Manierre Dawson: Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

Manierre Dawson (Dec. 1887 – Aug. 15, 1969, 81)

Intriguing pioneering American abstract artist, now mostly forgot because he quit and grew cherries.

  • Pioneering young American abstract painter from 1910, clearly one of first in Western art.
  • His Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates work of the later great Kandinsky.
  • But age 27, despite a remarkable busy and productive start, the retiring outsider curiously hung up his brushes after 4 years to farm cherries. Did not stay in, play the game.
  • This seems astonishing given his propitious start, including a visit in 1910 to Paris, of all times and places.
  • Striking too is he came from nowhere, from minimal formal training in art, notwithstanding Europe 1910.
  • Why did he quit despite the promising start? Basically not the fire in the belly?
  • But most oddly, despite his achievement, and being American, he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition.


FEATURED IMAGE:  1910, Prognostic (centre panel). Oil on canvas, triptych, 85.7 × 90.8 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum


1910. Coordinate Escape, Oil on Composition Board, 48.3 x 36.8cm, Collection of Lynda and Stewart Resnick, Beverly Hills, California

COMMENT: striking abstract paintings from early 1910, from a young (22) untrained artist, without doubt near the earliest abstract paintings in Western art, and clearly derived from his maths training meeting a keen artistic mind.


1913 Wharf under mountain, 45.72 x 55.88 cm, Norton Museum of Art, Palm Beach, Florida.

COMMENT:  striking is how different from his other work is his abstraction approach, both the imagery and bright bold colors. But is it abstract? Some will say there is clearly a ship there. Maybe sea below, a mountain behind, and green fields above that?

Famously it was his surreptitious entry to the Chicago (March/April 1913) version of the seminal 1913 Armory Show.


1913, Figure Party-Colored, Oil on board, 44 x 36 inches.

COMMENT:  another quasi-abstract Cubo-Futurist work, but more colourful.



Dawson was a curious pioneering American modernist, an outsider, now largely forgot.

Though in his painting he struck abstraction / non-objective gold early – like from 1910 – he was completely omitted from MOMA’s 2013-14 “comprehensive” Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 show.

This seems astonishing for a number of reasons.

First, not only was he clearly the first US abstract painter he was one of the first abstractionists in “Western” art, alongside the big names of Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia et al in Europe.

Second, astonishing is that his Prognostic triptych of early 1910 clearly anticipates later work of the lauded Kandinsky. And some of his geometric abstraction motifs might even look ahead further to some Abstract Expressionists?

Third, he then mined this seam busily for about 4 years, fashioning his own take on Cubo-Futurist quasi-abstract modernist figuration.

So while his post 1911 Cubo-Futurist work is indeed derivative, and while his effective active career was only a brief 5 years or so, overall he left a remarkable and distinctive, if truncated, body of work, abstract and quasi-abstract.

Moreover one of his 1913 abstract works was hung in the Chicago showing of the seminal 1913 Armory exhibition.

Striking too is how, compared with peers, he came from nowhere. In 1910 he was young (23), had just finished an engineering degree and was painting part-time, working as a first year employee with an architects firm, had no formal training in art (but for one class in high school), and no exposure by then to the dynamic modern art scene.


Born and raised in Chicago, he started painting during his engineering degree (1905-09). Early 1910 he painted his first fully abstract works, then visited Europe for about 5 months in the back half of 1910.

But after painting keenly for about 4 years, after showing at the Armory in 1913, and in two significant exhibitions in 1914 (where he also sold some works), despite this achievement and his apparent passion, at 27 he quit full time art for good, disappeared to rural Michigan, his art with him, to become a full-time cherry farmer, and only an occasional artist.


Why did he abruptly abandon ship after such a promising start?

Dawson will remain something of an enigma.

Basically it appears he simply lacked the fire? He was not hungry and determined enough? Thus while he obviously recognised the importance of the 1913 Armory show he was timid in his response. Invited to show by the main organiser he refused, then when pressed by Pach he agreed to show a work in the Chicago viewing (ie his home town) but it went in late (so was omitted from the catalogue) and, at his request, was anonymous.

So he succumbed to short term domestic circumstances. Summer 1914 he met his future wife, from a family near his family’s country farm, the area where he then settled down, marrying July 1915.

Interesting too  is that, despite signs in 1912, he never really persevered with his pioneering bolt-from-the-blue 1910 abstraction approach. He was perhaps too distracted by the Cubo-Futurism he met in Europe 1910.


He was not to be “discovered” for about 50 years, until well after WW2, near the end of his life, after the ageing artist contacted a nearby Florida museum.



Startling abstraction in Year 0: 1910

Manierre Dawson leaves quite a story.

There is no doubt this man (first name is his mother’s maiden name) from 1910 became a pioneering “Western” abstract painter, working keenly in Chicago for about 4 years, up there with the relevant big names in Europe, like Delaunay, Kandinsky, Kupka, Malevich, Mondrian, and Picabia.

In 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.

The most striking is Prognostic (1910), a triptych with a big centre panel 86 x 91cm) and two wings about 2/3 as big (62 x 51cm). The abstraction motifs are clearly prescient of Kandinsky, as also is the smaller Differential complex (1910). (“Differential” referring to calculus), but before Kandinsky by some years, even 10 years? Kandinsky’s abstraction is far denser, more intricate and colourful, but anticipate him Dawson clearly does.

The primary inspirational source of his abstraction – the lines and circles – is commonly associated with his engineering education (1905-09), called “geometric”, and that certainly fits his 1910 work, like Xdx, Co-ordinate escape, and Discal Procession (showing a nest of curves). Prognostic is more complex, seems to use both maths and natural landscape references?

Colour was not a preoccupation with Dawson. Most of his works were subdued, monohromatic. All his abstraction is subdued, in monochromatic browns / oranges.


Why abstract for him?

Interesting is that his motivation for going abstract, after a brief (2-3 year?) figurative phase, was not spiritual (as the Whitney exhibition text of 1988 claimed) or philosophical (like for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich) but simply curiosity stemming from his academic engineering training, especially the mathematical content.

This seems entirely valid for mathematics is certainly abstract, yet also profoundly important, “real”, because maths is the universal language used to express the underlying laws of physics which describe, underlie, the visible world, and which apply across our known universe.


Dawson on where his art comes from?

Dawson wrote in April 1911: “In trying to answer the questions that are repeatedly thrown at me, “What does it mean?” “What does it represent?” I have to start with a statement that sometimes helps. Art is a human invention.

In nature there was no art except that all creations of the Almighty are part of that Almighty.

“Art” as a word for us to use describes the invention of that part of creation that is man.

All nature is bearing down on us day after day. We cannot avoid it. Every form that we could use is there.

But away from nature and in the seclusion of the mind we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else. One answer to the question, “What is it?” is to point to the picture and say, “It is that. It exists nowhere else.”

This doesn’t seem to say much?

Yet “we can invent arrangements to be found nowhere else” seems the essence?



As an artist he was, like some other pioneers, an outsider. He was largely self-taught, driven by his powerful interest.

Yes he was exposed early to Europe and some of its art, like about 23, and there briefly touched Paris, meeting Gertrude Stein.

And yes back then in the US he engaged with Arthur B Davies et al in New York, which led to his 1913 Armory appearance, but he was never formally trained in art, and after his brief early brush with the industry (including being shown in two exhibitions in 1914) he basically disappeared to fruit farming in Michigan.

He never pursued a full time career in art, cultivating support from dealers and museums.

So he remained little known till well after WW2, only near the end of his life. So “the first real recognition.. [finally came].. 1966 ..a retrospective .. by the Grand Rapids Art Museum [Michigan]..”. Exhibitions followed 1967 in Florida, catching the attention of Robert Schoelkopf who showed his work in New York in April 1969 and March 1981.


Why overlooked so long – despite his obvious contribution?

Easy. After striking gold early, for about 4 years, he just disappeared, to work full-time as a farmer.

So the art scene –which end of the day is a business, is about selling products (art works, museum and galley visits) to make money – passed him by for about 50 years, did not re-engage with him till the mid 1960s.


But omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 “Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25” seems absurd?

There is no doubt Dawson’s omission from MOMA’s 2013-14 Inventing Abstraction, 1910-25 exhibition was an egregious oversight, especially as an American who (after first declining an invitation to the NY show) was famously hung in the Chicago chapter of the important 1913 Armory show which showcased leading modernist European painters. His entry of Wharf under a mountain (1913) – the only abstract painting there by any American – hung alongside Duchamp, Picasso, Matisse and Kandinsky etc.

Also, unlike the German Otto Freundlich (1878-1943), another stunning omission from MOMA’s blockbuster, Dawson’s abstract oeuvre, from 1910, was prolific and substantial, creative and diverse, in the pioneering 4 year period to 1914.

Certainly he made it hard for the art scene to notice him, disappearing after only about 4 years. But that’s no excuse. And certainly by 2013 Dawson had been noticed by many in the field.

Thus his omission is even harder to understand given a 334 page catalogue raisonné (Ploog, Bairstow and Boyajian) of Dawson’s work was published 2011 by The Three Graces and Hollis Taggart Galleries.

The curators of Inventing Abstraction seem either careless or lazy, or perhaps possessed of some obscure political resistance to acknowledging this painter.


Arthur Dove (1880-1946), 7 years older, and who visited Europe and its art 1907-09 (ie before Dawson) is often cited as the first US abstract painter. He painted abstract early, motivated mainly by Nature, natural forms, and he was important, but he was not the first, clearly beaten by Dawson, in time (just) and also in terms of emphatic output, Dawson executing 6 meaningful such works in 1910.

But both Dawson and Dove were among the first abstractionists in Western art.

Dove is far better remembered simply because art remained his full time job, so he stayed painting, and he evolved. Returning from Europe in 1909 he was keen to stay in art and in this was strongly supported in New York by the keen photographer and pivotal modern art promoter Alfred Steiglitz, and his 291 gallery, where Dove showed 1910, again 1912 in a one man show.


Dove was included in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, along with Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), another important American modernist who also contributed to abstraction early on, from around 1912.


Another important American modernist painter, briefly mentioned in MOMA’s Inventing Abstraction, and who also showed in- made a splash in – the Armory, was Joseph Stella (1877–1946). Also supported by Steiglitz he contributed Futurist abstract images by 1914, but was energetic and imaginative across a wide range of styles.


What if?

The outcome invites speculation, like how might his art have evolved had he made it a full-time career – say in Chicago and maybe beyond, like NY – and how might his evolving output have impacted other artists?

Unfortunately we’ll never know, but we know he was industrious, committed and creative when for a short time he was focussed on art.


His path:  the first abstract painter in the US and one of first in Western art.

Pre 1910

Dawson started painting c1906, executed a few realist works before 1910, simple figurative outdoor scenes, a vase of flowers, and a modernist Still life (1908).

December 1908 he wrote in his journal, “This winter I am very hard at work . . . on several arbitrarily constructed paintings of arranged figures, blocking things out without rhyme or reason other than to make the picture look right.”.

1910 opened with two distinctive quasi-abstract paintings in monochrome browns, one (Rocky Pool) a landscape .


1910: abstraction

Then suddenly in 1910 appear six fully abstract paintings.


1911: after Europe, Cubo-Futurism

But still young (23), his 5 month trip to Europe abruptly shifted his art. He discovered Cubism, presumably in Paris and from 1911 he applied his version to interpreting a number of Classical subjects and Old Masters paintings, what Dawson himself referred to as his “museum paintings”.

Some critics have complained Dawson fell so madly for “Cubism” after Europe, “became a follower rather than a leader” (LACMA, Nov.2013), veering away from his distinctive abstraction. “He seems never to have been the same after Paris..” (Roberta Smith, NY Times August 1988). Thus there were no pure abstract works in 1911.

This is perhaps unfair, but is at least unfortunately he did not pursue his pioneering stark geometric abstraction of 1910.

His style did evolve, but mostly never far from variations on Cubo-Futurism?

So he painted a number of quasi-abstract figures, all in a distinctive modernist fractured monochromatic Cubo-Futurist style. And he did return to abstraction, albeit Cubist derived.

His Futurist reminds us of the approaches of some European modernists like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in France / US, also the Englishman David Bomberg (1890-1957), cf Island of Joy (c1912).

Madonna (1911) apparently refers to Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks. Other Cubo-Futurist figurative works of Classical subjects are Hercules, The Three Graces, Lucrece, and Birth of Venus (1912).

In 1912 he applied the dynamic Cubist style many times, now including three larger paintings, all around 1.5 x 1.2 metres, like The Three Graces, Desdemona.


1912: more abstraction

Interestingly 1912 Dawson returned to abstraction, in a number of ways.

Two simple works – the subdued simple glyphic Painted wood relief, and the “geometric” Untitled (Study #30) – do recall his “geometric”1910 approach.

Untitled abstraction is more colourful and is again in the vein of Kandinsky

Blue complex moves on, is busier, denser.

And Personal Presentation is abstract after Cubo-Futurist.

Also in 1912 he suddenly paints a more colourful modernist quasi-abstract landscape, Red mur, but the lines of which clearly relate to his abstract works.

And in 1912 we again see a number of figurative Cubo-Futurist paintings, like Figures in Action (Struggle).


1913: more abstraction

1913 is another busy year, sees his style meaningfully evolve, him execute some major works, mostly abstract, now less figuration.

It includes a suddenly different abstract / quasi-abstract work, the colourful Wharf under mountain which was hung in the Armory (Chicago) show, though only after Walter Pach insisted Dawson show it. Dawson wrote 4 April 1913, “Walter said he had no trouble getting the painting hung.” It’s a bolder, darker, more Expressionist painting, lots of royal blue and some green and an intriguing title.

Essay in Brown (1913) clearly advances his abstraction, shows a tumble of jagged “objects” apparently against a rectilinear background.

Afternoon II is again monochromatic but denser, more intricate, seems to blend geometric and Cubist abstraction? And Compages of Classical Figures and Conversation also shift his abstraction.

We see a lot more Cubist abstraction (like Arroyo, Ascension, Figure Party-Colored (more colourful than usual), Meditation, Observation, The gate, and Thirteen).

And we see much less Futurist figuration (eg the larger Hercules I and II, and Trio), still in subdued monochromatic pale orange-brown tones.

Finally, different, we see two small Arthur Dove-like quasi-abstract paintings, Night flower and Beech.


1913: Armory (Chicago, Mar. 24-Apr. 15, 1913)

Dec.1912, Arthur B Davies invited him to participate in the International Exhibition of Modern Art (now known as the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913) but he declined! He said he had nothing handy (recent) worth hanging, and worried that in winter he could not transport paintings in time, from their location at the family farm, ie his earlier 1910 paintings, which even he knew then were more important.

For the Chicago show Walter Pach persuaded Dawson to change his mind. There too he visited the show a number of times, and bought two paintings: Marcel Duchamp’s’s Nu (esquisse) (Nude [study]) now known as Jeune homme triste dans un train (Sad Young Man on a Train) (1911-12?) and Amadéo de Souza Cardoso’s Return from the Chase.  Dawson was impressed by Duchamp’s work, not surprising because it chimes with his own. The painting he bought it now hangs in Guggenheim Venice because he had to sell ir not long after to pay the bills.

Chicago’s offering was a cut down version (634 works) of New York (where approx. 1300 works showed). Much of the American art was gone, most of the radical European art remained.”. The show was championed by a few, condemned by many. But “Scandal and outrage bred interest” and 189,000 visited in 23 days, averaging about 8,200 per day, a higher outcome than NY.


Around the time of the Armory in Chicago (April 1913) he left his job, and wrote:

Since I left Holabird and Roche I’ve had a glorious time painting. Hanging over the mantel in the library is the Duchamp. I am having a good look at it. These three paintings I am doing now, Hercules I, II, III, may show D’s influence. I am contemplating more colorful things to come.

Did his viewing the Armory show (eg seeing Duchamp) change his art? Not significantly? Thus his Cubo-Futurist style – evident after Armory in Hercules – was well established by then.

But 1913 was a big year for his art and he did evolve.


1914: Dawson bails from full time art, but still evolving.

1914 also sees some variety, and shifts, and a fateful emphatic career move.

Meanwhile his abstraction motifs evolved, like in the more colourful Equation, and like Figure in Pink and Yellow.

Letters and numbers is what it seems, shifts again, has a Stuart Davis feel.

The darker Futurist Night figures again recalls David Bomberg, while geometric derived Untitled (Pictogram II) again recalls Kandinsky, but showing Dawson’s finger prints.

Then there are two similar figurative works, one much larger, both showing Futurist friezes of groups of people, Seven and Configuration.

Then mid 1914 he suddenly quits full time art.


After 1915 Dawson, now farming full time, executes far fewer works, paints little, though is still valid, still moving, especially the colourful quasi-abstract Figure by the window.

His Loft (1918) seems another pioneering work, an abstract image carved from laminated wood then painted, again monochromatically.

Then the more colourful quasi-abstract glyphic Untitled(c1920) is different but still Dawsonian.

Later too he began to sculpt, using materials encountered through his work.

He struggled financially and Rauschenberg-style began to make art from whatever was lying around, “cement, scraps of lumber, pieces of plywood”. Sculptures he made from “sheets of composite wood .. laminated together ..”



Dawson disappeared from the art world for 52 years, 1914 to 1966, when he showed at Grand Rapids Michigan, then 1967 at the John and Mable Ringing Museum in Sarasota, Florida, near his then home. There he was noticed by a NY dealer (Robert Schoelkopf) who showed him there 1969 and 1981.

He was shown in a 1977 retrospective at MCA Chicago, and 1988 at the Whitney.



Exhibition of Paintings and Drawings, Montross Gallery in New York, February 1914; the Detroit Museum of Art, March 1914; Cincinnati Museum of Art, March / April 5, 1914; and the Peabody Institute, Baltimore, April / May 1914.

Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture in ‘The Modern Spirit,’ Milwaukee Art Society, April 16–May 12, 1914.

Manierre Dawson, Milwaukee Art Institute, Jan. 1923.

Retrospective Paintings by Manierre Dawson, Grand Rapids Art Museum, Michigan, April 1966.

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1909-1913, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida November 1967, Norton Gallery and School of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, January / February 1968.

Manierre Dawson, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, April / May 1969

A Retrospective Exhibition of Painting, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1977. Indiana University Art Museum

Manierre Dawson: Paintings 1910-1914, Robert Schoelkopf Gallery, New York, 1981

Manierre Dawson: American Modernist Painter, Tildon-Foley Gallery, New Orleans, May / June 1988.

Manierrre Dawson Early Abstractionist, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July / September 1988.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, October 1999.

Manierre Dawson American Pioneer of Abstract Art, Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana, December 2000.

Manierre Dawson: New Revelations, Hollis Taggart Galleries, Chicago, May / June 2003.

Manierre Dawson: A Startling Presence, Illinois State Museum, Springfield, March / August 2006.

Manierre Dawson, Hollis Taggart Galleries, New York, April 2011.



Manierre Dawson was the 2nd of 4 sons born to George Dawson and Eva (Manierre) Dawson in Chicago, a middle class family, father a lawyer, who supported the arts but as a hobby but not a career.

Dawson’s only formal art training came from classes with Miss Dorothy Dimock at high school in Chicago. Here he met Arthur W. Dow’s instruction manual Composition (1899). Dow favoured “beauty over representation.”, which can be read as “let your mind go.”

Dawson really discovered art during a 4 year civil engineering degree course at the Armour Institute of Technology [he wrote: “All these days of hard study at Armour Tech, where I am taking a course in civil engineering, are brightened by continuing the making of pictures on week-ends.”] so when he graduated 1909 he quickly switched to painting, commencing his first abstract paintings as early as spring of 1910, in this apparently influenced by some of his engineering training (analytic geometry?), while a first-year employee at the Chicago architectural firm.

But granted 6 months leave he departed in mid-June 1910 for his one and only trip abroad, to Europe. He travelled across England to France (Paris), south through Germany, across Switzerland to Italy (in Siena meeting John Singer Sargent), back north for a second stay in Paris, and around northern Germany, leaving for home late-November. On his 2nd visit to Paris he met Gertrude Stein (who reportedly bought a painting), saw paintings by Cézanne (and others?) in Ambrose Vollard’s gallery.

In NY, on the way home, he met painter Arthur B. Davies who introduced him to Albert Pinkham Ryder, another painter.

Inspired by Europe – and meeting Davies? – he painted keenly 1911 through 1914

Dec.1912, Davies invited him to participate in the Armory Show) in New York (Feb. 15-Mar. 15, 1913). He initially declined but did show one work in Chicago.

April 1913 he left his architectural job.

In 1914, Dawson participated in two group exhibitions. One called “Fourteen”, meaning 14 current American artists, was organized by Arthur B Davies and Walter Pach, sponsored by the Montrose Gallery in NY, highlighting abstract painting, and went to Detroit, Cincinnati and Baltimore (Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University).

The other, in Milwaukee, Paintings and Sculptures in “The Modern Spirit”, organized by the forerunner of the Milwaukee Art Museum (by a high school friend there) sold two paintings to collector Arthur Jerome Eddy. “The exhibition was a sort of recap of the Armory Show. It opened in April and included contemporary European and American work from Midwest collections.

Early he spent summers at the family farm in at Ludington, Mason County, Michigan (about 2/3 the way up the east side of L Michigan), where he also painted a lot.

Mid 1914 he quit full time art.

He wrote April 1914, “I know there is work to be done on a farm in winter, yet I have the hope that if the bridge is crossed I can find painting or carving time in that season..

Summer 1914 he met Lilian Boucher, the daughter of a local farmer, then by autumn 1914 had decided, and with help from his father, he moved permanently to lakeside Ludington, and July 1915 married Lilian, thereafter raising three children.

In the mid-1950s he and his wife began wintering in Sarasota, Florida. There, after diagnosed with cancer in 1968, he died August 1969 (25 days after Armstrong walked on the moon).

some works………




1910, Xdx, Oil on paperboard attached to particleboard, 19 1/8 x 14 7/16 in. (48.6 x 36.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum



1910, Discal Procession, oil on wood 30 1/2 x 24 7/8 in. (77.5 x 63.2 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC



1910, DIfferential complex, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x, Tilden-Foley Gallery, New Orleans






1913, Essay in Brown, oil on cardboard, 45.7 x 66.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum, “Employing a now-familiar palette, Dawson created a group of paintings in 1913 which were completely abstract ….. With Essay in Brown the artist creates visual tension by contrasting a series of rectilinear shapes in the background with a cascade of overlapping forms that tumble from right to left. …… The interlocking and floating elements of this might be compared with Willem De Kooning’s Excavation (Art Institute of Chicago), created 37 years later.”



1914, Equation , oil on cardboard, 91.44 x 70.17 cm, Joslyn Art Museum




1915, Figure by the Window, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 61.0cm, Illinois State Museum

COMMENT: Illinois State Museum,”…  1915 was momentous for .. Manierre Dawson… decide to commit himself completely to farming…. t married Lillian Boucher, a neighboring farm girl ten years his junior….  We see a female looking out a window. …  a classic theme. … Randy Ploog, in his 2003 essay “Metaphor and Autobiography in the Art of Manierre Dawson”, posits that Dawson borrowed major compositional elements of his Figure by the Window from Johannes Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (1660-67). Certainly Dawson has shifted the ambience of the picture. Vermeer’s young woman is a picture of calm composure. In Dawson’s treatment, an aura seems to emanate from the woman’s central position outward, like waves of energy affecting everything they encounter. The space folds and refolds until it is almost unrecognizable. Perhaps this is a visual metaphor for the newlyweds’ relationship.’




1920. Desert, oil on canvas. 22 by 28 inches, Illinois State Museum




Manierre Dawson, 1950s?

COMMENT: Still gripped by his trademark lightning bolt Cubo-Futurist motifs

Otto Freundlich: between the cracks

Otto Freundlich (1878-1943, 64).

Between the cracks: pioneering German Modernist painter/sculptor, but now overlooked, eg, mystifyingly, by MOMA’s big 2013/14 “Inventing Abstraction” exhibition.



Otto Freundlich is an odd fish, an apparently awkward outsider, of Jewish extraction, born and raised in Germany but whose career and life became enmeshed with France, who left a handful of front rank pioneering Modernist works, but who as a Jew was betrayed by French collaborators and gassed by the Nazis in 1943.

His overall oeuvre was narrow, succumbing to relentless geometric abstraction, his art motivated by a vague didactic utopian sensibility, but his few signature works, especially the large 1911 abstract painting, are memorable.

Curiously he is now largely forgotten, overlooked in conventional histories, to the extent that – strikingly – he was completely ignored by the MOMA’s comprehensive 2013/2014 exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925”. Not one mention.

But by any reckoning his iconic large (2 x 2m) 1911 oil painting, Composition (now hanging at Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris) is an historically pioneering abstract work, given its date (alongside Kandinsky, Kupka, Picabia and Delaunay), its size, and its distinctive abstraction motif. Also it was painted in the then heart of contemporary art, in Paris, alongside now famous other relevant artists.

Three factors have worked against his ex-post recognition?

First, his pioneering contribution was restricted to a handful of works (the 1911 painting and some sculptures). Then for some reason, beyond WW1, for over 20 years his painting retreated to variations on “mosaical” coloured geometric abstraction.

Second, though he was widely connected in the art world, in Germany and Paris, and keenly pursued his art, thought and wrote about art, he largely worked alone, operated mainly on the edge of the wider art community, did not engage readily. Thus he also generally struggled financially. However he was acknowledged by many well known artists, particularly later in France, like at the June 1938 Paris exhibtion.

Third, a significant portion of his output was lost, destroyed by the Nazis, some through bombing of Germany in WW2. Also, in Paris a large museum owned triptych was lost during WW2.

Sadly during WW2 he was gassed by the Nazis. After a difficult war in France as a Jew, undergoing periodic internment, in early 1943 he was denounced by collaborators, arrested and railed by complicit French authorities to a Nazi death camp in Poland, dying the day he arrived, 9 March 1943.


Abstraction was the heart of Freundlich’s art. But his painting oeuvre is oddly narrow.

In 1911 (age 33) he executed his striking large two metre square abstract Composition. He apparently thought about this work, basing it on “the curve”:Freundlich took the view that “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.” The painting embodies a new “cosmic ethic”(Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris).

 Thereafter all his paintings were variations on colourful “mosaical”, patchwork geometric abstraction and generally small, none of them as large as the singular 1911 work.

Freundlich worked in various other media, especially sculpture (but only a handful of works), also mosaics, stained glass and carpets.

And he wrote a lot, publishing in various journals.

Coming from an actively Leftist political mindset, and actively engaged with many relevant contemporary art groups, Abtsraction-Creation, Freundlich intended his art to have constructive socio-political meaning and purpose and therefore no particular aesthetic relevance. But though he was well connected with the Left the purpose of his art for him – ie the ubiquitous abstraction – was not overtly political (as it was say for artists like Dix and Grosz ) but rather socio-spiritual, centred on promoting a quasi-religious future-oriented utopian communism, freed of “possessiveness” and people being “objects’.

Thus he was keen on Spinoza, was religious but not conventionally. “Religion has nothing at all to do with God. A man may be religious without believing in God .” He seems to have been influenced too by German mysticism, by Swedenborg.


He was born in then Prussia (in Stolp, today Slupsk in Poland, on the Baltic Coast of Eastern Pomerania), moved to Berlin, initially studied dentistry (!), then art. June-August 1905 he walked over the Alps to Florence, stayed till November, back to Munich January 1906, thence back to Florence October 1906 to January 1907.

He returned to Berlin, thence to Paris in 1908 (what a time), to Montmartre, to the famous artists’ boarding house there,, Bateau Lavoir, meeting Picasso, Braque, Gris, Derain and Apollinaire etc.

July 1908 he returned to Munich, but was back to Paris 1909, to Montparnasse (settling there March 1913) and Montmartre (where the Clovis Sagot gallery organised a show).

1909 he attended an artist colony in Fleury-en-Bière in the forest of Fontainebleau, but returned Berlin January 1910, joined the Berlin Secession, returning Paris in autumn 1910.

In Berlin 1911 with the Neue Sezession group he met Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (founder of Die Brücke) and also the historian Wilhelm Niemeyer, the Hamburg art historian Rosa Schapire, and collector Josef Feinhals from Cologne.

1911 back in Paris he now met with sculptor Brancusi, Piet Mondrian, and Modigliani. November, he began work on his famous sculpture Der neue Mensch, acquired 1912 by Musee de Hambourg..   

1913 he participated in the famous Berlin exhibition of Der Sturm.

1914 he worked at Chartres Cathedral, helping to restore the north tower “For five months I was prisoner of the world at Chartres and I have emerged marked for ever…”.

War in 1914 forced a return to Germany. He became political after WW1, a member of the Left wing /socialist November Group (Novembergruppe) along with Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch etc).

During WW1 he worked in the health service but stayed active in art with friends like Raoul Hausmann (also in the anarchist artists group Kommune ), Hannah Höch and those in the Dadaist circles of Berlin.

November 1919 he organised a Dada show in Koln, with Max Ernst.

He gained patrons during the war, like Cologne businessman Joseph Feinhals whose collection was alas destroyed in WW2.

1922 showed with Artistes Progressistes de Düsseldorf.

1925 he returned to Paris, reacquainted with Picasso, Braque, Derain and Max Jacob. There he showed regularly at the Salon des Indépendants.

May 1928, he began his monumental sculpture, Ascension, finished in the summer of 1929 and showed at the Abstrakte Kunst und Surrealismus exhibition in Zurich.

1930 he joined the “Cercle et Carré” (Circle and Square) abstraction group in Paris, founded 1929 and which mounted a big exhibition April 1930 at Galerie 23. He then joined Abtsraction-Creation (eg with with Ben Nicholson, Alexander Calder, Albert Gleizes, Herbin, Moholy-Nagy, Wolfgang Paalen, Alfred Reth, and Kurt Seligmann), which absorbed Cercle et Carré.

These groups consciously differentiated from Surrealism and the post WW1 return to representational art, like Classicism.

1934 he participated in the Salon des Independants in Paris, began seeking French nationality with support including Georges Braque, but was unable to raise enough money and was denied.

The Nazis came to power January 1933 in Germany, later condemned his work which was included in the 1937“ Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) show.

In Paris he joined Union of Artistes Allemands (Union of German Artists, or Freier Künstlerbund, founded autumn 1937, with Max Ernst, Hans Hartung etc

In June 1938 Gallery owner Jeanne Bucher-Myrbor organized an important exhibition of his work just before his 60th birthday. Over 20 friends and artist colleagues (including: Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Andre Derain , R. and S. Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Walter Gropius, Fernand Léger, Max Jacob, W. Kandinsky, J. Lipchitz, P. Picasso, S. Tauber-Arp, and Max Ernst) signed an appeal to the French government to purchase two works for the National Museum of Modern Art in order to support the destitute artist.

Until 1939 he worked in a ground-floor studio in a backyard of No. 38 Rue Denfert Rochereau (now Rue Barbusse), near the Luxembourg Gardens.

September 1939 as a German national he was interned in France, with fellow Germans, Max Ernst, Wols, and Springer. Numerous artists signed an appeal of support, including: Hans Arp, Georges Braque, Andre Derain , R. and S. Delaunay, Albert Gleizes, Walter Gropius, Fernand Léger, Max Jacob, W. Kandinsky, J. Lipchitz, P. Picasso, S. Tauber-Arp, and Max Ernst.

Between September 1939 and March 1942 he was detained in about 9 establishmnts.

On release in February 1940 he declined advice to emigrate to Switzerland and was detained again mid May 1940, released 20 June. Now he took refuge in the eastern Pyrenees at Saint-Paul-de-Fenouillet. But foolishly attracted attention by protesting at having to register as a Jew. In 1942 he was hidden by a farm family in Saint-Martin-de-Fenouillet. He was betrayed and arrested on 23 February 1943. Railed via Drancy in Paris to Majdanek (Poland) on 4 March, he was murdered the day he arrived, 9th March 1943.

2017 Otto Freundlich: Cosmic Communism”, exhibition, February 18 – Mai 14, 2017; Mu­se­um Lud­wig, Cologne

Selected works………..


1911. Composition 200 x 200cm, Musée d’Art Moderne (MAM) de la Ville de Paris.

COMMENT: This is a pioneering abstract image, using an unusual abstract style, by the artist’s own words based on the “curve”, “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.”).

It was completed in the early days of the emergence of abstraction, alongside the now famous names like Mondrian and Kandinsky, and other pioneers like Delaunay and Kupka and Picabia, but executed by an artist very few know.

The abstraction patterning could be construed as organic or even mineralogical.

MAM (Paris): This early abstract painting by Otto Freundlich (1978-1943), painted in Paris in 1911…. contemporary with the paintings that established abstraction by Kandinsky, Kupka and Delaunay. Composition (1911), which is a perfect square, is a pivotal, large-scale work, typical of the passage from expressionism to the early phase of abstraction. In this painting… observation of nature is the point of departure for new “representations”. Freundlich took the view that “The curve is the basic element of the corporeal and the three-dimensional (…) the arm that indicates a direction, the symbol of our link with the universe.”.


1912 ‘Large Head’ / Großer Kopf (labelled The New Man / Der Neue Mensch by the Nazis), plaster, 1.39m high.

COMMENT: Owing to its provenance this became Freundlich’s most famous work. Thus it was included in the Nazis infamous 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition and publicised by being featured on the cover of the catalogue.


1923, Head (Self Portrait)


1930, Composition, oil on canvas, Musées de Pontoise


1931, Composition, oil on canvas, Von der Heydt-Museum Wuppertal,


1933, Mein roter Himmel (My Red Heaven),


  1. 1941. Rosette II (La Rosace II), gouache on cardboard.


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……….


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


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.”



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.


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).



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).


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.


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.
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



(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


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.


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


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)



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.


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.



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).


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.


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


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



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].


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.


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



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”.


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.


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)



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


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)


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)


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.




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?


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).



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.


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.



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.




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”



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


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.



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


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.



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.


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.



Optimized by JPEGmini 0xf1bf5890

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)




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))


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




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



7/ Decoupage.. the Cut-outs.



 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)




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)




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


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).




THE ancient GREEKS. Where the penny dropped! Why there? Geography mattered.


Big HISTORY – roots of the Modern   

THE ancient GREEKS. Where the penny dropped! Why there? Geography mattered.


  • Two point five (2.5) millennia ago a peripheral Aegean pocket stumbled on Objective Reason, open eyed scrutiny.
  • Fortuitous geography conspired with enterprising souls to:
    • Ditch kings and priests, the traditional ruling elites?
    • Seed a cluster of small, dispersed city-states: republican, open-minded, trading-focussed.
    • Allow competition among the entities.
    • Allow minds to roam freer, free of the self-serving supernatural, hereafter-obsessed state religions?
  • “Western” values? No, everyone’s values. No more “Western” than Kepler’s laws.
  • Even Beckmann’s cross-eyed / one-eyed cat below works here: don’t expect to know all the answers!


ONE painting capture’s modern (generic) Man’s life ethos………………?

Max Beckmann (1884-1950) 1943, Odysseus and Calypso; oil on canvas, 150 x 115.5 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

  • Odysseus, the „wily“ Homeric hero. The Man of Reason, the rational, clever, persistent striver.
  • But crucially a Man who knows his limits, respects the Greek (Delphic) maxim, „Know thyself!“
  • Thus he rejects the entreaty of the „lustrous goddess“ to join her in Immortality.
  • Instead he stays fast to finally returning home, to the family, Penelope and Telemachus, the wife and son.
  • Thus he understands the danger of Hubris, of delusions of faux-divinity.
  • Why do a cross-eyed cat and a parrot spectate? Who needs all the answers?


Life’s poles… Pax et Bellum…. war and peace.


Colin Colahan (1898-1976).1943, London leave; oil on canvas, 46.6 x 38.6 cm, Australian War Memorial


Clarice Beckett (1887-1935), c1933. Sandringham beach, oil on canvas, 55.8 x 50.9 cm, Nat Gallery of Australia



1/ Introduction: why do the roots of the Modern commence with ancient Greece? In Ionia?

2/ Ancient Egypt?

Crackers. A loopy dead-end! Relative isolation & fortuitous Nile-watered economic prosperity allowed an obsessive theocratic autocracy to dominate, survive near two millennia.

3/ Ancient Greece – Ionia?

Where the penny dropped. Launching the Greek Enlightenment.

Why the penny dropped there? A unique confluence of factors triggered the Thought Revolution, including geography.

4/ The humanistic Greek model? The Delphic maxim: Know thyself!!

5/ Beyond Ancient Greece: Hellenism, Rome, Islam, Christian Europe

6a/ BIG HISTORY. The Judeo-Christian contribution? In the emergence of the “West”, the Modern, does it add to the Greek model?

6b/ BIG HISTORY. The biggest challenge of all? Man standing on his own feer! Throw off self-serving delusional religious props!

7/ Later incarnations of quasi-democratic freer thinking. Anglo-Saxon northern Europe; Italian Mediaeval city states; 17th and 18th C England/ Europe / The Enlightenment; American colonies.

8/ China:  Why not China? Why no “Modern” reforms there? Relative isolation, a cohesive geography, and lack of competition allowed traditional autocratic elites to prevail, persist?

9/ BIG HISTORY. “Western” values? No. Everyone’s values. No more “Western” than Kepler’s laws.



1/ Ancient Greece

1.1/ Background history

1.2/ The ancient Greek Enlightenment: the radical Greek contribution, the Thought Revolution. Homer and the Ionian thinkers, Athens and beyond

1.3/ Historiography: the “Greeks first” view is not new, but is out of fashion in today’s relativist, “politically correct”, and China resurgent, world.

1.4/ Ancient Greece: part of the Axial Age? C 8th to C 3rd BC? No. Far fetched. Overstated. Greece was different!

 2/ China

Chinese history: periods of prosperity, but also of very destructive foreign intrusion and widespread domestic conflict.

Recent update: But did old China flirt with “Modern” ideas? This is the apparently radical import of recently deciphered old (c 300 BC) bamboo texts.


1/ Introduction

Why do the roots of the Modern commence in ancient Greece? In Ionia?

Life is a journey, many journeys, to many different worlds, as the enterprising New World Walt Disney discerned, and marketed.

One is wonder world, in one sense the ultimate world.

And in wonder world perhaps the two biggest, most insistent questions are:

1/ Why are we here as conscious, sentient humans?

The immediate (scientific) answer apparently is we are the products of a long (plus billion years) process of evolution from some primeval stellar-related “chemical soup” loaded especially with carbon, also hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, through the Cambrian Explosion (c500 million years ago) to the steady emergence of homo sapiens since about 5 million years ago, a process which recent ongoing investigation shows to be far more complex than thought even 30 years ago.

Though this begs the wider question of what’s behind that “chemical” soup, which is too much, too uncomfortable for many people so out pops religion, and they fashion, fabricate some remedial theological salve, understandably usually anthropomorphic.

2/ Why Modern Man? The second central question is why the emergence of the Modern? Why and how, after a long time in the relevant arena, has (generic) Man finally achieved economic and technological take-off?

Thus Man as a hominid has been around several millions of years in one sub-species or another, and for around 10 millennia as a settled species (for most of the population), ie living in assorted combinations of communities -villages and cities – fed, sustained by farming and grazing.


So why has Man suddenly – in the space of only a couple of centuries – escaped near 10,000 years of (for most) miserable community living, a ragged ebb and flow existence, condemning most to brief lives of poverty, to the Hobbesean lot of the Brutal, Nasty and Short, ruled mostly by arbitrary rapacious coercive elites?

But elites mostly also no less vulnerable than the common man to the deadly vagaries of disease: plague, smallpox etc.

And tooth decay! Afflicting even France’s Sun-king.


In a directly related way, why has Man unleashed an unparalleled Knowledge Revolution?

This started with science, the key ultimate or bedrock driver of the Industrial Revolution, which in turn arguably started in the mid 18th C in backwater England, and now, over 250 years later, still storms on, fuelled by two further massive technological breakthroughs since ww2, ie in biology and electronics.

So why are we now suddenly here, not just as humans, but now as materially blessed humans?

Why after millions of years of chronic Hobbesean misery for the bottom 96.6% (sic) have the lights suddenly come on? Why has disease been belaboured, life spans doubled, and material largesse suddenly spread from the blessed 3.4% to the blessed 35.7% (sic)? Such that now about 21.1% of the world is now obese! All these percentages are indicative guesses only.


Also the economic take off from the 18th C onwards – starting in England and conventionally known as the Industrial Revolution – occurred alongside radical transformative political change, the emergence of effective democratic government allied with independently enforced rule of law, albeit slowly and imperfectly.


Traditionally the ancient Greeks were thought to be involved, and the discussion typically started early in the 6th C BC with Thales from Miletus, an Ionian colony on the west coast of Anatolia, what is now Turkey.

One read about him long ago, circa 1970, like in Bernard Delfguuuw’s (1968) A Concise History of Philosophy, still in the library, inscribed “January 1970, Princess St, Kew”, read more than once, till one understood the main message, that 6th C BC Ionia was a seminal time and place, when finally Man (generic) opened his eyes, regarded the world about him with detached minds, sloughing off self-serving preconceptions, usually supernatural.

The message returned vividly on a recent Sunday evening when one encountered yet another tv documentary on the exotic, colourful, other-worldly and bizarre mindset of long ago ancient Egypt, but while then revisiting Edward Hussey’s (1972) “The Pre-Socratics”.


2/ Ancient Egypt?

Crackers. A loopy dead-end! Relative isolation & fortuitous Nile-watered economic prosperity allowed an obsessive theocratic autocracy to dominate, stagger, survive near two millennia.

Old Egypt remains popularly fascinating, a perennial crowd favourite for the extent and colourful detail of its so old and well preserved surviving art and architecture: the buildings, the tombs, the extensive ornamental goods and the decoration. It is usually billed as a Great Civilisation, so clever in executing all this art so long ago, and in erecting improbably mighty structures like the pyramids.

However visiting today’s Egypt (new and old) near a decade ago did but only confirm a general impression of Old Egypt, that they were crackers.

Yes they built the big pyramids in the Old Kingdom, c2700BC, and later stuffed a valley across the Nile at Luxor (then Thebes) with elaborately decorated tombs for their “kings” / pharaohs, decoration including life scenes familiar to us today, like farmers farming, ducks flying, hunters hunting, tables of fruit and bread etc. And they built temples, some massive.

But this Amazonian artistic output was focussed mostly on their obsession with ministering to kings’ afterlives, and their memory.

And one immediately thought, what a vast waste of resources. You see the amazing paintings and inscriptions in the tombs, on the walls and ceilings, and you hear their story, their belief-system, the ludicrous religious concoction they believed, but all implemented at massive economic cost.

So one thought then they were mad, that within the annals of Man’s long journey old Egypt was a vast, expensive dead-end, financed by the fortuitous natural bounty of the Nile (long as it kept flowing), and fortunate too that comparative geographical isolation enabled it to survive external predators as long as it did. For it was on the periphery of the civilisations spawned by Mesopotamia and the twin rivers. Yes it was bothered time to time, like c1200BC from the north / northwest by the Sea Peoples, then by the Syrians, and later of course by Alexander. And from the south one time too, c750BC? And from the west once? From Libya c950BC? But it survived say around four millennia, till finally Rome closed the door.

That Sunday night the lady (the passionate Professor Joann Fletcher) talked of early in the New Kingdom, in wake of Amenhotep III, and son Ahkenaten, of the rise of the priests, to the extent they commenced robbing the old royal tombs for their benefit! Fancy that. And the penny dropped, again.

The story of old Egypt, of all the old “great civilisations”, was a story of power and available wealth misappropriated by small elites, the secular rulers in league with the religious, the kings / aristocracy / priests in a mutually beneficial alliance, though this arrangement also was unstable, periodically vulnerable, firstly, to the genetic lottery in kingdoms / empires, states effectively ruled by families, so that capable, ambitious individuals would strive to pounce on incompetent leaders; and, secondly, to adverse arbitrary natural change, especially to adverse climate shifts.

And the sources of the wealth were basically natural, underwritten particularly the agricultural bounty available from well watered fertile lands (usually silted river valleys) but also minerals, especially gold and silver, jewels, plus other metals (especially copper, then also tin, then iron), and building stone.

Fertile river basins were great sources of agricultural income, but supplemented by stock grazing lands.

Thus when Climate Change (CC) intervened to meaningfully impair or compromise these resources the cost could be great, dramatic. Thus there now apparently seems little doubt CC killed the Old Kingdom in Egypt, c2200BC, and almost certainly the Bronze Age throughout the western Mediterranean and Levant, c1200BC. Populations had expanded to accommodate resources available, so when these were compromised then dependent societies were by and large totally exposed.


3/ Ancient Greece – Ionia?

Where the penny dropped. Launching the Greek Enlightenment.

So that Sunday night one was presented with the stark, illuminating, “between the eyes” constrast between mad, bad, crazy Egypt, and the rumblings of free-thinking in 6th C Greece, specifically peripheral Ionia.

For yes it was in Ionia the revolution really started. As Mr Hussey, Professor HDF Kitto, CM Bowra et al all explain.

Ionia was a small state, a loose cluster of cities stretching approximately 150km north to south, from Phocaea in the north, down through Colophon and Ephesus in the centre to important Miletus in the south, and including the islands of Chios and Samos. It was only about 60-90km wide, sitting between Greek Aeolia to the north (refugee Greeks settled from Boetia on the mainland), Lydia to the northeast and Caria southeast, and Dorian colonists south, in Halikarnassus and on the islands of Kos (Cos) and Rhodes.

The cities formed a loose confederacy, the Ionian League.

The Ionians were Greek speaking people who settled on the west coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey) from around the 8th C BC, basically as colonists, refugees from the unrest in mainland Greece, perhaps mainly from Achaea in the Northern Peloponnese, displaced by the “austere, militaristic” Dorians who apparently arrived in the 11th C BC. It seems the Ionians were displaced first to Athens in Attica, and thence to Ionia, also where some Myceneans had likely settled earlier.

Herodotus thought Ionia’s population was mixed, which is logical, drawing on various parts west, and united mainly by their language.

Languages help explain broad events. Ionian, Dorian and Aeolian were the three main Greek dialect groups after the collapse of Mycenae.

But unlike the Aeolians or Dorians the Ionians are apparently known in the historical records from Mycenae, c1300BC, from Homer in the Iliad, from the Bible (in Genesis and maybe Isaiah), in Assyrian letters from 8th C BC, and even in Indic and Iranian texts. “Most modern Mid Eastern languages use the terms “Ionia” and “Ionian” to refer to Greece and Greeks.” (Wiki).

The enterprising Ionians also seem too to have helped pioneer Greek colonisation, about 750BC establishing the first Greek colony, Kyme (Latin Cumae) in southern Italy in the Bay of Naples.


Why the penny dropped there? A unique confluence of factors triggered the Thought Revolution, including geography.

Two key related factors crucially underwrote, allowed the Thought Revolution.

First, in particular, politics: no more arbitrary autocratic kings and priests, allowing the emergence of a quasi- or proto-democratic law-based government system.

In some Greek city states (poleis) circumstances conspired after the 7th C BC for the Common Man to gain a meaningful say in the conduct of his collective affairs, some influence on the collective outcome, to overthrow the traditional arbitrary autocratic coercive rule of secular/religious elites. Throw off the kings, nobles and priests.

Cornerstones of this system were first, some formal means of democratic consultation and participation of citizens, and, second, the radical concept of impersonal written laws, the rule of law, with some input from the citizens, not imposed without consultation, thus standing apart from, respected by the “elected” rulers.

A corollary was relatively greater mobility within these states, evidence of greater meritocratic populating of roles than in traditional societies.


Why were kings, then nobles, dispensed with?

Two factors seem important?

First, city living. Many of the poleis, like Miletus in Ionia, became importantly active in trading goods, especially internationally, via the sea, supported to an extent by domestic artisan manufacturing, all of which encouraged urban growth. Most citizens lived in relatively close proximity, as dictated by the commercial basis of their economy. Presumably some still farmed, but now important trading international activity and also some artisan / craft manufacture of goods saw the emergence of important prosperous merchant and artisan classes, which in turn were keen to gain some influence on, say in government.


Second, buying fighters with the vote. Greece was in no way a united political entity, rather an assemblage of competing cities, ruled at first by kings and nobles. Infantry became important in warfare, versus cavalry, but each city could not afford a standing army, instead had to raise forces as they needed them, ie from farmers, urban artisan workers, sailors etc.

But in return for service the citizen-soldiers (hoplites) gained some meaningful measure of democratic rights, some say in decisions and in “electing” leaders. Yes there were slaves and yes the citizen franchise was severely restricted to free adult males (only 10-20% of the population?), but the outcome was still a radical shift from traditional arbitrary, dictatorial rule by an elite.

Classical Athens was initially ruled by archons (chief magistrates) and the Areopagus (an assembly of retired archons), all drawn from the aristocracy. Reforms by archon Solon (c630-560 BC) in 594 BC started Athens on the democratic road but the main reforms occurred later under Cleisthenes (c570-507 BC) in 508/07 BC, establishing Athens’ full blown direct democratic model for its c50,000 citizens, ie free adult males, numbering about 18% of a population of say 300,000.

In Corinth tyrant Kypselos (r657-627BC) effected related changes, taking power off the nobles.

However the experience of proto-democracy was mixed, varied greatly across the Greek cities.


The second factor allowing, accommodating, the Thought Revolution was religion.

The Greeks escaped a debilitating, prescribed state-supervised religion.

Religion obviously existed and was important. Greeks were actively polytheistic, believed in many “gods”, but, importantly, behind the complex panoply of gods (which adapted to, sometimes borrowed from the gods they encountered in trading with foreigners) they saw a timeless single impersonal universal Order, Ananke.

Also religion was practiced privately, by individuals and families, not overseen, administered by a powerful self-interested, state-sanctioned, often coercive institutional apparatus.


So in Ionia these two novel conditions created a ripe environment for freer thinking by interested individuals, in particular unencumbered by a suffocating religious edifice perpetrated by self-serving elites and usually coming with their own fanciful explanations of Nature. So lively Ionian minds were free to roam.


But WHY did the Thought Revolution happen in 6th C Ionia? Geography??

The critical factor seems to be Ionia’s location, perched on the west edge of Anatolia.

It was both a Greek entity, and perched on the doorstep of bordering foreign states and thus was directly exposed through its trading activity to the thinking, knowledge and experience of the welter of countries, peoples, civilisations further east and south.

Thus Ionian philosophers from this vantage point were exposed to a wide range of knowledge from and about other countries and peoples.

In particular they were exposed to emerging scientific knowledge, empirical data, elsewhere, especially to Egyptian mathemtics and Chaldean astronomy.

Crucially these other “civilised” peoples had primarily used this knowledge only for narrow-minded practical purposes, not for wider philosophical enquiry. In particular they used it to… build pyramids! Thus they used it to to implement, express the fanciful belief systems of their theocratic autocracies, to pander to the gods, to support, propagate, impose self-serving preconceived religious thought systems.


4/ The humanistic Greek model? The Delphic maxim: Know thyself!!

There were two key planks in the humanistic Greek model, as bright and shiny and relevant today as when they emerged..


First, on the positive side, Man does the best he can, strives for excellence in all endeavours, strives for all rounded arête , virtue, as individuals yes, but also as individuals within a community, a society, which thus experiences political life, and is thus subject to nomoi, or laws.

Hence Man applies open-eyed, open minded Objective Reason to individual and community life, and to understanding Nature.


BUT, second, on the negative side, crucially the wise Man knows his limits, his imperfections.

So  ideally he acts with moderation, aware of the danger of over-confidence, arrogance, of Hubris! Of meeting the goddess Ate (“moral blindness”), and hence her stablemate Nemesis! Goddess of retribution! Therefore Man remembers he is not divine, not a god.

Greek playwrights’ tragedies were generally about people who did over-step, did not know their limits, and were punished accordingly.

Thus Donald Kagan quotes Aristotle: “As man is the best of the animals when perfected, so he is the worst when separated from law and justice…”

Homer’s 9th C BC twin peaks pioneered in particular because they talked of specific individuals, but indivuals within societies.

And the story of hero Odysseus is a template for everyone. He epitomises Rational Man. He is clever, the wily archer, and he is persistent.

But even more important, he knows his limits, resists the temptation of the offer of the beautiful “lustrous” goddess Calypso, to stay with her, join her in immortality. Instead he stays loyal to wife who hasn’t seen for 30 years? And to his family, his son Telemachus! He resists the delusory trap of divinity.

The later (5th C BC) pivotal “tragic” demise of Athens can be seen as the famous city-state falling victim to Hubris, to irrational over-confidence, thus c430BC being sucked “blindly” into the calamitous Peloponnesian Wars.


5/ Beyond Ancient Greece: Hellenism, Rome, Islam, Christian Europe

“.. the legacies of ancient Greece have been taken up, admired, re-formulated and manipulated by every culture between theirs and ours.. .. the Roman emperor Hadrian loved all things Greek: he completed the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens.. The emperor had created a legacy that, in truth, augmented the reality of what the Greek world actually achieved.” (Michael Scott, BBC June 2013).

Rome added little to the progressive fundamental advances in politics and philosophy achieved by, inherited from the Greeks. Perhaps they enhanced where the Greeks arrived in the case of law. But their main concern was applying knowledge for practical purposes.

The single striking difference between old Greece and old Rome was that Rome was always a single discrete political entity – compared to the collection of competing entities in Greece – and beyond its emergence from Latium in the 5th C BC, when it initially subjugated neighbouring peoples in Italy, especially the Etruscans, its informing core mission was simply to keep growing. This it certainly did, though at the expense of whatever early Attic echoing quasi-democratic impulses existed.

Thus the Republic was finally snuffed out by an able but ambitious, ruthless self-serving Napoleonesque soldier (Julius Caesar), then morphed into a full blooded empire which peaked across approximately two centuries, then succumbed to selfish bloody infighting, and finally –crucially – to waves of eastern invaders.

Islam – launched dramatically and with ferocious and rapid early success by its Arab instigators – eventually played some role in advancing the cause of Man’s progressive knowledge, particularly through the Iberian-based Umayyad Caliphate, but basically, in the main, only as a means of transmission of Greek knowledge? They added something through their observations, but basically did not advance the substance of science?

There was important progress on the watch of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, especially within Church sanctioned / sponsored institutions of literacy like monasteries, and sometimes by Church functionaries.

Thus, “, two developments stand out [in the Middle Ages] as being particularly influential on the Scientific Revolution to come. One… discovery of the Mean Speed Theorem by the Mertonians at Oxford and Nicole Oresme (1320-82) in Paris..  later … used by Galileo in his study of falling bodies. The other ..[the] establishment of European medical schools where human dissection became [standard]..  [leading to].. in the 16th C..  the pioneering work by Andreas Vesalius, the founder of modern human anatomy.” (Frederick Seiler (2010).

But progress was basically fortuitous, in no way encouraged by the structure’s leadership. It occurred between the cracks. Church dogma was basically opposed to the cause of scientific advance and where such knowledge infringed, contradicted the Church view, the Church acted, albeit not always consistently?

Thus later, much later, a key step in progressing Europe was the separation of Church and State, meaning the State fending off the Church.




The Judeo-Christian contribution?

In the emergence of the “West”, the Modern, does the Judeo-Christian add to the Greek model?


Some today worry about the decline in adherence to the Christian message, about Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the Death of God, worry that amoral Nihilism will fill the gap, or that exemplars of Nietzsche’s Superman might  Thus “If both religion and reason are removed, all that remains is will and power..” (Don Kagan).

Then these worriers typically cite the 20th C totalitarian nightmares of Hitler, Stalin and Mao (and many other smaller fry) as examples of Nietzsche’s new secular Godless world.

But looked at through Greek eyes these unconfined dictators were simply “irrational” men who crossed a line, who, ironically, effectively marketed themselves (for their own rational reasons) as quasi-divine, just as did of course so many rulers in antiquity. The problem for the nations they ruled – and their benighted populations, and others they predated upon – is that each of these dictators recruited enough people to their cause, whether through self-interest or deluded loyalty.


So this raises the massive issue of how does the Judeo-Christian heritage / Christianity matter for the liberal-democratic “Western” model? Does it add anything to the Greek model?

And hence is the survival of the “Western”model dependent on continued active acknowledgement of the Judeo-Christian tenets?

But arguably the Greek model of Objective Reason can be seen as giving us the total model.

Yes you strive to do your best, but also, always aware of the danger for Man of Hubris! So a core outcome of applying Reason is the realisation of the importance of Man knowing his limits.

And a second core outcome is Man confronting the reality that he has no need to invent gods / God, and that, in particular, the invention of institutional religions is rooted in the self interests of the inventors: power and resources (money), occasioning an extensive and manifold occurrence violence.


Two additional specific points are important.


First, there is a strong case for the Judeo-Christian model being based on a fundamentally flawed view of man, a deeply pessimistic view.

From the Judeo-Christian standpoint Man is a sinner, fallen, inherently defective. But interesting, why specifically? Because he transgressed in Paradise’s garden, because of intemperate hubristic pride, because he disobeyed God and ate of the Tree of Knowledge!

This stresses the danger of knowledge!

And that Man above all should know his place!

Anyhow he did transgress, went above his station, and so was punished, tossed out of Paradise.

But – and here’s the good news – he then can later return only through God’s favour, good grace!

The message here is Man should remain humble, timid, not strive, not seek knowledge.

And this message, this Judeo-Christian model, has been propagated, exploited for many centuries by the Christian Church as a business-model, to drive demand for their services, trying to sell the idea that only through their (monopolistic) good offices can you gain God’s saving grace.

The Church did draw on the Greco-Roman Classics, did use Reason, but applied it principally to honing their model.


The second corollary point is that for the Judeo-Christian heritage to somehow be a necessary and essential ingredient in the process of the emergence of the liberal-democratic “Western” model is logically ridiculous –and arrogant – because it implies that this model is thus somehow divinely ordained, prescribed by (the Christian) God!

That will be interesting news for all the non-Christian populations, across the globe.


The biggest challenge of all?

Man standing on his own feer!

Throw off self-serving delusional religious props!

Only two sides, two approaches to addressing, coping with Modernity

Denial, by the Believers. H.Bosch,.. TS Eliot.

Acceptance, by the Realists. [an incomplete roll call].. Homer.. Thales.. Socrates.. Petrarch.. Dante.. Giotto.. Francis Bacon.. Rabelais.. Cervantes.. Shakespeare.. Kepler.. Montaigne.. Newton.. William Hogarth.. Voltaire.. Burke.. Goya.. Courbet.. Baudelaire.. Flaubert.. Manet.. Daumier.. Kafka.. Wallace Stevens.. Otto Dix…Picasso.. Bob Dylan?.


7/ Later important incarnations of quasi-democratic, freer thinking: Anglo-Saxon northern Europe; Italian Mediaeval city states; 17th and 18th C England / Europe / The Enlightenment; American colonies

The progressive old Greek experience of proto-democracy was finally reproduced, but much later, beginning roughly a millennium later.

a/ Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) tribes in north Europe. The competitive decentralised Germanic tribal system in northern Europe, where warrior members of tribal groups apparently exercised some meaningful democratic influence on their leadership by chiefs, seems to be important in the later slow – but crucial – emergence of democracy in England.


b/ City states in Mediaeval / Renaissance Italy. In these small competing republican city-states the Common Man gained some meaningful say, small states centred on cities which (like the old Greeks) traded and also oversaw manufacture of goods, like textiles.


c/ 17th and 18th C England / Europe / The Enlightenment. There is obviously a loose but meaningful analogy between the ancient Greek revolution in politics, thence thought, and that in England and Europe, starting especially in the 17th C, in the wake of the calamitous Thirty Years War, when the scientific revolution took root, and when, in the ruins of war battered Europe – a war launched, and lost, by a reactionary Church and its opportunistic secular supporters – freer thought, Objective Reason emerged painfully for many as the logical optimum approach for Man in managing his collective affairs, and understanding his world.

England, on the periphery of Continental Europe, was importantly different to Europe across the Channel.

Notwithstanding its long monarchical government it had a much stronger quasi-democratic tradition than Continental Europe, arguably going far back to its Anglo Saxon experience (above), then highlighted by 1215’s Magna Carta when the Barons reined in the king.

Then after the Reformation and the buoyant Elizabethan cultural efflorescence (like Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago) in the 17th C the reactionary Catholic English king provoked a bloody Civil War. Parliament and its “liberal” supporters prevailed, and again in the 1688 Glorious Revolution when another refractory king was sidelined.

This political context, conducive to free thinking – Objective Reason – in science and commerce, set the scene for Britain’s momentous 18th C launch of the Industrial Revolution.

Arguably too geography – the English Channel – played a vital role (as it did for ancient Greece) in protecting the British “experiment”. And like ancient Greece Britain was an important seafaring and trading nation.

The advocacy of Reason as a central collective life principle became known during the 18th C as The Enlightenment, a multifaceted phenomenon across Europe.


d/ American colonies from 17th C onwards. This case is of central importance because it speaks of the origins of the United States of America (USA), founded from Britain by colonisation commencing early in the 17th C.

The case is described in the recent important expansive wide ranging text on political economy, Why Nations Fail (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012) in contrasting the different colonial experiences in the Americas by Spain and England.

In central and south America Spain instituted traditional coercive slave-based extraction of wealth (especially gold) while in the north the English settlers – later joined by enterprising aspirational people from many other countries – demanded a say, and a cut – in the organisation and conduct of their economic activity, basically against the intentions of those who had overseen / funded settlements – and they succeeded.

Though this striving in what became the USA for democratic freedoms, self-determination, was driven above all by economic self interest, which for many included slavery.


In each case here the Common Man emerged with some meaningful say, some democratic influence, restraining the power and influence of the traditional elites. And in each case religion basically took a relative backseat.


8/ China

Why not China? Why no “Modern” reforms there? Relative isolation, a cohesive geography, and lack of competition allowed traditional autocratic elites to prevail, persist?

Old China and old Europe: both were large and populous

Old China and old Europe were both large populous areas. China’s population ranged c40-60m till c1400, grew to c400m by 1800, and c600m after ww2.  Greater ancient Greece, encompassing all the colonies, numbered around 5m? The Roman Empire at its peak reached c55-60m? Europe’s population c1000 AD was around 55m, and around 90m by 1500, 100m by 1700? Then on the back of the Industrial Revolution it grew to 300-400m, depending where one draws the eastern border.


China was long large, literate, cultured and periodically prosperous – but it never broke out of a traditional mindset.

China as a large historical entity has a long continuous history going back over say 4,000 years, but this history is also turbulent, violent and complex. There were periods of relative unity and constructive achievement, but also the reverse, two very destructive foreign invasions from the north, 3 significant periods of violent internal fragmentation, finally its costly 19th C engagement with the West.

However what is striking is that although China advanced technologically at an early stage – even during the Han dynasty, around the time of Augustan Rome and Jesus, then again during the 18th C – they never came close to embarking on the kind of Scientific Revolution, and associated wider revolution in applying the rational to Man’s affairs, which eventually took root in Europe.

China’s guiding collective communal philosophies appear to have emerged during the Warring States Period, time of the 100 Schools of Thought, bringing “Confucianism .. [concerning].. hierarchical relationships and obligations in society; Daoism (or Taoism).. its search to unify with the primordial force called Dao (or Tao); Legalism..  advocated strict adherence to laws; and Mohism.. egalitarian ideas of impartiality” (A Revolutionary Discovery in China, Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, 21st April 2016).


Why did China remain “traditional”? Not easy to answer? But geographical isolation a key?

The collective circumstances which appear to have triggered the Greek Enlightenment did not, for whatever reason, arise in China. One way or another autocratic rulers remained in charge, sometimes one, sometimes a number. They led large hierarchical, bureaucratic governments run by scholar-administrators, oversaw substantial literate cultures but intellectual activity, while keen, remained introspective, traditional, subordinate to, buttressing the prevailing political regime.

So the two striking differences with the West were, first, no outbreak of rational, open –minded speculation on the nature of the natural world, or optimal organisation and conduct of Man’s worldly affairs (and no related proto-democratic impulses), and, second, no emergence of enterprising private commercial production and trading activity, of a proto-middle class.

Why not? This is not easy to ultimately answer? Geography? Relative isolation?

Curiously geography may be one contributing factor? China’s geography, the geography of eastern Asia is relatively cohesive, not conducive to any smaller freer thinking group trying to seek another way. Just as geography did favour the survival of the different tack taken by some of the ancient Greeks, especially, famously, in seeing off the two assaults the almighty Persian Empire, and just as the English Channel for the most part protected England’s / Britain’s different and pioneering road.

Secondly, China’s relative isolation, lack of competition probably contributed? As it certainly did for Egypt. “Foreign” peoples did of course invade China, but only to be largely swallowed by, merged with, their objective.

But China was not alone. Other than Egypt there were other substantial “civilisations”, empires where there was also no outbreak of open-minded rational, proto-Modern thought, like through Mesopotamia, the Indian sub-continent and Asia.



9/ BIG HISTORY. “Western” values? No. Everyone’s values. No more “Western” than Kepler’s laws of planetary motion.

The liberal-democratic politico-economic model:

Political: full franchise, representative democratic government, separation of Church and State.

Legal: rule of law, independent judicial system.

Economic: property rights, governance (declaration of interests, transparency), freedom of contract / employment.

Individual: human rights.


Loubna El Amine (Georgeton University) wrote in Washington Post, 2nd April 2016 ”Are ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ Western colonial exports? No. Here’s why”.

This is the right question, and arguably there is no bigger question in global political economy today.

So yes the liberal-democratic politico-economic model (full franchise, representative democracy, individual human rights, independent rule of law, governance, separation of Church and State) over a long period was uncovered, did emerge and develop in the “West”, but fundamentally that does not make it “Western” any more than Kepler laws of planetary motion, or Newton’s or Einstein’s laws are “Western”.

The analogy with scientific laws (physics etc) is not precise but is nonetheless directly relevant in the sense the essence of the model is indeed universally applicable, give or take its adaptation by and in particular jurisdictions.

But various self-interested authoritarian regimes in non-Western countries like to label the model as “Western” to suit their specific interests, to therefore claim it does not have universal applicability, and that its advocates – in seeking to “export” the model – are interfering in their affairs, even reflect a “neo-imperialist” agenda.



From the ancient Greek‘s Geometric art to its rediscovery by the Modern….


Anonymous c750BC, Oinochoe/ oenochoe (wine jug), Athens, “decorated with hatched triangles, meanders, and dotted lozenges”, Museum of Fine Arts Boston.


Fernand Leger (1887-1935), 1913, Contrast of Forms (Contraste de formes), oil on burlap, 98.8 x 125 cm, Guggenheim Museum, New York.



 1/ Ancient Greece

1.1/ Background history

The Cycladic culture inhabited the Aegean islands, c3500-2000 BC, famous for its curious semi-abstract figurines which sit easily beside modern sculptures.

There appear to have been two early Indo-European “invasions” south into the Greek peninsula and islands: first,  c2100/2000BC, the “Patterned Ware” people, Greek speakers called Achaeans, ancestors of Minoans on Crete, and Mycenae? And the Ionians? And, second, c1950-1900BC?  A larger incursion, and destructive, coming from the lower Danube, who brought sky gods?

The Minoan civilisation flourished on Crete, centred on Knossos, especially c2000-1450BC. The Minoans were of Indo-European origin? Minos was the name of their ruler, regarded as a god-king?

They were finally overrun by the Myceneans (Achaeans) who c1600-1200/1100BC, established a major Bronze Age palace-culture headquartered at Mycenae in the northern Peloponnese, with another palace at Pylos on the southwest coast. They conquered Crete, displacing the Minoans, colonised nearby coasts (eg Paphos on Cyprus), and traded with Egypt and the Hittites. At their Mycenae base their palace was fortified, unlike Knossos.

Reasons for the collapse of the Mycenae palace-culture collapsed c1200BC (Bronze Age collapse), along with other nearby major contemporary empires like the Hittites, are debated but climate change seems almost certainly important. Simultaneously there were violent movements of people about the region, the so-called Sea Peoples, but details are unclear.

About then, c1150/1100BC, the Greek “Dark Age” / Archaic period (c1100-750BC) began when the Dorians invaded from somewhere north, via the Pindos Mountains in northern Greece, but the intervention is not well understood. Were they shunted south by Illyrians? But they were militant and well armed, bringing iron weapons, and Protogeometric pottery (c1050-950BC), later Geometric (c950-700), with human figures reappearing c750BC.

They settled at Laconia (central-east Peloponnese), ie later Sparta, and in Achaea and the Argolid (the peninsula in the NE Peloponnese, including Mycenae) in the northern Peloponnese, and also on Crete.

They thus displaced existing (Indo-European sourced) Greeks: Aeolians (Achaeans) moved from Thessaly to north Aegean islands (eg Lesbos) and the Anatolian coast. And Ionians left Attica, Euboea and Cyclades for the Anatolian coast. Arcadians remained in central Peloponnese. The Archaic communities were like small kingdoms, each ruled by a basileus, or king

Old Greece in the Pre-Classical Archaic (c750-600BC) and Classical (600-332BC) periods emerged as a diverse collection of independent city-states, poleis (singular polis), on or near the edge of the Aegean Sea, generally comprising aristocrats / nobles, farmers, urban craftsmen, sailors and traders, united loosely by a common interest in the sea, and by language and culture.

Government in the various poleis shifted from rule by king (basileus) to aristocrats (archons), thence to republican oligarchies (tyrannies) run not by aristocrats but by prominent people like soldiers, and thence in some cases to proto-democracies. The experience varied significantly across the poleis, and through time for a given polis.

Importantly the relative independence of many poleis was drive especially by Greece’s fragmented geography, including many islands, and by its rugged topography.

Also, starting by early in the 8th BC Greece established many colonies around the Mediterranean, especially in Sicily and southern Italy (like Syracuse, Paestum, and Neapolis, which thus became Naples), but also further west in southern France (Massalia / Marseilles), northeast on the shores of the Black Sea, and south in Egypt (the important Naukratis, near Alexandria, with ties to a number of home cities) such that in due course Greater Greece, Magna Graecia, became a major trading network, an informal trading empire, united loosely by language and culture, with a total population of c5m, far outstripping the aggregate ancestral “home” cities.

The major Persian invasions of 490 and 480BC were successfully, famously, resisted by the Greeks, led by Athens. They displaced the enterprising Ionian Greeks from western Anatolia, shunted them back west to Greece proper.

But the stronger Athens now grew over-confident and aggressive, “imperially” allying with a number of other cities, but then c431BC fell into a disastrous destructive civil war with Sparta (the Peloponnesian Wars), which she finally lost, 404 BC, such that not long later the militarily able Philip of Macedon to the north (and soon to be famous son, Alexander) capitalised on Greek fecklessness and prevailed.


1.2/ The ancient Greek Enlightenment: the radical Greek contribution, the Thought Revolution. Homer and the Ionian thinkers, Athens and beyond

The nub of the Greek contribution was simply a keen appetite to seek the Truth through open-minded rational enquiry, unencumbered by inherited traditional thought, especially by any theological preconceptions.

The radical Greek Contribution, from the Greek “enlightenment”, crossed many boundaries.

  • Literacy / literature The Greek Thought Revolution started with Homer (c850-800??), thence Hesiod (c750-650BC?) from Boetia, who launched the Greek literary achievement. Importantly around 700BC the Greeks learned writing again (lost with Mycenae?), especially through adapting the Phoenician alphabet, probably accessed through the Greek trading post of Poseideion on the Syrian coast, just inside modern Turkey (at Al Mina). Thus the Greek alpha, beta, gamma come from Semite words for ox, house, camel.
  • The 7th and 6th C delivered much lyric poetry, either intimate or public, and in the 5th C the famous tragedies (what little survives of them) arrived, addressing the risks of passion and of abuse of power. Then satirical comedy followed.
  • This study was provoked by effort to understand the reality of life, ie the cosmological reality, especially beyond, behind the smokescreen of traditional myths and gods, seeking to understand the origin and nature of their world. In particular philosophers, in their ruminating, developed a coherent system of rational logic and argument, rhetorical tools.
  • This started in Egypt and Babylon but the Greeks took it beyond practical application, beginning with Pythagoras of Samos (c580-500BC, left for south Italy c530), who apparently was drawn to maths from music. Archimedes of Syracuse (c287-213 BC) in Sicily made big strides.
  • Natural science. They sought to approach understanding reality, the natural world, through open-minded reason, rational processing of observations (though not yet experiment). This method was applied to physics and astronomy (Aristarchus of Samos (c310-230 BC) famously declared the earth orbits the sun) but also importantly to medicine, where the Greeks clearly pioneered, through Hippocrates of Cos (c479-399 BC) in the 5th C BC who appears to be the first to approach understanding the matter of disease rationally, based on careful observation and analysis (some case records of which survive) rather than traditional resort to the supernatural, to magic, spirits etc.
  • History. The “modern” practice of writing an account of history, reporting on linear, chronological sequences of events was launched off by Herodotus (c485-425BC), thence Thucydides (c460-400) and Xenophon (c435-354). Until then there was little apparent interest in such an approach. The past was a soup pot.
  • Politics, government: the Law, ie set of rules for Man’s collective affairs, determined by a democratic process, ie with input from enfranchised “electorate”, albeit a franchise restricted to free adult males. “they had a system where every citizen voted directly on every major issue, and in which approximately two-thirds of the citizen population sat, at some point in their adult lives, on the supreme governing council, the boule, of the city.” The ekklesia was the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient


Thus it was the Pre-Socratic philosophers who opened the purple patch of ancient Greek philosophy, commenced the radical new approach to comprehending the natural world about them, who were later called by Aristotle the physikoi (“physicists”, after physis, “nature”) since they tried to explain, understand Nature, natural phenomena rationally, without recourse to religious or mythological preconceptions, therefore as opposed to the theologoi (theologians).


Thus the three key radical breakthroughs were:

1/ inference that there exists a cosmic natural order. In observing Nature we see not capricious theological intervention but rather some version there of universal Order, expressed, revealed later by certain Laws.

2/ seeking to understand this order, searching for the truth is an exalted mission!

3/ approach to this: not just empirical observation – which by then had a long history in Egypt and Mesopotamia – but in their thinking process, abandoning preconceptions for an open mind. A rational thought process.

Their thought survives only through quotations or comments by later writers, hence the risk of misinterpretation or bias.


The first Presocratic philosophers came from Miletus, in Ionia, starting with Thales (624-546 BCE), “the father of Greek philosophy”. Anaximander (610-546 BCE), the first writer on philosophy, and Anaximenes (585-525 BCE) both sought a driving universal principle.

Pythagoras of Samos (island close to Miletus) (582-496 BCE) saw the world in harmony, explicable through numbers (a powerful intuitive surmising!). He sought to persuade Man to lead a harmonious life. He moved to Croton in south Italy.

Xenophanes of Colophon (in Ionia) (570-470 BCE) “declared God to be the eternal unity, permeating the universe..” He also observed sea shells in rocks inland and reckoned the sea must relate to them somehow.

For Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475BC) all is change, flux, influencing Plato who saw unchanging Reality behind the changing sensory world.

The Eleatic school (from Elea, southern Italy), Parmenides (c515-440 BCE) and Zeno (490-430 BCE), stressed the doctrine of the One, behind the superficial transient unreliable sensory experience. Parmenides, influenced by Xenophanes, is the first Greek philosopher who we read in his own words? He wrote of “the way of truth” where “reality” is timeless and unchanging, and “the way of opinion”, the sensory world, of misleading “appearances”. So we can’t trust our senses, just thought alone. So the Eleatics opposed the early “physicalist” thinkers like Thales seeking to explain existence through speculation about primary matter, an opposed Heraclitus’ notion that existence is perpetual change.

The Pluralist school of Empedocles of Agrigentum (the Greek Akragas, in southwest Sicily) (490-430 BCE) saw four “unchangeable substances”, fashioned into making this world by two “motive forces”, love and strife!

Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (Ionian city, north of Miletus and Ephesus) (500-428 BCE) also conceived an “ordering principle”, and the material world which was fashioned from “an infinite multitude of imperishable primary elements” by “divine reason or Mind (nous)”. He “brought” philosophy – from Ionia and beyond – to Athens?

Leucippus (fl.440 BC) and his student Democritus of Abdera (coastal Thrace) (c460-370 BC) famously conceived atomic theory, that the material world comprises atoms, infinite, different “small primary bodies..  indivisible..  imperishable..”, always on the move “through the infinite void… [colliding.. uniting]”.

Thus a common theme for many of these early thinkers was that some kind of timeless Ordering Principle lies behind, drives the apparent transient, sensory, material world we inhabit, observe daily. Which was a profound insight. Later, much later, especially from the 17th C onward, scientific thinking, experiment and analysis, down to today, has slowly revealed this to be true, has indeed revealed an Order, though one still not unravelled.

Many however simply take the leap of faith and call it God! Invest it with divine content, meaning of whatever selfsatisfying construct. Soothing, pacifying “shelter from the storm”.

Striking too is the wide range of topics of interest for the Presocratics, including even medicine.

Meanwhile back in old Greece the Sophists – from around the mid 5th C BC, and in the context of more pressing worldly matters like Athens heading into the Peloponnesian Wars –  now disagreed with, were sceptical of all this speculative theorising beyond the sensory. For them all we have are the senses, “subjective impressions”, and their concerns were more for worldly matters like ethics. Protagoras of Abdera (490-420 BCE) “founded” the “school”. He is credited with Man is the measure of all things”, meaning your guess is as good as mine!? AndAs to the gods, I have no means of knowing either that they exist or do not exist,”, which cost him remaining in Athens, not least because gods had been invoked by some Greek rulers (like Lycurgus in Sparta) as underwriting their laws.  Other Sophists were Gorgias (487-376 BCE) from Sicily, and Hippias (485-415 BCE), from the Peloponnese.  The Sophists soon became a major target of criticism by Plato.

The Peloponnesian war, to 404BC caused some backsliding in the pursuit of Truth, gave a “new boost to superstition”, but some sense prevailed. It also brought some conflict between science and philosophy. “Yet Greek maths, philosophy and science survived both.. the Peloponnesian Wars and Plato’s counter-reformation.. continued to thrive for.. four or five centuries..” (CM Bowra).


Socrates (c470-399 BC), whose thought is known only from secondary sources, principally Plato, is a famous Athenian philosopher important mainly for his concern for arete (excellence in moral virtue) and thus his contribution to ethics, and also for the “Socratic method”, a way of argument to help understand, penetrate any given circumstantial problem. He argued knowledge is reachable through active debate and thought, which the sceptical Sophists denied. But above all Socrates favoured humility, caution and patience in tackling the hard questions.

He lived through the tumultuous period from the “imperial” Athenian hegemony through its disastrous conflict with Sparta (431-421 and 411-404 BC), and defeat. Thereafter an oligarchy of the Thirty assumed power but democracy was quickly restored, in 403BC, soon after which Socrates (who had fought in the war) was tried and in a postwar atmosphere of recriminatory intolerance was found guilty of “corrupting the youth”. Thus not long before, c411 BC, the Sophist Protagoras was prosecuted for impiety because of his irreverent sceptical treatise “On the Gods“ and fled Athens.


In the cause of detached contemplation by Man of the universal predicament, Plato’s (c427-347BC) role seems basically negative? He was a Bad Man! Picking up from Parmenides he declared the senses mislead, reveal only imperfect evidence of Forms, the Reality behind the senses. But then there is no basis for verifying the Forms. They are whatever people want them to be, thus giving ambitious powerful societal groups an interest in devising self-serving myths. Hence Plato inspired future generations of Bad Men. People who claimed the existence of some self-serving profound Overwhelming Truth – basically pulled out of one or other fundamental orifice, with no corroborating, supporting evidence whatsoever – then proceeded to ram it down the People’s throat, coercing their obedience. Thus like the Christian Church and certain other religions, and like the various calamitous totalitarian platforms of the 20th C.

Thus Plato’s long term impact was negative. Seiler (2010): “.. Plato clearly implies that observational details of nature—being mere shadows of reality—are unworthy of study..  his disparagement of the senses (which deeply influenced Christianity) has led many thinkers to eschew the empirical study of nature..”

Though Plato did like mathematics, cf Pythagoras (fl 6th C).


Aristotle (384-322BC) was constructive, capitalised on the Presocratics musings on Nature, who did value observations by the senses. And as a one-man industry he ranged widely into Physics, geology, physiology, chemistry.  His achievement was taken up in the Hellenistic period, eg in Alexandria, eg by Demetrius Phaleron (c435-283BC), by Herophilus (fl 300BC) and Erasistratus (c304-245BC) (human dissection), thence Galen (130-201AD). Also Ptolemy and astronomy.

However Aristotle also acted as a brake, because once he opined across the many branches of science he declared, that’s all sorted then! Thus he never understood the correct processes for developing scientific knowledge, that knowledge is always incomplete, imperfect, changing, subject to ongoing discovery. It took another two millennia to grasp this?


1.3/ Historiography: the “Greeks first” view is not new, but is out of fashion in today’s relativist, “politically correct”, and China resurgent, world.

There is hot debate over Why Europe first? Why did the most radical shift in Man’s economic / political affairs, and, alongside, in his knowledge, happen in Europe?

One major reason is the thought revolution in Classical Greece from 6th C BC onwards. There was a radical, crucial shift in Man’s approach to understanding his world, towards detached, open-minded thinking, free especially from traditional religious thought structures, imposed by institutionalised political power.

Yes there were major, “advanced” civilisations outside Europe, like Egypt, and especially in China and also India. And China achieved important technology advances.

But the takeoff, the birth of the Modern, occurred in Europe.


1.4/ Ancient Greece: part of the Axial Age? C 8th to 3rd C BC? No. Far fetched. Overstated. Greece was different!

German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1949 book) dreamed up the Axial Age, claiming comparable new ways of thinking – new quest for meaning, open enquiry – emerged approimately 8th to 3rd C BC in four different regions: China (Confucius and Lao-Tse), India (Buddha), Iran (Zarathustra), Israel and Greece/Rome (Homer, Ionians etc).

But this seems far fetched. Greece was different (Diarmid MacCulloch agrees, Guardian, March 2006).


2/ China


Chinese history: periods of prosperity, but also of very destructive foreign intrusion and widespread domestic conflict.


China took shape as a political entity in the first millennium BC, and until the 20th century largely remained a coherent empire governed by scholar-officials after the Confucian vision of a meritocratic, ordered society.” (The Economist 2004).

Yes China’s history includes prominent intermittent periods of sustained prosperity and cultural and economic achievement, but it is also marked by three periods of violent, very costly foreign intervention, and by important periods of very destructive internal domestic fragmentation and conflict (particularly the Warring States Period in 3rd to 5th C BC, the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms in the 10th C, and the 19th C Taiping Rebellion).

The third phase of foreign intervention refers to that of the West, from the Jesuit missionaries in the 16th C down to important (though not crucial?) Soviet backing in mid 20th C for the Chinese Communists fighting the Nationalists.


A 4000 year story

Recorded Chinese dynasties begin with the Xia (c2070-1600 BC), then Shang (c1600-1046 BC).

An Aug. 2016 report of new research shows the great flood (in the Yellow River basin) which founded the Xia dynasty occurred c1920BC, not as far back as 2200BC. The dynasty was founded by Emperor Yu, who oversaw rebuilding in wake of the disaster. “..Stories about Emperor Yu laid the ideological foundation for the Confucian rulership system..”

Chinese culture developed extensively during the long Zhou dynasty (c1046-256 BC), but which from the 8th C BC fragmented, fell into violent disarray in the Spring and Autumn Period (722-476 BC), thence to the Warring States period (476-221 BC) when 7 internal “states” battled openly until Imperial China began when Qin Shi Huang, leader of one faction, prevailed and united the conflicting groups and established the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), which also gave China its name. He forcefully imposed a strong central government, a central legal code, promoted literacy, and also arranged a terracotta army for his tomb. And he imposed conformity, allegedly allowed the “burning of books and burying of scholars“, though the extreme interpretation of this is now doubted because it was recorded by the Han.

However the Qin dynasty also soon failed. Liu Bang won a civil war and launched the formidable Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) which successfully consolidated and extended the Qin dynasty’s central imperial bureaucratic rule, and made Confucianism the official guiding philosophy. The Han expanded borders and Chinese art, culture and science all importantly advanced.

But unrest emerged again by the 2nd C AD and by the 4th C northern China fragmented, so c420-589 AD China was divided between Northern and Southern Dynasties.

The brief Sui dynasty (589-618) united China again, after near 4 centuries of instability since fall of the Han, re-established key central government institutions, setting the stage for the great Tang dynasty (618-907), founded by the Li clan, overseen by a strong centralised bureaucracy, the “Three Departments and Six Ministries”. The Tang period, which saw expansion of its borders, was clearly a high watermark for China for its sustained relative peace and prosperity (though mainly in its first half), its cosmopolitan openness and comparative tolerance, and its culture (especially poetry, literature and art). Its population may have grown from c50m to c80m.

Though there was resistance: “Turkic people to N and NW.. Tibetans in SW, the Abbasid Islamic state in W and central Asia..” (ag nsw).

Chinese dynasties claimed a “mandate from heaven” to rule, as “sons of heaven”, ie in much the same way as in Christian Europe, or most traditional political systems anywhere!

One of the Tang emperors was even a woman, Empress Wu Zetian (and who seized the throne, r690-705 entere Emp Taizong’s court as concubine age 13, partnered with Crown Prince who became Emp Gaozong (628-83), he dies, she became nun, till she emerged and took power, ruled 35 years), the only woman to ascend the Chinese throne and who (like Justinian’s wife, Empress Theodora) started out as a concubine.

Its capital Chang’an (“long lasting peace” in Chinese!) lay in far west of what is modern China (now modern day X’ian in Shaanxi Province), near the east end of the Silk Road. “For more than two centuries, Chang’an became the biggest and most advanced city in the world, leaving a legacy in urban history that has echoed down the ages.” (Cao Ying, curator Chinese art, AG NSW). Its population was around one million within 84 sq km, or including outskirts probably reached around 2 million, or about double Rome at its peak, staggering for that time, and including perhaps 25,000 foreigners. It was a diverse thriving trading hub, accessing goods from Asia and the MidEast. Buddhism was also imported, became the main faith of Tang emperors.

As John McDonald notes, the openness and curiosity and diversity of Tang time is in marked contrast to later “insular” dynasties, “notably the Ming” in 15th C.

But yes the Tang also succumbed to infighting and fragmentation, partly due to the rise of regional military governors, and a formal period of disunity (the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, 907-960AD) before the Sung or Song Dynasty (960-1279) could re-establish central order, and achieve (during Europe’s Middle Ages) what is regarded as classical China’s peak in science and technology.

ART of the Tang dynasty noted for its “diversity, elaborate designs.. brilliant colours..”, benefited greatly from trade west.

Phrase Chinatown refers back to Tang time? To the cultural diversity? The phrase in China for Chinatown is “Tang peoples’ street”.

The ag nsw show featured 1/ gold and silver wares. These displace bronze and jade, not least because of belief they might prolong life!!

2/ tea culture, big time, eg Lu Yu’s Encyc of Tea in 780. Gifts, ceremonies. Poems to it.

3/ ceramics, influence of Mediterranean glassware?? Famous sancai wares, “three color’ wares.  Though notice the Chinese did not pursue glassware.

4/ clothes, influence of west again?

5/ mbusic, 6/ horses, great prestige because military purpose?  Also camels.

and 6/ Buddhist art. B arrived after Han. Met Daoism (patterns of the universe s guide to behaviour, private and government) and Confucius (moral based obligations to each other). B took root, eg Empress Wu Zetian (624-705). Thus she had great Buddha at Fenguan carved.

But in another decisive and comprehensive setback the Mongols successfully invaded from the north, and prevailed so by 1279 the Mongolian Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) established the Yuan dynasty, now run from Beijing. China’s pre-Mongol era population may have reached c120m, but the invasion, sustained unrest, and outbreak of plague seems to have culled this dramatically by the 14th C, perhaps by 30-40%?

Taking advantage of the unrest, including peasant revolts, the Han Chinese informed Ming dynasty (1368-1644) overthrew the Mongols in 1368. Strong central government returned and the rulers even allowed greater foreign trade and other contact, eg with Japan. For a time they also ventured further abroad at sea, especially under the Yongle Emperor (r1402-24). The economy grew, especially in the south, and Beijing’s Forbidden City imperial palace reached its zenith. But then they retreated again, banned Chinese maritime venturing, and largely (though not completely) resisted contact with the now increasingly active and insistent European maritime explorers, especially the Portuguese, then Dutch.

Late in the Ming period (1556) the massive Shaanxi Earthquake killed over 800,000.

Now China suffered a second destructive foreign intervention, again from the north, when the Manchus exploited major internal peasant unrest and, allied with a lapsed Ming general, overthrew the Ming and established the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in 1644. And again the intervention was very costly, over a period of half a century, causing an economic slump and costing as many as 25m lives. The Manchu quickly adopted the language and culture of China, and at least to start, delivered competent long lived rulers like Kangxi (r 1661-1722, ie a close contemporary of France’s Louis XIV) and his grandson, Qianlong (r 1736-95, died at 89), under which China reached a zenith, numbering around 300m and now running the world’s largest economy . The Manchu were also generally more tolerant and open to foreign exchanges, eg even allowing Christian contact (including Jesuits!), compared to the stricter Ming who had stressed the native Chinese traditions of Taoism and Confucianism, and who discouraged Buddhists. European traders and diplomats began arriving in the 16th and 17th C.

The Jesuits were enterprising in their proselytising, adopting local dress and customs, and compiling a Chinese dictionary and grammar book. One Jesuit lay brother (Giuseppe Castiglione, 1688-1766, Chinese name of Lang Shining) arrived 1714 and stayed for good, “became the pre-eminent court artist of Qianlong’s reign and influenced many local painters” (Christopher Allen, 16 May 2015).

Then foreign contact in the 19th C proved disastrous for the large but stagnant country, run by a weak introspective unconfident monarchy.

First, Western imperial intervention stepped up, buoyed by the ongoing transformative European Industrial Revolution. Britain won two Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60), compelling the Chinese to open ports, “accept foreign envoys, free movement for Christian missionaries and a British hold on Hong Kong.

Secondly, China was blighted by massive internal unrest, especially the huge Christian-inspired (unlikely “Western intervention”!) Taiping Rebellion which impacted about a third of the country and cost maybe 20m lives. They lost a brief war with Japan (1894-95) then faced further debilitating foreign conflict in the wake of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.

Finally the Qing dynasty fell in 1912 when a reformist military uprising succeeded led by the inspirational Sun Yat-sen, seeking to establish a republic. However he was quickly sidelined by the army chief Yuan Shikai who in 1915 declared himself Emperor! But he only provoked fierce opposition, then died 1916 and the country fragmented, fell into civil conflict called the Warlord Era. From a base south Sun yat-sen tried to restore unity, even allying at one time with the fledgling Communist Party of China (CPC), and ironically with support from newly established Soviet Russia, which was keen to export its revolutionary mission. Sun died 1925 and an associate Chiang Kai-shek took over Sun’s Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang) and in a quick military campaign (1925-26) against the warlords he took control of south and central China, and treated with the northern warlords. Then 1927 he attacked the CPC in southern China, until in 1934 Mao Zedong led the remnants to a new base north.

The outcome was then fatefully influenced by the Japanese intervention and WW2, beginning with the Japanese 1931 invasion of Manchuria, turning into hugely destructive full scale invasion of China in 1937. The KMT and CPC joined forces against the Japanese, then resumed their fight in 1945, which the CPC momentously won in 1949, through a combination of: 1/ especially selling themselves to the peasants as Nationalists, and in particular, lying that they would be given their own land, 2/ the KMT being weakened by fighting the Japanese, and 3/ some self-serving Soviet aid for the CPC (especially captured Japanese war materiel). The KMT retreated to Taiwan.


Recent update (1). But did old China flirt with “Modern” ideas? This is the apparently radical import of recently deciphered old (c 300 BC) bamboo texts.

Three batches of recently translated / deciphered ancient Chinese texts on bamboo strips appear to radically revise the history of Chinese political thought.

They date from c300 BC, during the turbulent Warring Period, around the time of death of Confucius’ disciple Mencius, apparently discovered in tombs in the southern state of Chu (near the Yangste valley), one of the then 7 conflicting Chinese states. This was a crucial period, immediately before Qin Shi Huang, leader of one of the warring states, prevailed and established the Qin dynasty, and during which period the core guiding Chinese philosophies like Confucianism were devised..

They are the earliest discovered such texts and reveal a period of keen debate of political ideas, and, in particular, show that some thinkers favoured the radical course of choosing not only officials / scholar administtrators (shi) on merit but rulers too, in the event hereditary rulers happen to prove too incompetent, thus that such rulers should then abdicate accordingly, and the “mandate of heaven” (as Mencius called it) pass to a better alternative.

Today the Communist Party of China claims that China’s best interests are served by it holding the “mandate of heaven”.

  1. A Revolutionary Discovery in China, Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, 21st April 2016.

PAUL NASH: WW1 gatecrashed and, ironically, made his art

WW1 gatecrashed his early neo-Romantic inclined landscapes, but then ironically (helped by “Vorticist” colleagues like Nevinson) “Modernised”, made his art.

Thus the two world wars coaxed a number of masterpieces, at each end of his career.

His imagination and poetic sensibility meditated on Man and a land imbued with deep history.

Paul Nash

(11 May 1889 – 11 July 1946, 57)

 FEATURED IMAGE: 1923, The bay, woodcut, 120 x 178 mm


1919 The sea wall, watercolour and pencil 28 x 39cm. COMMENT: both from Dymchurch, Kent.

 Polemic: yes he was a great British artist.

Would we remember Paul Nash but for WW1? Yes, but nowhere like we do now, for his striking war images, compelling and evocative.

As a young painter before WW1, with a poetic ear and inclined to neo-Romanticism, Nash was slower than some of his famous contemporaries in responding to then rampaging Modernism.

But WW1 upended his art – as it famously did for other painters, and writers, like Wilfred Owen’s poetry- so one of his best images, pioneering and powerful, was without doubt the confronting large The Menin Road (1918-19), Cubo-Futurist-Vorticist hued. Alongside it the mordantly ironic We are making a new world (1918) immediately became a brutally frank calling card for the reality of the conflict.

WW2, near the other end of his life, provoked two more masterpieces, particularly the arresting Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41), stark and singular, Surrealist-touched but also clearly pre-figured by his quasi-abstract Winter Sea (1925-37). Secondly came the also powerful but quite different quasi-abstract Battle of Germany (1944).

Nash’s powerful artistic response to the unimaginable destruction of two world wars was self-evidently occasioned by his exposure to both wars (WW1 first hand, especially late 1917), but was richly fertilized by, first, a sensitivity to mortality (as Simon Grant (Tate, 2003) highlights), to death, stemming from a life of ill health, beginning early, and also from coping with his mother’s prolonged mental unrest and early death (at 49) in Feb. 1910, and by, second, a poetic sensibility and a imaginative quasi-spiritual mindset, evident early and staying with him. William Blake and other Romantics were an early source, reinforced later around 1930 by meeting sympathetic American writer Conrad Aiken at Rye, and from 1943 by James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.   

Nash is lambasted by some critics (cf Adrian Searle and Waldemar Januszczak in 2003) for his alleged clumsy embrace of Surrealism in the 1930s. Leave it to the pros? But this is misleading, attention seeking? As Andrew Causey writes (2003) we see Surrealist clues right through his art, starting with some of his early drawings, well before Surrealism was codified after WW1, then hints in his WW1 war art. Certainly some images appear pedestrian or forced (eg Landscape from a Dream (1936–8)) but many other responses are clearly legitimate, constructive, like Voyages of the Moon (1934-37) and Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935). Then his later justly acclaimed Totes Meer, and Flight of the magnolia both have Surrealist components.

And here’s an interesting (coincident?) connection. As Mr Januszczak notes (2003), Nash “had a thing about trees”. And Nash’s early drawings based on three elms at his then home at Iver talk directly to some “tree” works by a similarly thoughtful older Swiss-French artist, Felix Valloton (1865-1925), like to his willowy trees in Last sun rays (1911).

His art

Nash was a famous British painter, especially of landscapes, whose life neatly overlapped both world wars (eg aged 25 in 1914), both of which he recorded as an official war artist. He was also a photographer, writer and designer of applied art.

Events – the calamitous wars – fashioned in Nash a curious and unlikely juxtaposition, induced a searing Realism alongside an imaginative, quasi-spiritual and pastoral neo-Romanticism which was his natural inclination.

His exact contemporary, and fellow Slade student, CRW Nevinson (1889‑1946), also joined and depicted WW1, but he was quicker to embrace Modernism before the war and his striking Cubist inspired “Futurist / Vorticist” war paintings from 1915-16 (hung Sep. 1916 in a one-man show in London) influenced Nash. Also “Nash would later [1949 autobiographical writings] call the 1st and 2nd exhibitions of The London Group [ie March 1914 and March 1915] the ‘Vindication of Vorticism’” (David Haycock et al, “A Crisis of Brilliance” (2013)).

From a conservative middle class background Nash was slow to react to Modernism before WW1. He trained at the well known Slade school before WW1, alongside a clutch of would be talented artists, but only briefly (1910-11), and his natural appetite was for neo-Romanticism, fond of William Blake, the Romantic poets (eg Coleridge), and particularly DG Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites.

Eschewing figurative painting, he quickly became above all a landscape painter, stimulated initially by trees and gardens at Iver Heath, Bucks. (just west of London, where he moved as a 12 year old), also by the Thames Valley Wittenham Clumps, a pair of hills, one an old Iron Age fort. His early art was perhaps also an escape from an uneasy childhood, from his mother’s mental unrest.

A major preoccupation for his landscapes became ancient history’s impact on the English countryside, the “sanctity” of Place. He felt “these sites had a talismanic quality”, thus he “saw himself in the tradition of English mystical painters W Blake and [the Romantic “mystical” painter] Samuel Palmer” (Tate). Thus he collected “Places”, of which perhaps Wittenham Clumps (“They were the Pyramids of my small world”) stands out, depicted from 1912 to 1944.

Though people obviously inhabited, imprinted this countryside across the centuries he used people sparingly in his landscapes. But this comparative absence of people (eg the solitary couple in The sea wall (1919) or the tiny figures in his WW1 paintings) became a powerful visual device (cf Waldemar Januszczak, 2003). Rather, trees, starting with the elms at Iver, became a favorite metaphor for people, like blasted trees for the carnage in France.

Some of Nash’s early drawings, before WW1, mark him out as gifted and evocative, particularly The cliff to the north (1912).

Seven oil paintings stemmed from WW1: The Menin Road (c June 1918 – Feb. 1919,), The Mule Track (1918), Spring in the Trenches  (1918), Ridge Wood, 1917  (by July 1918), We Are Making a New World (1918, based on 1918 drawing, Sunrise (Inverness Copse), The Ypres Salient at Night  (1918),  Void  (1918) and A Night Bombardment (1919-20),

From Dymchurch on the Kentish coast (late 1921 to mid 1924) we see spare, tense Cubist leaning works by an artist shaken by the calamity, showing individual Man engaging elemental forces beyond his ken or control, powerful works like the drawing The sea wall (1919), like the woodcut, The bay (1923), and especially his oil painting Winter Sea (1925-37), a striking Cubist inspired work, dark and deathly. We also see his Cezannesque Chestnut Waters (1923,27).

The 1928 show in London of work by the important Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, and a 1930 visit to Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery in Paris, broadened his appreciation of Modernism, later acknowledged in his writings as an art critic. They helped trigger a shift, beyond the Cubist paddock towards more overt abstraction and Surrealism.

A number of more consciously Surrealist images followed, like Landscape at Iden (1929), and some quasi-abstract, like Landscape of the Megaliths (1934), but still addressing familiar themes.

His iconic Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41) recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s Artic shipwreck (1824) but also clearly draws on a number of Nash’s earlier Cubist quasi-abstract coastal reflections at Dymchurch from 1921, especially Winter Sea (1925-37).

Nash ended his not long life on a high. Beyond his war paintings he produced a series of quasi-abstract “visionary” landscapes based (again) on the Wittenham Clumps, which became a final meditation on a life theme of the cycle of life intersecting the history-imbued English landscape. Then the enigmatic Flight of the Magnolia (1944), on a theme the artist called ‘aerial flowers’, and overshadowed by terminally failing health, was one of his best “Surrealist’ works.

 Life and background.

Son of a barrister, born in Kensington, London, Nash later grew up (from 12) at Wood Lane, Iver Heath, Bucks., just west of London. He was afflicted early by asthma, which remained a chronic problem.

He started training in art Dec. 1906 (age 17) at the Chelsea Polytechnic, transferring late 1908 to the London City Counccil school at Bolt Court, off Fleet St. He then trained at the well known Slade School of Art from autumn 1910 to December 1911, alongside Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, David Bomberg, C.R.W. Nevinson, William Roberts, Edward Wadsworth and Dora Carrington, but he did not shine at figure drawing and left to concentrate on landscape painting.

Prominent portrait painter (later Sir) William Rothenstein (1872-1943) was an early (from 1909) and sustained supporter.

In a busy 1914 he joined Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops early in the year, was shown in two important exhibitions, courted and married Margaret Odeh, and joined the London Group 1914.

Then WW1 changed his life and his art. He enlisted Sep. 1914 in the Artists Rifles, married Oxford educated suffragette Margaret  on 14 December 1914, trained in 1916 and Dec. 1916 transferred to the Hampshire Regiment. He arrived at the Ypres Salient on the Western Front early March 1917, where on 25th May he was injured, then invalided home.

Based on work shown September mid 1917 in London fellow artist CRW Nevinson (1889‑1946) encouraged him to apply to become an official war artist, which he did, supported by various artists (including Fry, Rothenstein) returning to the Ypres Salient in Nov.1917, finding it (immediately after Battle of Passchendale) devastated compared to spring that year. There he worked hard on drawings for over 6 weeks, then back in London early 1918 (commissioned April by the Ministry of Information) turned his copious work into a series of oil paintings, starting with The Menin Road. Works were shown May 1918 in a one man display (Void of War) at Leicester Galleries, to immediate acclaim.

After the war in autumn 1921 he had a war-induced breakdown and with his wife settled at the Kentish coastal village of Dymchurch, where the sea wall protecting Romney Marsh from flooding became an important reference, a metaphor for Man’s struggle against the elements, natural and man-made. But he kept working, recovered, earned enough to fund a long trip, mid 1924 to early 1925, to Nice, Florence and Pisa, after which they moved to Iden, near Rye in Sussex.

In 1933 he joined a number of prominent art figures in founding the short lived Unit One.  “In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, and the critic Herbert Read [also Ben Nicholson and Edward Wadsworth]. It was a short-lived but important move towards the revitalisation of English art in the inter-war period.” (Tate).

The group fell out after one show (1934) owing to differences between Abstractionists and Surrealists.

Exposure to modern art from across the Channel was important, like a late 1928 show in London (his first) of the work of Giorgio de Chirico, then visiting Léonce Rosenberg’s gallery in Paris 1930.

Mid 1933 Nash saw a show of Max Ernst’s work in London at the Mayor Gallery, noticed Ernst’s interest in “primeval ruined cities” and his series on forests, “seat of irrational an instinctive forces” (Causey). In 1936 he was on the committee for the influential International Surrealist Exhibition held in June in London.

A July 1933 holiday visit to Silbury Hill and Avebury importantly reinforced his interest in landscape and history, seeded a number of paintings.

After a long trip to France (including Nice January/February 1934), Gibraltar and N Africa he and his wife moved June 1934 to coastal Swanage in Dorset, there inspired by local landmarks like Iron Age Maiden Castle, the Cerne Abbas Giant and the Fossil Forest at Lulworth. At Swanage too he began an intense affair with artist Eileen Agar. Mid 1936 he and his wife moved back to London, to Hampstead.

At the start of WW2 he was appointed as a full time war artist by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), “attached to the RAF”. But some were offended by his Modernism and failure to stick to portraits of pilots and his full time role ceased Dec. 1940. But WAAC Chairman Kenneth Clark championed his cause, secured Jan. 1931 a Stg500 commission to execute works on “the theme of aerial conflict”. The first two paintings, from 1941, were Totes Meer (Dead Sea) and Battle of Britain. His asthma related ill health interrupted work. Eventually he added The Defence of Albion and, in particular, The Battle of Germany, completed Sep.1944.

From 1942 Nash visited artist friend Hilda Harrisson at Boar’s Hill, Sandilands near Oxford, coincidentally affording views again of Wittenham Clumps. “He now painted a series of imaginative works of the Clumps under different aspects of the moon..”

Nash was “also a fine book illustrator, and also designed stage scenery, fabrics and posters.” There too grew sunflowers, which became an important motif in his final years.

TOPIC: some art shows London, pre WW1

November 1910              Manet and the Post-impressionists, Grafton Galleries, including Cezanne. By Roger Fry.

November 1911              Stafford Gallery showed work by Gauguin and Cezanne

March 1912                      Exhibition of Works by the Italian Futurists, Sackville Gallery

November 1912              Paul Nash (first) one man show, Carfax Gallery

October 1912                    Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition, Grafton Galleries.

May 1913                          Showed at New English Art Club.

October 1913                    Post-Impressionist and Futurist Exhibition, Dore Gakkeries, org by Frank Rutter. Included Cezanne, van Gogh, Matisse, Severini, Picasso, and British artists.

November 1913                Nash brothers show, Dorien Leigh Gallry.

December 1913               Camden Town Group and Others, 6 works, Brighton Public Art Galleries.

March 1914                      First London Group exhibition, Goupil Gallery, Regent St

May / June 1914              Twentieth Century Art: a Review of Modern Movements, Whitechapel Gallery, included Nash.

June 1914                          David Bomberg’s first one-man show, Chenil Gallery, Chelsea

Feb. 1915                           Paul and John Nash show, with the Friday Club.

March 1915                      2nd (second) London Group show

June 1915                          First (and only) Vorticist Exhibition, at Doré Gallery.

Nov. 1915                         3rd London Group Exhibition

March 1916                      Allid Artists’ exhibition, Grafton Galleries.

June 1916                          4th London Group Exhibition

September 1916              Nevinson show, Leicester Galleries.

Nov. 1916                         5th London Group Exhibition

June 1917                          Nash drawings, Goupil Gallery.

Septmber 1917                Nash works shown in Birmingham.

March 1918                      Nevinson show, Leicester Galleries.

May 1918                          One-man Nash show, Void of War, Leicester Galleries.

         WORKS: some peaks …………….


1912 The cliff to the north, pen, indian ink & grey wash on paper, 38 x 31cm, Fitzwilliam Museum. COMMENT: from the Norfolk coast, at Mundesley, near Cromer


1913, The three in the night, watercolour, ink and chalk, 20.75 x 13.5in, private. COMMENT: again the moon.


Felix Vallotton  (1865-1925), 1911 Last sun rays, oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm

.  6

The cherry orchard, 1917, watercolour, ink and graphite pencil on paper, support: 575 x 482 mm. COMMENT: a stark tense evocative image, depopulated, as though everyone’s gone to the war. The skeletal trees are parading soldiers? There is debate when this was executed, 1914 or 1917, but surely the image speaks of 1917, the stylized geometry an especially the fence, the barbed wire fence trapping two (Dead?) birds.

Tate entry :““The Cherry Orchard” was made at John Drinkwater’s home, Winston’s Cottage, Far Oakridge, Gloucestershire, where Nash went in July 1917…. Nash had recovered from his injury at the front in May, but did not yet know that his return would be in the role of an official artist. This might help to account for the extraordinary tense imagery of the picture which seems more a later winter than a summer design…”


C June 1918 – Feb. 1919, The Menin Road, oil on canvas, 182.8 cm × 317.5 cm (72 in × 125 in), IWM. COMMENT: One of five oil paintings first shown May 1918 at the Void of War exhibition at Leicester Galleries, his first oil paintings. Overall this seems Nash’s most powerful WW1 images. Notice the foreground plants, clinging on. The blasted trees ringing for blasted lives. The surviving diminuitive soldiers tramp their new nether world. The spectral light from left throws shadows.     

(c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Tate; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

1918, The Ypres Salient at Night,  oil on panel, 71.4 x 92.0 cm, Imperial War Museum, London


1918 (by July), Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917, IWM, London

COMMENT:  more punches connect. Notice the wry darkly comic title. Two trees intact? And birds call top right rear. The mule track from early 1918 was his first oil painting.


   1925-37, Winter Sea, oil, 73.6 × 99.0cm, York City Art Gallery.

Landscape at Iden 1929 by Paul Nash 1889-1946

Landscape at Iden 1929 Paul Nash 1889-1946 Purchased 1939

1929, Landscape at Iden, Oil paint on canvas, 698 x 908 mm, Tate;     

This mysterious picture shows the view from Nash’s studio in Sussex. The dramatic perspective and strange juxtaposition of rustic objects creates a sense of the uncanny. It has been read as a statement of mourning. While the young fruit trees may suggest the defencelessness of youth, the altar-like pile of logs may be a symbol of fallen humanity; the fallen tree as a symbol for the dead was common in the art and literature of the war, not least in Nash’s own paintings.For many, an idea of the timeless and enduring English landscape seemed to displace the violent destruction of the war.” (Tate). It reflects the influence of the 1928 London exhibition by the surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.


Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; The Rye Marshes, East Sussex

Nash, Paul; The Rye Marshes, East Sussex; Ferens Art Gallery;

1932, Rye Marshes East Sussex, oil, 58.8 x 100.3 cm, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull


1935, Equivalents for the Megaliths, oil on canvas, 457 x 660 mm, Tate.
Paul Nash was recuperating from a nasty bout of bronchitis in the summer of 1933 when he first came across the Avebury megaliths, the largest prehistoric stone circle in Europe. He recalled, ‘Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them then, I shall always remember them


1940–1, Totes Meer (Dead Sea), oil paint on canvas, 101.6 x 152.4 cm, Tate


1944 (completed Sep.), Battle of Germany, Imperial War Museum, London, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.8 cm


Artist : Paul Nash (England, b.1889, d.1946) Title : Date : 1942 Medium Description: oil on canvas Dimensions : Credit Line : Gift of the Contemporary Art Society, London 1944 Image Credit Line : Accession Number : 7435

1942, ‘Sunflower and sun’, oil on canvas,  51.1 x 76.5 cm, AG NSW. COMMENT “one of a series of works inspired by the view from Sandlands on Boars Hill near Oxford overlooking the Bagley Woods and taking in the Wittenham Clumps.”


1944, Flight of the Magnolia, Oil paint on canvas  511 x 762 x 22 mm, Tate. COMMENT: “part of a group of late works by Paul Nash that feature what the artist called ‘aerial flowers’” (Tate). The meaning of this image is much debated but despite Nash saying something himself its meaning remains ambiguous, probably to its credit.

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Landscape of the Moon's Last Phase

Nash, Paul; Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase; Walker Art Gallery;

1944, Landscape of the Moon’s Last Phase, 63.5 x 76.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery


1945, Eclipse of the Sunflower, Oil on canvas, 71.1 X 91.4 cm, British Council. COMMENT: one of Paul Nash’s final two oil paintings.

Stuart Davis – always look on the bright side…?!

Stuart Davis (Dec. 1892 – July 1964, 71).

Always look on the bright side…?!

Rowed his own canoe! The keen Left wing bon vivant’s distinctive, ebullient modernism stayed oblivious to Capitalism’s greatest crisis! But richer for it?


FEATURED IMAGE: 1912 Self portrait, 81.9 x 66.7 cm, Promised Gift to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas



  • Distinctive! His eventual style of flat, frantic, realistic faux-abstraction – colorful, calligraphical and Hard-Edged – was his alone.
  • Precocious early Expressionist realist paintings doorstepped his abrupt modernist style shift.
  • But then he was never abstract. Realism threading his complete oeuvre, start to finish. Yes from c1921 (around 30) his art flipped, harnessed Cubist inspired quasi-abstraction but never crossed over to abstraction, remained rooted in reality.
  • So his modernism adapted color, calligraphy and Cubist exploration to reflect the energetic drama of modern American life.
  • But not polemically. Thus curious indeed – extraordinary even – is how his avowedly Left wing politics never spilled over into polemical assault on the Capitalist beast, and despite him living through the Depression and two world wars!
  • Thus he jarred with the Social Realists like TH Benton (1889-1975), Edward Hopper (1882-1967) and George Bellows (1882-1925), let alone the affronted turbocharged German satirists!
  • Rather his purpose remained narratory and even aesthetic: his colorful, turbulent, jazz inspired confetti of cut outs and letters saluted the headlong dynamism of the modern economy and society.
  • But curious too, for a people person he painted no.. people! No portraits, genre groups.
  • How good was he? Very. His style trod water for the final couple of decades, but his original contribution – content and execution – was striking.
  • And maybe ultimately he was cleverer for remaining buoyant, not succumbing to rage against the then troubled zeitgeist.



  • Realism threads Davis’ art from woe to go.
  • Early on (from c1912, age 20) – precisely when the avant-garde in Europe was diving into pure abstraction – he precociously explored Expressionist realism, leaving some striking images, especially his tense, psychological 1912 Self portrait, also his bold Expressionist Self portrait of 1919, and various gritty cityscapes recalling the NY Ash Can realist school, and even a few landscapes, which hint of Munch and Van Gogh.
  • His bright start earned him inclusion in the historic Armory Show of modern European art (International Exhibition of Modern Art, he included 5 watercolours), in New York early in 1913 (aged just over 20), which show also understandably shook his appreciation of modern art.
  • But not before c1921 did his style finally shift abruptly, lurch towards modernism (eg Lucky Strike (1921), The tree and the urn (1921), Still life (red) (1922), and Landscape Gloucester (1922)). In his own Synthetic Cubist take he adapted, tapped Cubism, applied it to modern American material life, dwelt on banal but real material items like cigarette papers and garages and egg beaters. Thus while he therefore leaned toward abstraction he stayed “real”.
  • But his Modernist progression or development was not linear. His 1918 trip to Havana he recorded in colourful representational works on paper, some of which recall the German-American Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), also a distinctive accomplished illustrator. Then not before the late 1920s, near 40, did he settled into coarse textured Hard-edge Color Field (HE-CF) faux-abstraction, particularly in the Eggbeater Presciently, his paintings of mundane consumer goods clearly presaged the Pop Art of the 60s, about 40 years hence.
  • But visiting Paris in 1928 he felt compelled to stay more representational in recording post card-like street scenes. And also more obviously realistic was his famous Hopper-esque House and street (1931).
  • Then in the late 1930s – especially starting with the large (4.4 x 2.2m) Swing landscape (1938, stemming from the Williamsburg Housing Project commission and based on the Gloucester (Mass.) waterfront) – he found his now familiar later style: still flat and colourful, but now busier “all over” HE-CF, which style he stayed with more or less for the next 25 years.
  • This style, still born of the Cubism of Braque and Picasso, now drank from Matisse, Léger and Miro, artists he met partly through additional important exhibitions in New York? Some of these images levered off natural scenes (eg Arboretum by Flashbulb, 1942), but mostly they drew on urban life and settings.
  • These images look disordered or spontaneous, but apparently were not, rather were products of “protracted gestation”.
  • About 10-20 years older than the main Abstract Expressionist (AE) painters he is not counted as an Abstract Expressionist painter though his flat bright colour affiliates with the CF pole of AE, and the busy scrambled content of paintings like Swing Landscape (1938) and The Mellow Pad (1945-51) points loosely to Pollock’s “gesturalism”.
  • But in some ways he is as interesting, for how the content of his semi-abstract work remained rooted in reality, fastened to the present material world, especially responding directly to the energy, vibrancy, change, and conflict of [American] contemporary life…. the upheaval of the city, the tranquility of the seaside, industry and the automobile, cafe society, sports, consumer packaging, tobacco, appliances, and jazz music and its lingo.”(Met,NY). And also, like the eminent Dutch refugee abstractionist, Piet Mondrian, who had arrived NY 1940, Davis was mad about jazz, which also fed his images
  • He was also political, avowedly and actively Left (eg in campaigning for artists rights), but oddly this did not sour his appetite for depicting modern life in an apparently buoyant energetic descriptive manner. He did not polemically malign or satirise the Capitalist beast about him, even though he lived through its greatest crisis. For him there was no hint of the forthright Daumier or Grosz. “A hedonist to the core” writes Robert Storr (New York Review of Books, August 2016).
  • Interestingly Storr also rightly wonders whether some work of the immigrant Abstract Expressionist Arshile Gorky responded to Davis’ Cubist recipes.
  • And others (Karen Sullivan and Delores McBroome, Art and Antiques magazine, December 1989) wonder if the composition of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) was not inspired by Davis’ 1932 mural (nicknamed Men without women) for the Men’s Lounge of Radio City Music Hall, which work by Davis was well publicised.
  • Perhaps striking is that Davis, clearly a people person, painted no people paintings. No portraits or genre groups. Not even in his early realist phase. A few self portraits is all, and good too.


Current major exhibition

“Stuart Davis: In Full Swing” is at the  Whitney Museum of American Art through September 25. It will continue at the National Gallery of Art in Washington from November 20, 2016 through March 5, 2017, at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from April 8 through August 6, 2017, and at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas from September 16, 2017 through January 8, 2018


Highlighted works by Stuart Davis….



1912, Tenement Scene, oil on canvas, 73.99 x w: 91.77 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin



1913, Ebb Tide – Provincetown, oil on canvas, 96.52 x 76.2 cm



Street Scene with Cathedral, Havana 1920 watercolor on paper 35.56 x w: 50.8 cm


1921, Lucky Strike,  84.46 x 45.72 cm, MOMA.



1922, Landscape, Gloucester, oil on canvas, 30.48 x w: 40.97 cm



  1. Eggbeater No 1, gouache on board, 36.2 x 45.42 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art



Matches No. 1, 1927, gouache on cardboard, 31.75 x 24.76 cm



Rue Descartes 1929 gouache, ink, and pencil on paper 32.08 x 47.32 cm



1928, Egg Beater No. 4, gouache on illustration board, 33.66 x 47.32 cm, The Phillips Collection



1931, House and Street, 66.4 × 107 cm, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York,



Artist in Search of a Model 1931 gouache on paper 27.3 x 46.99 cm



1938, Swing Landscape, Oil on canvas, 220.34 x 439.75 cm. COMMENT: a LARGE WPA Brooklyn mural, made for a government-funded housing project in Brooklyn. Hard-edge “Color-Field” abstract develops. But with figurative motifs.




1945-51, The Mellow Pad, oil on canvas, 66.7 x 107 cm, Brooklyn Museum of Art. COMMENT: painted over six years



 1932/1942–1954, American Painting, 101.6 x 127.64 cm, University of Nebraska at Omaha



1954, Colonial Cubism, oil on canvas, 114.63 x 153.04 cm, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis



1956, Stele, oil on canvas, 132.72 x 101.93 cm, Milwaukee Art Museum


The French Revolution, and its unfortunate coda

no job too big……

The French Revolution, and its unfortunate coda

·         Lofty but understandable ideals were quickly swallowed by what became near 30 years of sustained violence, what grew into a Europe-wide tidal wave of death and destruction.

·         Marks the birth of the Modern Age?

·         But more because its Terror and the Napoleonic dictatorship it spawned became prototypical for calamitous 20th C variants?

·         Actions speak louder than words? The Anglo-Saxon/English liberal reforming experience achieved far more?


Featured imageIllarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov (1840-94). 1874. In the Year 1812 (The Retreat from Moscow), oil on canvas, 102 x 68 cm Odessa Fine Arts Museum


Not 1/………..  but 2/  …………….


1/       002                                                                      

  2/   003

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528 Nuremberg). C1499, Justice, engraving, 10.7 × 7.7 cm, Met, NY.
CRW Nevinson (1889 – 1946). 1914-15 Returning to the Trenches, oil on canvas, 51.2 x 76.8 cm, National Gallery of Canada


They dreamed of 1/…. but 2/ arrived …… degrading into 3/

1/    004


 2/  007


3/    006

Kazimir Malevich (1879-1937). 1915 Black Suprematic Square, oil on linen canvas, 79.5 x 79.5 cm., Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
1915 Suprematist Composition (with Eight Red Rectangles), oil on canvas, 58 × 48.5 cm, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
 Jackson Pollock (1912-56) 1952. No 10 Convergence, 237.4 x 393.7 cm, Albright-Knox Art Gallery



The French Revolution which upended the Ancien Régime there erupted mid 1789, triggered by the Royalist Government having to raise money. It quickly took root and spread, feeding on a rich soil of deep, sustained and understandable domestic grievance and resentment.

The Revolution, driven by the Third Estate (representing the other 95%), started with lofty sentiments, goals, then actions, especially the August 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the abolition of privileges of the First (clergy) and Second (nobility) Estates, and later (1793) abolition of the monarchy.

But, it quickly descended into rampant widespread lawlessness, then extreme violence and injustice, in flagrant contradiction of the starting goals. The descent into disorder and violence was aggravated, propelled by:

1/ conflict among the rebelling domestic factions (“right” versus “left”),

and 2/ by external interaction – especially fear of foreign support for domestic Royalist resistance – which (from April 1792) quickly spilled into a full scale Europe-wide war which then continued on and off till 1815, about 23 years – and over 5 million lives, military and civilian- later.


After about 3 years of violent unrest, “escalating radicalism”, the Revolution lurched “left” in August 1792 when fear of foreign intervention and ongoing domestic royalist opposition helped trigger the bloody Republican Revolution, the abolition of the monarchy, Louis XVI’s execution a few months later on 21 January 1793, thence the Jacobin Terror, Sep. 1793 through mid 1794.

The surviving Girodin “right” fought back mid-1794, overthrew the Jacobins and installed the 5 year long Directory, a corrupt authoritarian anti-democratic regime which relied on the army to suppress domestic resistance (especially Royalists, especially in the Vendee) and also to help pay the bills through dividends from foreign wars, out of which Napoleon (a full general from 1795, at age 26!) emerged dominant. Finally Nov. 1799 he led a military coup, established a full blown self-serving nepotistic military dictatorship, waged war far and wide, then 1804 promoted himself Emperor!


The Revolution, including the subsequent 15 year Napoleonic dictatorship, started with noble and rational reformist democratic objectives, introduced a range of rational, secular modernising reforms (including freedom of religion, individual civil rights), but:

1/ it comprehensively failed to promote effective rule of law, to install institutional processes for real justice, respect for individual rights, freedom of expression etc;

2/ It descended into self-serving violent dictatorship from the “left” then the “right”, increasingly militarised.

The famously bloody Terror (over approx. 9 months to mid 1794) is excused by some sympathetic later historians as “Liberty or death”, as an understandable reaction to domestic resistance and fear of foreign intervention.

Before the Revolution the press was restricted to a small number of censored newspapers, in contrast to England where in the mid 18th C William Hogarth could publish biting visual satirical comment. Press publications exploded in Revolutionary France, helped to spread the new ideas. But were then proscribed, restricted so under Napoleon only 4 remained, all state-controlled.

Also the radical promotion of civil rights did not extend to slaves! To French slave trading or employing slaves in French colonies, where bloody slave revolts erupted.

Also “The abrupt end to seigneurial monopolies resulted in a massacre of wildlife.”?!

The Revolution did meet some stiff domestic resistance, particularly from some Catholics (after the Revolution dispossessed the Church and persecuted the clergy) as well as royalists.

3/ Finally, after the revolutionary journey had descended by 1799 into a corrupt disorganised dictatorship, reliant on the army for security and (in part) finance, it was hijacked by the supremely able but narcissistic and ambitious Napoleon, who overthrew the Directory.

4/ Then, ironically, he promoted rational administrative and other modernising reforms mainly to support his army and its military objectives!

5/ Thus the (family-run) Napoleonic dictatorship – which inducted, harnessed total foreign national populations and also introduced, developed total war – became a prototype for the three catastrophically destructive variants of the 20th C,

6/ So the eventual cost in lives and property, in France and across Europe, was immense, especially because the Revolution’s imperial child engulfed the rest of Europe, mainly out of French, and Napoleonic, perceived self-interest.


Ironically too once Napoleon’s prodigious ambitions were finally extinguished in 1815 and France could return to some semblance of peace it was through a restoration of the monarchy! In the Bourbon Restoration the executed king’s younger brothers took the throne, by Louis XVII, followed by his brother Charles X in 1830.


It’s interesting to contrast the catastrophic French modernising experience with that of England, ie centred on its 1640s Civil War and the 1688 “Glorious Revolution”, about 150 years earlier, in the mid 17th century. It was also bloody but far less so, and was far more constructive as a base for subsequent economic and political progress, notwithstanding the reforming process took another century or more to complete.


And it’s interesting to contemplate how France today recalls the devastating experience through rose-colored glasses. The epicentre of the internecine domestic violence is now ironically –with Orwellian overtones – called Place de la Concorde, and the main protagonist of the epic continental-wide military violence succeeding the Revolution is saluted, buried proudly in the heart of Paris.


The French Revolution helped establish the context for modern political ideologies, thus the analysis of its perceived class-conflict arguably contributed directly to the emergence of socialism.

And it highlighted the importance of rational Enlightenment-inspired Reason-based modernising political and economic reform (individual rights, equality before the law, freedom of religion, free trade), stripping away the injustice of the long established inherited privileges of monarchies and associated nobilities, of the aristocracy, and also of the entrenched Christian Church.


But actions speak louder than words and the reality is that the long and painful emergence of effective respect for individual rights (including private property), of enforceable rule of law based genuine liberal democracy in the West arguably owes far more to the hands on Anglo-Saxon / British reforming experience than to the problematic French version, notwithstanding it was long and uneven.


Whatever the long interminable debate about causes and nature there seems “a very widespread agreement … that the French Revolution was the watershed between the premodern and modern eras of Western history”. This view seems right, but alas perhaps more for negative reasons than positive.

Thus whatever the commendable ideals and founding intentions of the French Revolution, 1/ the evidential outcome was appalling and sustained violence, followed by the restoration of the monarchy, and 2/ the main message from the practical course of the French Revolution is the danger of dictatorships in the modern world, based on concocted self-serving quasi-religious national ideologies.  It shows the dangers of full blown anti-democratic centralised authority dressed up in the name of the People, which here became a prototype for the three major dictatorships which catastrophically blighted the 20th century.

But beyond these extremes it shows the dangers anywhere of self-serving authoritarian anti-democratic populism, still evident today.


So it highlights the never-ending challenge, down to the present day, of establishing and maintaining genuine, secular rule of law based liberal democratic government, a model still flagrantly resisted, avoided by obvious important countries today, by their self-serving authoritarian governments, and now too a model being assaulted by violent theocratic agendas.


Causes of the French Revolution

First, the trigger for the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 was the indebted Government having to raise money. The Government was short of money for three main reasons:

  • first, and probably most important, was the cost of wars, the Seven Years War (), and backing the American colonists in their War of Independence against the British, France’s main European rival.
  • Second, the French monarchy had been extravagant in its spending for many years.
  • Third, the French economy was inefficient and unproductive.


Moreover, second, the Government was trying to raise money against a background of sustained, deep, rising resentment.

  • Short term factors
    • the winter of 1788/89 was unusually harsh and had caused famine and high prices in many parts of the country, and followed years of bad harvests.
    • significant existing unemployment.
  • Background factors:
    • high unemployment part because increased population growth in the previous decades.
    • a tax system inefficient and unfair, so that the main tax burden fell not on the rich (the monarchy and the nobility, ie the so-called first and second estates) but on the business class and the peasants, ie the third estate, in turn comprising most of the population.


Third, the revolution’s leaders emerged from, were encouraged by a conducive contemporary intellectual climate, ie especially the 18th C Enlightenment movement which favoured a rational approach to man’s affairs, opposed to absolute monarchy and political interference from religion.

Rebellious inclinations were encouraged too by the success of the American Revolution, a war which their Government had joined on the rebels side. Also they even learned of this success at first hand directly from returning French soldiers.


The driving figures of the revolution, the leadership – coming from within the third estate – were not the peasants and the poor but from among the growing bourgeoisie, lawyers and businessmen who were educated and articulate. They were supported by some members of the second estate (the nobility), especially those with business interests.


Fourth, the king and his monarchy dropped their guard, were largely out of touch with these underlying issues, remained inflexible, unresponsive with any constructive policy change. They believed in the traditional view of the king having absolute power, based on divine authority. The king’s weakness was not helped by his wife the queen being unpopular, mainly because of her extravagant lifestyle, but also because she was foreign (Austrian).