If my story were ever to be written truthfully from start to finish, it would amaze everyone*
Modernists and post-Impressionists such as French painter, draughtsman, sculptor, printmaker, designer and writer Henri-Émile Benoît Matisse (1869 – 1954) constantly worked on theories of colour, spirituality, psychology, perception, as well as considered the ideas behind art that can sometimes become more important than the image itself.
He studied law before abandoning it to start to paint in 1891 studying art at the Académie Julian and École des Beaux-Arts with Gustave Moreau.
Matisse: In Search of True Painting was a show held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York December 4, 2012—March 17, 2013.
Forty-nine of his most vibrant canvases were displayed, demonstrating how he used his completed canvases as tools, ‘repeating compositions in order to compare effects, gauge his progress and as he put it, to “push further and deeper into true painting”.
Matisse’s work particularly emphasized flat planes and bright vivid colours.
He used light effectively, reflecting it from different sources to create his own pictorial language, which changed stylistically as he progressed forward, always attempting to discover and arrive at ‘the essential character of things’.
For Matisse, the process of creation was not simply a means to an end but an integral dimension of his art that was as important as the finished canvas. The critic Clement Greenberg, writing in The Nation in 1949, called Matisse a “self-assured master who can no more help painting well than breathing.”
Receptive to a broad range of influences, Henri Matisse was born into an age when the transition from archaic alchemy to modern chemistry during the nineteenth century meant that new metallic elements, such as Chromium, could be treated with different acids and combined with various other metals to provide a wider range of colours.
For many years academics and academies had subscribed to a muted palette in the manner of the old masters.
But suddenly in the 1870s a group of rebellious young impressionable artists had burst onto the scene using fresh, clean colours on a white ground painting in colour directly onto a primed canvas.
I would like to recapture that freshness of vision, which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it*
Matisse didn’t come to art but rather it came to him and once it possessed his heart and soul he was completely lost. Recovering from an attack of appendicitis his mother brought him a box of colours to keep him amused.
“From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life. I threw myself into it like a beast that plunges towards the thing it loves.”*
Matisse visited painter John Peter Russell on the island Belle Île off the coast of Brittany in 1897 and 1898. It was Russell who introduced him to him to the work of the Impressionists, particularly the work of Van Gogh, a good friend of Russell’s who was completely unknown at the time.
It had an immediate impact and Matisse’s style changed completely. He would later say “Russell was my teacher”…he “explained color theory to me.”
From 1906 – 1917 Matisse lived at Paris establishing his home and studio. Auguste Rodin the sculptor was a neighbour as was writer Jean Cocteau and dancer Isadora Duncan, all of whom would have an impact on his psyche.
This is the period when many of his finest works were created, when he was an active part of the great gathering of artists at Montparnasse all sparking off each other.
He became involved with modernist author and prolific art collector Gertrude Stein, who was larger than life and the host of a weekly ‘at home’ salon after 1903 that included many expats. This included writer Ernest Hemingway, poet T.S. Eliot, authors James Joyce and F Scott Fitzgerald. Michael Steins’ wife Sarah took a keen interest in Matisee and his art.
It was at Gertrude Stein’s house where Matisse first met Pablo Picasso, who was 11 years younger than he was. Picasso later said: “No one has ever looked at Matisse’s paintings more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.”
Late in the nineteenth century chemists had synthesized organic pigments such as, Indigo, Madder, Carmine, Tyrian purple and Indian Yellow. In 1905 the Nobel Prize was presented to Adolf Von Baeyer for his synthesis of Carmine and Indigo.
Needless to say the impact of all these new, bright, inexpensive pigments in tubes had a profound effect on art and artists, let alone work and workers.
The ultimate success story was the manufacture of synthetic ultramarine. Lapis lazuli, the semi precious gemstone ancient Egyptians had so admired and crushed to make paint or jewellery for over 6,000 years.
Monsieur Emile Guimet (1836-1918) a Lyons industrialist discovered the secret of reproducing its intense blue synthetically. He simulated the natural conditions on the planet when Lapis Lazuli was first formed in the ground by fusing together in his laboratory five simple inexpensive materials sand, charcoal, sulphur, kaolin and sodium carbonate at a high temperature in a furnace.
Matisse’s mother encouraged his change of heart to art, although she warned him not to adhere to any ‘rules’ but to listen to his own heart and to follow his passion. At times they so overwhelmed him that when he became engaged to his fiancée Amélie Parayre he warned her that while he loved her he loved painting more.
While the women in his life were more or less pleased with the chain of events that had taken place his father certainly wasn’t.
Émile Hippolyte Matisse, was a grain merchant, whose family were traditionally weavers. A practical ‘hands on’ man a career that involved just painting for pleasure for him would have been a very disappointing choice and not something that he would have related to.
The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his nature; the shock, with the original reaction*
His first solo exhibition in 1904 did not glean too much of a reaction. He had a trip to Morocco in 1906 that was life changing. He had a keen interest in textiles and during his student days was known to have carpets, embroideries, wall hangings and all sorts of colourful textiles colouring his life.
The revitalizing spirit he was moved by in Morocco would live on in his imagination.
Completing two large views from the window of his Parisian studio in 1914 he explored the role of color and what constituted a finished canvas.
As part of Matisse’s early training he copied ‘old masters’ at the Musée du Louvre and in the process discovered the work of painters he admired including Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906) and Paul Signac (1863-1935).
Their work inspired him stylistically, although he really only sparked off their work to create his own.
This included his ‘pairs’, a painting challenge he set himself that lasted for just on a decade.
What Matisse would do was choose a subject and paint it in the manner of Les Fauves (The Wild Ones), a short-lived grouping of early 20th century artists, whose works emphasized painterly qualities and strong colour over the values of reality retained by the Impressionists.
When it was completed he would paint a second version in a drastically different style. Painting pairs on canvases of the same size offered Matisse alternate solutions to any given pictorial challenge.
Matisse’s enthusiasm for working in series coincided with his revived interest in Impressionism.
It was on his mind when he attempted to capture the essence of a light-filled room in a series of canvases completed at Nice in the winter and spring of 1917–18
They included the Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage) (Philadelphia Museum of Art), The Open Window (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage) (private collection), Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage) (Statens Museum for Kunst).
He also painted the distinctive cliffs of Étretat in 1920—in Large Cliff—Fish (The Baltimore Museum of Art), Large Cliff-Two Rays (Norton Museum of Art), and Large Cliff—Eel (The Columbus Museum of Art).
When he travelled to America in 1929 he was commissioned to paint a large mural for the two-storey picture gallery for an important collector of modern art.
The theme he chose was dance.
He loved the possibilities and exuberant aspect of dance movement and he often highlighted the simplicity of the female form against an abstract background.
Matisse loved dance so much he also became involved with the Ballet Russes a company who were busy revolutionising the art of ballet into a fabulous fusion of art, movement and music.
Along with other major artists of his time such as Pablo Picasso, George Braque, André Derain, Natalie Goncharova and others he designed costumes for them.
It has bothered me all my life that I do not paint like everybody else*
During the 1930s Matisse hired a photographer to document his progress using them to preserve states of his paintings.
He consulted them as he worked, comparing them to the painting in order to see whether he had advanced or regressed.
During the 40’s he was busy documenting ‘interiors’ seeking to ‘impress everyone who had seen them because they are vivid and rich.
Interior with an Egyptian Curtain (1948, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), Interior with Black Fern (1948, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel), and Large Red Interior (1948, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris) made their public debut in February 1949 at Pierre Matisse’s New York gallery, where they were displayed unframed so that visitors would feel embraced and then transported by the color.
The critic Clement Greenberg was not alone in concluding that “Matisse is at the present moment painting as well as he ever has painted before, and in some respects perhaps, even better.”
I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.
During his lifetime Matisse refreshed his creative energy and inner self by swapping painting for drawing, for sculpture, for costume design and also writing. He produced twelve books, all of which were artist books common in France around the turn of the century.
They are what we know as ‘coffee table’ books, beautiful deluxe limited editions meant to be both read, collected and admired for their own sake.
He was inspired by poetry and read it early in the morning before he took up his brush.
He loved French medieval poetry as well as the more ‘avant-garde writings of his day by such as Stéphane Mallarmé, Henri de Montherlant, Louis Aragon and others.
For him poetry was the breathe of life, like oxygen and it kept him young at heart.
His long career would culminate in a highly original series of works made of paper cutouts, which confirmed his reputation along with Pablo Picasso, as one of the major artists of the 20th century.
‘Matisse dodged all ideas except perhaps one: that art is life by other means’. He observed …’art has its value; it is a search after truth and truth is all that counts’*
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012, Updated 2015