint-Michel, by the Seine, on the Left Bank, view east to Notre-Dame.

March 1895 he was accepted at Ecole des Beaux-Arts (after failing entry in 1892) and that year saw a large Cezanne show (150 canvases) at Vollard’s Paris gallery.

He painted in Brittany briefly in 1895, again in 1896 and 1897, his 3rd trip.

Winter 1896/ 97 he met Camille Pissarro who now displaced Moreau as an important mentor.

He visited London 1898, soon after marrying Amélie Parayre, a “raven-haired southerner” from near Toulouse, (on January 8th), where on Pissarro’s advice he saw JMW Turner’s work.

Soon after returning to France they spent several months on Corsica, till about August. He also read Signac’s text.

In 1899 he acquired from Vollard Cezanne’s Trois baigneuses. Following Moreau’s death (April 1898) he worked in the studios of Fernand Cormon, and Eugene Carriere for a short while, there meeting Andre Derain.

1901 Derain introduced him to Vlaminck at Bernheim-Jeune Gallery Van Gogh retrospective exhibition, the year he first showed at Salon des Independents, after which his father cut off his allowance.

1903 He first showed at the Salon d’Automne, and his personal life was upended when his parents in law were “innocently but intimately connected” wih the Humbert financial swindle.

June 1904 his first one man show opened at Vollard’s, was received quietly, Vollard unenthusiastic. He summered Saint-Tropez, with Signac, and 1905, after showing Luxe, calme et volupté at the Salon des Independants he summered at Collioure with Derain.

1906 he showed Le Bonheur de vivre at Salon des Independants. He visited Biskra in Algeria (2 weeks), and Collioure again. Through Gertrude Stein (with brothers Leo and Michael) he met Picasso in April, also the Cone sisters, Claribel and Etta, who would also collect him (and Picasso), like Michael’s wife Sarah.

Gertrude Stein regularly (Saturday evening) hosted art gatherings, also involving Picasso, Braque, Derain, and critic Guillaume Apollonaire.

In 1906 he also met Sergei Shchukin. And he bought his first African sculpture. And Galerie Druet arranged a (successful) one man exhibition.

1907 From mid July he visited Italy, the Steins in Florence (Fiesole), thence Arezzo, Padua (important, seeing Giotto’s pioneering frescoes), Sienna, Venice, returning to Collioure via the French coast (seeing Derain at Cassis, Friesz and Braque at La Ciotat and Manguiin at Saint-Tropez. He began teaching late in 1907.

In Italy Matisse relations with the Steins were now cooling. Gertrude and Matisse struggled from the start then Matisse noticed her growing appetite for Picasso. Leo was genuine but over-hosted Matisse?

Interviewed with G. Apollonaire, December 1907, he reflected on learning from others, “I have worked to enrich my mind… striving to ascertain the different thoughts of ancient and modern masters… I have never avoided the influence of others.” (“Matisse on Art”, Jack Flam).

1908 He opened a teaching atelier in January, which ran 3 years to911. Near all the students were foreigners (eg Max Weber).

Early 1908 Shchukin began collecting Matisse, also his friend Ivan Morosov.

Alfred Steiglitz arranged his first US show, at his gallery “291” in NY.

April he was shown in Moscow.

June Matisse visited Germany with Hans Purrmann, twice, to Speyer, Munich and Nuremberg.

Spring 1908 he left Quai Saint-Michel after 16 years there, moved to Hotel Biron at 33 boulevarde des Invalides.

Matisse entered a large number of works to the 1908 Salon d’Automne, including 11 paintings, to mixed reviews. Vauxcelles thought Blue still life “superb”, and liked his sculptures, but did not like the flat decorative style in Harmony in Red, ie did not appreciate Matisse’s progress.

Berlin did not like his works, shown late 1908 at Paul Cassirer’s gallery, there described by one as “monstrosities”, “ginger-cookie painting”, and “wallpaper”. Ageing German “Impressionist” painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935) “expressed fears for the corruption of German youth.. more interested in his dachshund than in Matisse’s paintings..” (Jack Flam, 1986).

‘Notes d’un Peintre’ (Notes of a Painter), Henri Matisse, ‘La Grande Revue’, Paris, 25 December 1908;

  • The simplest means are those which best enable an artist to express himself
  • A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety:
  • For me all is in the conception. I must therefore have a clear vision of the whole from the beginning.
  • What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter,
  • What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape but the human figure… through it.. I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life.
  • A work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject-matter.

1909 He bought a house at Issy-les-Moulineaux, on SW side of Paris, settled in September. Moscow-based Russian businessman Shchukin commissioned La Danse and La Musique, and Nov. 1911 he visited Moscow.

1910 Retrospective at Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in February, most reviews unfavourable.

A second show in NY at 291 Gallery. He visited Munich with Marquet in October, much impressed by a major exhibition of Islamic art, just before the Salon d’Automne where he showed his iconic Music and Dance. His father died. He visited Spain mid November 1910 to mid January 1911, there keen to visit the old Islamic sites south.

1911 he summered at Collioure, visited Moscow November 1911, then wintered in Morocco, twice, 8 January to 14 April 1912, then 8 October 1912 to mid Feb. 1913, back to Paris via Corsica by April 1913.

1912, early, a NY show of his sculpture was not well received. In London Grafton Gallery mounted Roger Fry’s large second post-Impressionism show, including 18 paintings by Matisse (1903-1912).

Nasturtiums with “Dance”, hung at the Salon d‘Automne, offended prominent critic L Vauxcelles.

1913 He showed Moroccan paintings at Bernheim-Jeune. Showed in NY’s famous Armory display, and had another show there in 1915. He showed at the Berlin Secession.

1914, January, he returned to 19 Quai Saint-Michel (one floor below his studio of 1894-1907). Back in Paris he saw Gris, Metziner, the Italian Futurist Gino Severini, and Picasso. After the war started he visited Collioure with his family and Marquet, there also met Juan Gris.

1915 He summered at Arachon (near Bordeaux), showed in NY and visited Marseilles in November with Marquet.

1916 He worked in Paris and at Issy.

Autumn 1917 he headed south to Marseilles, thence Nice from mid-December, wintering at Hotel Beau-Rivage. 1917 he met Monet?

1918 He showed jointly with Picasso at Paul Guillaume’s gallery, visited Renoir and Bonnard south.

1920 He summered at Étretat, on Normandy coast, limestone cliffs popular with Monet et al. Moved between Nice and Paris. Also he designeed ”the sets and costumes for Diaghilev’s ballet, Le Chant du rossignol, with music by Stravinsky”.

1921 He “established a permanent residence at 1 Place Charles-Félix [till 1938] in Nice .. 3rd floor apartment .. views of both the town and the Promenade des Anglais… the site of some of his most ambitious paintings completed in the 1920s [Henriette Darricarrère modelled 1920-27]” (Sothebys). “.. Henriette excelled at role-playing and had a theatrical presence that fueled the evolution of Matisse’s art. Earlier, Lorette and Antoinette had initiated the exotic odalisque fantasy, but it was Henriette whose personality seems to have been most receptive.” (Jack Cowan).

1924 Major retrospective in Copenhagen. Son Pierre set up a gallery in NY.

1925 Again to Italy. Son Pierre arranged another NY show in 1927 and 1930 he spent 3 months in Tahiti calling at New York and San Francisco. In the US he visited Albert Barnes, 1931 he has shows in Paris, Basel and NY (MOMA). 1933 he completes the Barnes mural, visited Venice and Padua (saw Giotto’s frescoes).

1929 Met Lydia Delectorskaya, a young Russian lady who became his principal model and studio assistant until his death in 1954.

1930 Worked on prints to illustrate Poesies by Stephane Mallarme for a Swiss publisher.

1931 Retrospective at MOMA, NY. His son Pierre opened a gallery on Manhattan, focusing on moern European painters.

1937 Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes commission a new set from him for Rouge et Noir”.

1938 He moved to Hotel Regina in Nice suburb of Cimiez, which becomes his main final studio.

1941 He near died from a cancer operation at Lyons, invalided thereafter, at Nice. His aughter Marguerite nearly died. Working with the Resistance she was captured, tortured and sent to Ravensbruck, but escaped from the train.

1943 he was hurried out of Cimiez by an air raid, moved to Villa le Rêve, Dream House. at nearby Vence, for 5 years, starting his cut outs (découpage) for Jazz.

  1. 1944. His wife and daughter are arrested for involvement in the Resistance. Matisse, who has stayed in the South of France, illustrates Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal.
  2. 1947. Jazz is published.
  3. 1948. Began work on the decoration of the Chapelle du Rosaire for the Dominican nuns at Vence.
  4. 1952. He established a museum at the town of his birth.

1954 He died 3 November, of a heart attack.

  1. 1966. Important UCLA retrospective. First public view of French window (1914)
  2. 1970. Exhibition at Grand Palais, Paris. “ the Exposition du Centenaire brought together in the Grand Palais a large proportion of the greatest Matisses in France, America, and Russia to make the finest display of Matisse’s art to date”.

1986 NGA Washington, Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice 1916-1930

1990 US and USSR, “Matisse in Morocco: The Paintings and Drawings 1912-1913,”

  1. 1992. Major retrospective, MOMA, NY.

2005 Royal Academy (UK), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Matisse: The Fabric of Dreams – His Art and His Textiles.

2007 exhibition, Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, 2007-08
2009 Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, exhibition Matisse: 1917-1941,

2010 MOMA Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917

2013 Metropolitan Museum of Art show. Matisse: In Search of True Painting.

2014 Cut outs shown Tate, MOMA

Some works………………

 1/ Matisse’s pioneering grand allegorical sequence on the communal “Good Life”, and its apotheosis, Dance

 03

Spring 1910, Dance II, oil on canvas, 260 cm × 391 cm, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: the second and final version. It is the same size as Dance I but differs clearly through the brighter, bolder colouring (particularly the bright vermillion figures), more clearly delineated or modelled figures, and in the denser applied paint.

Painted by Matisse, together with Music (1910) for Russian businessman and art collector Sergei Shchukin.

COMMENT: Early 1909 wealthy businessman Sergei Shchukin commissioned Matisse for three large scale canvases to decorate the spiral staircase of his mansion, the Trubetskoy Palace, in Moscow.

Dance (II) and Music are breathtaking paintings in their their simple but profound message, their presentation: pared stylized bold “blazing” coloured simplicity, and their size. The package.

The idea of the circle of dancers apprears in Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-06). But here it is highlighted: isolated, simplified, emboldened.

The composition or arrangement of dancing figures is reminiscent of William Blake‘s watercolour “Oberon, Titania and Puck with fairies dancing” (1786)… The painting is often associated with the “Dance of the Young Girls” from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.” (Wiki).

The style and strong colours in the paintings also clearly recall frescoes Matisse had seen in Italy?

The simplicity brings ambiguity. Is the blue colour depicting water or sky? The green a hilltop or grass by a lake?

Some observers also get excited by the break in the circle of hands, by the foreground pair.

Reception? The paintings, Dance and Music were Matisse’s only entries to the 1910 Salon d’Automne, to which Matisse returned 14th October from Munich.

They “shocked the public and critics alike”. Critics were harsh, except the lone Apollonaire. To the extent that Mr Shchukin “began to lose heart”, decided to reject the works, then changed his mind!

Matisse was further stressed when his father died soon after his arrival back in Paris.

04

1910, Music (La Musique), 260 cm × 389 cm, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: Also painted for Moscow. Again a very large painting, near 3 x 4 metres, in the same simple pared flat colourful style as DanceMusic pairs with Dance, the same size and in the same style. And in content: Music supplies the music and audience for Dance.

 

The coda

  05

Summer 1912, Nasturtiums with the Painting “Dance” II, oil on canvas, 190.5 x 114 cm, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

COMMENT: this image elaborates importantly on the theme of Dance, here extending its franchise, democratizing its relevance, by importing it straight into the domestic living room, a familiar venue for Matisse.

To emphasize the intersection Matisse injects a vase of unruly bright flowers (a favourite domestic still life subject) into the heart of the image, where it integrates with the Dance, like it might even become the revellers’ Maypole. And in fact the two hands meeting over th vase in the second version fit this interpretation better than in the first..

Matisse painted these two versions in Paris, in his new (1909) studio at Issy-les-Moulineaux, after his first visit to Morocco, January to April 1912.

The second was bought by Shchukin, after being shown at the 1912 Salon d’Automne, so in Moscow at Shchukin’s house it joined the famous Dance painting

The first version was one of the first paintings by Matisse seen in America, shown with 12 other works at the famous Armory show in New York in 1913. And it stayed in America, later (1923) purchased by one of America’s important promoters of modernism, Scofield Thayer, co-owner and editor of The Dial magazine, 1919 to 1925, in which Thayer presented many modern works of art, and many of them from his own collection

 

Precursors / associates (c1900-16)

 

06

1900, Male model, 73 x 99 cm, MOMA

COMMENT: This striking painting depicting a bold “sculptural” figure shows Matisse feeding off Cezanne’s figures. It is based on Matisse’s The Serf, his “first important original sculpture”, a 95cm high bronze, started in 1900, the year he met and worked with Auguste Rodin, but not finished till c1906.

07

1904-05, Luxe, Calme et Volupté  (Luxury, calm and sensual pleasure),  oil, 98.5 cm × 118.5 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

COMMENT: The title of this important painting is taken from the refrain of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, Invitation to a Voyage (1857), a man invites his lover to travel with him to paradise (“there is nothing but order and beauty, luxury, calm and sensual pleasure”).

Recourse by Matisse to this Baudelairean refain is an emphatic start for his allegorical journey with painting, first by pointedly “inviting” his viewers to do just that, and second, to outline his overarching polemical theme from the beginning.

Obviously the Neo-Impressionist style reflects the Pointillism of his summer host at Saint-Tropez, Paul Signac (1863-1935), and its founder the enigmatic Georges Seurat (1859-1891).

Work started on the painting at Saint Tropez, where Matisse and his wife summered with Paul Signac and Henri –Edmond Cross, and uses the landscape from the coast there.

 

 08

October 1905 and March 1906, Le bonheur de vivre (Joy of life), Oil on canvas, 176.5 cm × 240.7 cm, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

COMMENT: This is arguably Matisse’s most famous painting, more so than Dance.

It was his only submission to the (April) 1906 Salon des Indépendants, and obviously it was noticed, for its size and its shift in style and, in particular, its enigmatic content. Important critics like Charles Morice and Louis Vauxcelles were reserved, Jean Tavernier “generally favourable”, and painter Paul Signac “one of the most vituperative critics”!

The painting was soon bought by the perceptive Gertrude Stein in Paris, and later acquired by the keen and well-resourced American collector Albert Barnes, who then did not allow its reproduction in colour, thus inhibiting wider appreciation of the image. The Steins had displayed the painting prominently at their Paris base, where Picasso soon saw it, understood its pioneering impact.

The painting is an ambitious blockbuster, which opened Matisse’s core allegorical flourish, first called “My Arcadia”.

First and obviously it is large.  And secondly the style and content leaves the Fauves period far behind, now reflecting a thinking Matisse, showing a wide range of influences.

Strikingly it is one of Matisse’s few imaginative paintings, depicting not some real scene but a purely fictive assemblage.

It uses bold colors but not in a coarse brushed Fauvist fashion, rather in a pattern of delineated colour patches which in the top half of the painting looks forward to the cursive colorful abstraction of Kandinsky.

Below we see naked leisuring in a mysterious landscape, a scattering of figures or groups of figures which for the most part do not interact. Some of the figures recall Cezanne’s various paintings of Bathers. Matisse could not have seen Cezanne’s famous final three versions of Les Grandes Baigneuses/ The Large Bathers (all 1905-06), but he would have seen earlier smaller versions, eg at the 1904 Salon d’Automne (October 15–November 15, four Baigneuse / Baigneurs works, from 1876-77 to c 1890) and again in 1905 Salon d’Automne (October 18–November 25, one work).

The content draws widely for inspiration such that no single interptretation can be sustained.

Most scholars (eg Jack Flam, 1986) agree the work closely relates to the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarme’s (1842-98) poem Apres-midi d’un faun,his best-known work and a landmark in the history of Symbolism in French literature.” Matisse was well aware of Mallarme, influenced by Baudelaire but who moved on, especially in developing a new language which avoids the objective, is allusive, offering “suggestion without explanation”. “This complex abandonment appears in Flaubert’s free indirect style and, later, in Surrealism’s automatic writing” (Ewa Zubek). Later Matisse returned to Mallarme with his important French window , Collioure, in late 1914.

Many painters are suggested by the painting, perhaps starting most obviously with Edouard Manet’s famous Dejeuner sur les herbes (1863), which had caused a sensation when displayed in Paris and is a candidate for the first painting of “modern art”.

Alfred Barr also points to the long lived JAD Ingres (1780-1867) who had a major retrospective hanging at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, where Matisse would in particular have seen his Golden Age (1862), and also Odalisque with slave (1839-40).

Jonathan Jones (Guardian, 20 Jan.2008) sees Matisse saluting JMW Turner, particularly his Apullia in Search of Appullus (1814) and The Golden Bough , Exhibited (1834), which art Matisse saw in London on honeymoon in 1898.

Also “James B. Cuno and Thomas Puttfarken suggest that the inspiration for the work was Agostino Carracci’s (1557 – 1602) engraving of “Reciproco Amore” or Love in the Golden Age, after the same named painting (1585-89) by the 16th-century Flemish painter Pauwels Franck (c1540-96)” (Wiki).

And it calls too on Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians (1523-26)

But it also draws on “Watteau, Poussin, Japanese woodcuts, Persian miniaturesand 19th century Orientalist images of harems (cf Ingres’s “La Grand Odalisque”)..” (Art Story).

 09

Early 1907, Blue Nude (Nu bleu, Souvenir de Biskra), oil on canvas, 92.1 cm × 140.3 cm, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD, USA. COMMENT: This important painting derived from from a sculpture he worked on at Colloure: Reclining nude I (bronze, 1907, approx. 50 x 28cm,x 35cm high), in turn based on one of the three reclining figures in the centre of Le Bonheur etc (1906).

Near Collioure he visited Aristide Maillol (1861-1944), based at Banyuls (just north of Collioure), who having commenced as a painter was then embarked on his own important career as a sculptor, eg following his successful Seated woman (1902).

It was the only painting Matisse sent to the (April) 1907 Salon des Independants where again he caused a storm, offended the critics, especially the familiar Louis Vauxcelles, now worried by the ugly, the deformed.  Later, in 1913, the painting caused a similar uproar in the US, during the Armory show in NY and Chicago (where was burned in effigy by art students!?).

However it stirred Picasso, allegedly causing him to adjust (“toughen up”, R. Smith, NY Times, 2010) his then underway iconic blockbuster (234 x 244cm) Demoiselles d’Avignon  completed mid 1907.

The Steins bought it, their last Matisse purchase.

The bold confronting muscular Rubens-like nude salutes the recently departed Cezanne but pushes much further.

Matisse remembered the life force in the lush sub-tropical Biskra oasis, recently seen in Algeria, the same oasis remarked on in these terms by Andre Gide (Jack Flam, 1986).

And he addresses directly the female nude in Western art, the twin poles of the erotic and the procreative, the mother-figure.

Thus the Louvre had just (provocatively) hung Manet’s Olympia alongside Ingres’s Grande Odalisque. And Venus-like nudes were popular in conventional Salon painting. But Matisse’s lady is much rougher and tougher, drawing also on the then new interest in the “primitive”, like through African masks.

Matisse’s nude is an important cog in his allegorical journey towards Dance (in two versions) of 1910.

10

1907–08, Le Luxe II, distemper (casein), water-based medium akin to fresco, on canvas, 209.5 x 138 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

COMMENT: This is the first painting by Matisse depicting larger than life size figures. He prepared with sketches and a full size cartoon. It is “inspired no doubt by the frescoes he had seen in Italy” (Jack Flam, 1986), ie earlier that year, with the Steins. It reworks his recent Three bathers (1907, oil on canvas, 61 x 74cm, Minneapolis), in turn again drawing on Cezanne.

Again there are two versions, the distemper one being cleaner lined, sharper. The first version was hung at the 1907 Salon d‘Autumne.

But it may also reflect a Japanese print by 18th C Torii Kiyonaga.

The subject seems to allude to the famous Classical story of the birth of Venus, rising from the waters, her feet being dried, Flora approaching with flowers as greeting?

 

Some sources

11

Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavannes (1824-98, 74) The Sacred Grove, Beloved of the Arts and the Muses, 1884/89, Oil on canvas, 93 x 231 cm, Art Institute of Chicago.

COMMENT: Puvis de Chavannes overlapped the Impressionists but his art style remained conventional, did not modernise in terms of colour, brushstroke and composition. Though his style did shift, used a muted colourful palette and explored more stylised compositions.

However  the ostensibly old fashioned look of his work belies its true content and its pervasive influence on modernist art.

Oddly for a painter born 8 years before Manet his influence kicked in only later, in the 1880s, and particularly in the wake of Impressionism as avant-garde artists were now applying the new full Baudelarian dispensation in art – ie a gloves off scrutiny of Man’s total condition, outward and inward – to the world about them, like the radical industrialising of economies.  

In particular Puvis developed an allegorical Neo-Romantic mindset, as his basic template, to commingle the real and the timeless transcendental. This he applied throughout France in various polemical public works, particularly in the context of France trying to resolve its desired future path in the lingering wake of the calamitous 1789 Revolution, pitting Royalist against Republican Thus Hope commented on the costly 1870 war with Prussia.

This template clearly Matisse acknowledged in his allegorical journey.

And he also directly influenced Gauguin, Seurat / Signac and the Neo-Impressionists / Divisionists, Odilon Redon and the Symbolists, and Picasso, Paul Klee.

Born in Lyon, son of a mining engineer and descended from an “old noble family of Burgundy”, he started training in the 1840s, had some formal studies (eg with Delacroix and Thomas Couture) but mostly worked alone, benefited from a long visit to Italy in the late 1840s (eg saw work of Giotto and Piero), grew close to Degas in the 1850s.

He was keen and ambitious but recognition came slowly, not before the early 1860s, ie around age 40, and thereafter his star climbed steadily. Much of his work was in murals, eg culminating in the 1889 Sorbonne series.  In 1890 he co-founded the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (National Society of Fine Arts)

A self-promoter he adopted “the noble designation “de Chavanes””, added to his family name in 1859(age 35), changed to “de Chavannes” in 1877. He met (and later married, happily) Princess Marie Cantacuzene in 1854, though like some others had an affair (1859) with painter Suzanne Valadon. His own struggle to succeed motivated him to help younger artists.

 

 

2a/ Flat, color patch, stylised quasi-abstraction (c1908-17)….. highlights

12

 

1914 (September / October) French Window at Collioure (Porte-fenêtre à Collioure). Oil on canvas, 117 x 105 cm, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.

COMMENT: this important painting – pivotal even – dates from just after the outbreak of WW1 and clearly in some way a decisive response to the sudden turmoil. It appears to be his only work from this visit to Collioure.

Matisse quickly had relatives (mother and brother) trapped behind German lines, in far north France. His working life was upended, friends scattered, Derain, Braque, Manguin etc joined the army. His house at Issy, near Paris, was commandeered by the French army till 1915. Matisse and his wife headed south early September to Toulouse, thence Collioure, joining Albert Marquet and also Juan Gris (1887-1927).

Perhaps meeting Gris there was important for this painting (cf Alfred H Barr Jr on Matisse in 1951). Gris was a friend from Paris (where he arrived 1906 from Spain). Matisse liked Gris, who was then poor and had TB, and he fell out with Gertrude Stein in trying to help Gris. Gris was a keen art theorist and then in Collioure he and Matisse debated “heatedly about painting” (Gris), obviously including the Cubist revolution..

The painting is mysterious, breaks suddenly with Matisse’s work till then, apparently reflecting the abrupt new circumstances. There are figurative elements but obviously the painting leans far towards the abstract, much further than any previous images.

Striking is the central black void. “Talking about a painting from 1916 in which black predominates, Matisse says he began “to use black as a colour of light and not as a colour of darkness” “ (Centre Pompidou). But it seems hard to believe black here does not simply mean foreboding. So it can mean “light”, just that the light shows only darkness.

“It is also his most daring invocation of a Mallarméan absence.” (Jack Flam, 1986). He refers to the French Symbolist poet (cf his role in Matisse’s Le Bonheur etc of 1905) whose work means an artist, or poet, can better describe something by not describing it, or by describing its absence. So here “war” is best “described” by its pictorial absence, no exploding shells like in CRW Nevinson and Paul Nash but a quagmire-like darkness which can also powerfully describe the violence and its casualties

The painting was not shown publically until 1966, on a show in the US, where it was hailed as “a forerunner of American abstract painting”, eg by Ad Reinhardt who “listed it as one of the two most important artistic events of 1914 [Mondrian’s ‘plus and minus’ the other].

13

1915, Le rideau jaune (The Yellow Curtain), oil on canvas, 146 × 97 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

COMMENT:  This painting, showing Matisse again hugging abstraction (as at Collioure the year before), excites the critics. And again it is based on a view out a window.

Who knows what Matisse was trying to say, beyond applying abstraction to a view out a window.

But critics generally agree the flat colourful geometric “abstraction” presages his later cut-outs.

Matisse’s original title for the painting, Composition, draws attention to its abstract quality. Interviewed in 1931, Matisse explained.. the painting represents a view from a curtained window in his home at Issy,  including the blue glass canopy that covered the front door.” (WIKI).

The painting was acquired by MOMA in 1996.

 14

Summer 1917, A Path in the Forest near Trivaux (Shaft of sunlight), private collection,  91 x 74cm.

COMMENT: Trivaux is near Issy. The painting shows an “abstracted” view along a forest path where a shaft of sunlight breaks through.

 

2b/ Flat, color patch, stylised quasi-abstraction (c1908-17)…..antecedents

 

15

Summer 1911, Interior with Aubergines, distemper on canvas, 212 x 246cm, Musee de Peinture et Sculpture, Grenoble.

COMMENT: This important painting, the third of the 1911 “grand interiors” is from Collioure that summer, followed The painter’s family. It is a large painting which pushes his decorative mission further, sumptuous colourful décor, and, in leaning more towards abstraction,fires its visual impact.

The window top right offsets a mirror lower left, suggested by Velazquez’s Las Meninas he recently saw in Madrid? Floral patterns come from Persian miniatures?

Matisse brought no spiritual polemic to bear in his painting but he did read widely, including people like then popular (with some) French philosopher Henri Bergson who “convinced many thinkers that the processes of immediate experience and intuition are more significant than abstract rationalism and science for understanding reality”.

16

1913, Moroccan coffee, oil, 176 x 210 cm, Hermitage.

COMMENT: both painted during Matisse’s second visit to Morocco, autumn 1912 to Feb. 1913. The second is on the terrace of Café Baba at Tangier.

The latter is a striking simple image, unusually large, where the black iron balustrade along the top mimics coffee running down a cup.

And we notice again…. gold fish. Subject of contemplation by customers.

17

1908–1912, The Conversation, 177 cm × 217 cm, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: Bought by Shcuikn immediately. Matisse in pyjamas faces his wife in tense confrontation on a spring morning? The iron railing reads NON! It is based on a stele at the Louvre from c1760BC, in which the king stands before a seated god!

“[Matisse’s] discovery of Russian icons, during a visit to Shchukin in Moscow in 1911, informed a large confrontational painting of him and Amélie” (Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005)

 

 18

Spring 1914, View of Notre-Dame , Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 94.3 cm, Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

19

Spring 1914, View of Notre-Dame , Oil on canvas. 147 x 98 cms, Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Switzerland

COMMENT: These two paintings were completed within weeks of each other, the realistic “postcard” version being earlier and executed in one sitting? They revisit, precisely, the view in the 1902, Notre-Dame, une fin d’après-midi.

The “blue” stylized image shows Matisse again reflecting beyond the visually objective, and using the then recent Cubism / abstraction as tools for his purpose.

It depicts the famous church, east across the famous river, but ambiguously, so we see the church’s west front towers through a window (a core visual motif for the artist), but a mullioned window which looks like the towers.

Beside the “window” is a globule of green representing green spring foliage.

The bridge and riverbanks are distilled to black lines.

The church might even look like a kite on a string? The “window” might see through to the other side?

The evocative quasi-abstract image was a break through painting? Like the French window at Collioure (later in 1914) it might call on  the French poet Mallarméan, depicting the churchby its absence.

Matisse made several views of Notre Dame cathedral from his quai Saint-Michel studio in 1914. In February his friend Marcel Sembat wrote about two views the artist had completed, one “very beautiful”, the other “lopsided”, which “no one would understand immediately” but he preferred. Matisse reworked features of this canvas before covering almost the entire surface in blue. He left early compositional elements visible beneath the paint, accentuating the temporal quality of building a work of art over time.” (MOMA)

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Autumn 1914-1915 (after Window at Collioure), Goldfish and palette, Paris, quai Saint-Michel (Artist and goldfish), Oil on canvas. 146.5 x 112.4 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, NY.

COMMENT: Important painting? More abstract than the first. Now the view is straight out the window, so the window (middle) jamb is directly behind the fish bowl.

One of Matisse’s most striking symbolic self-portraits.” (Jack Flam). The painter’s thumb pokes through the palette board. A sketch shows Matisse holding the palette, thus referencing Cezanne’s 1885 self-portrait, but in the final painting he just leaves the palette. Which motif appers in Picasso’s Harlequin the next year, 1915 (cf J Richardson 2012).

Matisse described the abstract zone at the right of this composition as containing “a person who has a palette in his hand and who is observing.” Most likely, it is the artist himself. The surrealist poet André Breton said of the painting, “I believe Matisse’s genius is here . . . nowhere has Matisse put so much of himself as in this picture.” (MOMA)

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1916, Bowl of Apples on a Table, Oil on canvas; 114.9 x 89.5 cm, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia,

COMMENT: more or less the same subject, more or less after Cezanne than his ornamental arabesque style, all in a flat pared “sign post” style, except two are cropped (so one becomes a cup), are two have the background neutralized.

 

 

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From autumn 1915, The Gourds  65 x 80 cm, oil/canvas  Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

COMMENT: The war and the art revolts here shifting Matisse to a spare more abstract composition, no decorative frills here. And here his wartime black is bold. The objects now drift by, detached, like they pass by the corner of a building.

Jack Flam (1986) suggests a touch here of Paul Klee? In the abstraction yes,but the items are clearly by Matisse?

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July 1916, Still Life with Gourds (Nature morte aux coloquintes), Oil on canvas, 100 x 81.3 cm, Barnes Foundation

COMMENT: More typical Matisse here, decorative elements,  but a Cubist inspired composition, with the cropped frame left, more geometric, and featuring the simple bust right, a side on transposition of his recent 58cm high bronze sculpture, Jeanette V (MOMA).

 

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1917–18, Interior with a Violin, (Intérieur au violon) oil on canvas. 116 x 89 cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

COMMENT: an important painting, which pairs with French window at Collioure from late 1914, soon after WW1 commenced.

It pairs with Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), Oil on canvas; 73.7 x 60.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 26

1918, Le Violoniste à la fenêtre (The Violinist at the window), Oil on canvas, 150 x 98 cm, Centre Pompidou

COMMENT: Also painted in Nice. Mtisse returns to music. Now the violin is being played, as Matisse did himself near daily. So it could therefore be a self-portrait. Black frames the window but the window is open

  

3/ Portraits (1905-17)… Fauve period to WW1.

 

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Summer 1913, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (Madame Matisse), oil on canvas, 146 x 97.7 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

COMMENT: the only work Matisse sent to the 1913 Salon d’Automne. Where it was generally well received?

Matisse was recovering from his end 1910 relapse.

 “Amélie sat more than a hundred times….. Spurling [2009] says that the portrait, which was the last work to enter Shchukin’s collection, caused Matisse “palpitations, high blood pressure and a constant drumming in his ears.” (Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005)

It is possibly a response to Cezanne’s 1893-95 portrait of his wife, and it is billed as responding to Cubism? But not really? Rather it clearly evolves from his recent Fauve period portraits of 1905-07, but now showing a pared minimalist “Primitive” face. We see trademark bold colours, the green blouse and chair, and the bright red scarf, against a pervasive blue. All in stark contrast to Picasso.

This was one of three “blue” paintings by Matisse (two still lives and the portrait). from May to December 1913, after his return from Morocco, and were his only paintings in this period.

The blue may relate to Picasso’s predilection for the color, or it may be drawn from Morocco.

 

 

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June 1914, Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg.  Oil on canvas, 147.3 x 97.5 cm Philadelphia Museum of Art.

COMMENT: A striking portrait, like the ladt is emitting a magnetic field, painted June 1914, after his important quasi-abstract View of Notre-Dame, and as political tension grew.

 

 

5/ The rest to WW1 (1896-1914): including Fauvism and the “grand interiors”

 

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1899 Still Life with Compot and Fruit, (II), 46.7 x 55.2 1 cm, Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis (WA)

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c1901, Pont Saint-Michel, oil on canvas, 60.35 x 73.02 cms. Santa Barbara Museum of Art. COMMENT: this is a prescient work. Looks ahead.

 

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1905, La plage Rouge à Collioure, Henri Matisse peint de la fenêtre de l’atelier, oil on canvas ca. 33 x 41 cm.

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Summer 1917, Portrait de famille (The Music Lesson), oil on canvas, 245.1 x 210.8 (The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia).

COMMENT: This painting pairs with the justly celebrated The piano lesson from the summer before, thus the same view of a window and his son Pierre playing the same piano (beside his sister Marguerite), and about the same size. Jean reads, and wife Amélie sews in the garden.

But the other-worldly mystery, the magic, is gone.

 

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1908, The Dessert: Harmony in Red (Red Room), Oil on canvas, 180 cm × 220 cm, Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: Painted after Le Bonheur etc. for Sergei Shchukin’s dining room in Moscow. The large painting was ordered as “Harmony in Blue,” but Matisse preferred red so red it became.

The blue antler-like “arabesque” tendrils climbing the table cloth started on a Paris bus, and are seen in the Still life with blue tablecloth right.

It showed in the 1908 Salon ‘Autumne, with Blue still life. Louis Vauxcelles loved the latter, but “paid almost no attention to Harmony in Red, except to say.. he did not like it..”. Charles Morice was more measured but said Matisse “continues to alarm his adversaries without reassuring his friends”. Vauxcelles and Morice both preferred Félix Valloton.

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1909, Still Life with Blue Tablecloth, Oil on canvas, 88 x 118 cm, The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

COMMENT: Matisse quotes “a piece of decorative 19th-century cloth, a blue-and-white pattern consisting of a block-printed basket of flowers, repeated within a sinuous, broken lattice of ornamental foliage”  he spotted from a bus in Paris, and used in other paintings, particularly 1908’s famous Harmony in Red (La Desserte), where white is transposed to red.

 

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Early/mid 1911, The Painter’s family, 143 x 194 cm. Hermitage, Saint Petersburg.

COMMENT: Commenced soon after The pink studio, the second of the 1911 “grand interiors” Amélie Matisse (wife, married 1898) is on the sofa in the rear left; their sons Jean and Pierre, born in 1899 and 1900, play chess. Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, born in 1894 to Camille Joblaud, subsequently accepted as a daughter by Amélie, stands to the right, in black.

Matisse was much impressed by the Islamic art show he saw at Munich in late 1910, which work now clearly reflects in his 1911 decorative interiors.

 

6/ Post WW1 (1919-1940s)

 

36

 

1928, Still Life with Green Sideboard, 81.5x100cm, oil on Canvas, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Musée national d’art modern

COMMENT: “Still Life with Green Sideboardthat quiet painting, from 1928, is one of the most uncannily ambiguous ever made; you cannot decide if you are looking at or into the surface of a cabinet door.” ((Peter Schjeldahl , New Yorker, 2005))

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1935, Pink Nude, 66 x 92cm oil/canvas The Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore.

 

38

 

1940, The Dream, 81 x 65cm oil/canvas Private Collection

 

 

7/ Decoupage.. the Cut-outs.

 

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 1943-44, The Horse, the Rider and the Clown . Maquette for plate V of the illustrated book Jazz 1947 © Centre Pompidou etc. COMMENT: “illustrated book Jazz (1947) is one of the most famous graphic works .. of the 20th centuryMatisse’s first major ‘cut-out’ project.. Jazz comprises a set of 20 vivid colour stencils and over 70 pages of Matisse’s calligraphic writing. .. pivotal in Matisse’s transition from oil painting to the cut-out collages..  Matisse cut forms out of large sheets of paper previously painted with gouache by his assistants. The cut-outs were then assembled on the wall of Matisse’s studio, under his direction….. title evokes the idea of a musical structure of rhythm and repetition..  Matisse’s subjects are taken largely from the circus, mythology and memories of his travels. .” (AG of NSW)

 

 40

 

1952, The Sorrows of the King, gouache on paper on canvas, 292 cm × 386 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

COMMENT: his final self-portrait. “The central black silhouette represents Matisse sitting in his armchair, whilst the other pictorial elements are references to themes that defined his life.

The yellow petals fluttering away have the gaiety of musical notation while the green odalisque symbolises the Orient…  

the work refers to one of Rembrandt’s canvases, “David Playing the Harp before Saul”, in which the young biblical hero plays to distract the king from his melancholy, as well as to Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.” (Lavacow online art)

 

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1953, The Snail (La Composition Chromatique), gouache on paper, 287 cm × 288 cm, Tate Gallery, London

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1953, Memory of Oceania  (Nice-Cimiez, Hôtel Régina, summer 1952-early 1953 , gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on paper mounted on canvas,  284.4 x 286.4 cm, MOMA.

COMMENT: Based on a photograph that Matisse took of a schooner from his window in Tahiti in 1930. At the right, the green rectangle, fuchsia band, black curve, and blue crescent appear to derive from the boat, the boat’s mast and mooring line, and the curtain of the window. More uncertain is the meaning (if any) of the shapes at the upper left. They may describe a blond woman seen from the back—the sharp vertical line being her spine and the surrounding blue–on–white and white–on–blue curves the contours of her body. (MOMA).

 

 

 

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