Henri Matisse

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4. 1906–10

Source: Oxford University Press

Matisse’s rising critical reputation as leader of the Fauves was accompanied by increased sales. The success of his second one-man exhibition, held at the Galerie Druet in March 1906, enabled him to visit Algeria (Algiers, Constantine, Batna and Biskra) and to spend longer that year at Collioure. After visiting Italy in 1907, he went to Germany twice, in 1908 and again in 1910 to see the great Islamic exhibition in Munich. His art began to be exhibited and published abroad. Gertrude, Sarah and Leo Stein, who were the first Americans and among the first collectors anywhere to buy his work, introduced him to other collectors, notably Claribel and Etta Cone, and to artists, notably Picasso in 1906; Matisse’s intermittent rivalry with Picasso was to prove a lasting feature of his career. In 1908 Sarah Stein, with Hans Purrmann, helped to found Matisse’s school, which operated until 1911. Leo Stein, who later lost interest in Matisse, bought three of his most difficult paintings: the Joy of Life, Woman with Hat (1905; San Francisco, priv. col., see Watkins, 1984, p. 69) and Blue Nude—Souvenir of Biskra (1907; Baltimore, MD, Mus. A.). The Russian merchant Sergey Shchukin (see Shchukin, (1)) became the most important collector of Matisse up to 1914, commissioning two of his major canvases of the period, Dance II (1909–10) and Music (1910; both St Petersburg, Hermitage).

Partly in response to Picasso’s challenge for the leadership of the avant-garde and as a defence against criticism directed at his work, on 25 December 1908 Matisse published ‘Notes d’un peintre’, an artistic credo of which the basic tenets remained valid throughout his later development. Fundamental to his theory of art was an insistence that ‘expression’, as the ultimate goal of the artist, ‘must not be considered as separate from his pictorial means’ but that, on the contrary, it was the composition—‘the entire arrangement’ of the picture—that was expressive. ‘The simplest means’, he insisted, ‘are those which best enable an artist to express himself’ and his temperament. Banishing both anecdote and excessive literalness from his representations, he explained in a statement that has since been much quoted: ‘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, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue’.

Earlier in 1908 Matisse had moved his home, school and studio to the Hôtel Biron, the former Couvent du Sacré Coeur, Boulevard des Invalides, Paris, where Rodin was also among those who rented studio space. With the commission from Shchukin for Dance and Music in 1909, Matisse and his family first rented and then bought a house at Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb of Paris, and built a studio in its large garden. In September 1909 Matisse signed a contract with the Galeries Bernheim-Jeune, and his financial security appeared assured.

Matisse’s work during this period falls into three categories: figure compositions, still-lifes and interiors, and portraits. On his return to Collioure from North Africa in 1906, he moved away from the Fauve style of the previous year and experimented with a new language of the human figure stimulated primarily by Gauguin’s primitivism, but also by Cézanne’s compositions of bathers, by classical decorations, by African tribal sculpture and by the challenge of Picasso. In general terms, he sought to integrate the types of figure seen in the Joy of Life into the surface design so that the idyllic quality of the subject-matter could be experienced in the very form of the work.

Sculpture and painting were closely bound in this programme. Matisse’s continued treatment of the human figure in two modes, one brutal and immediate, concerned with structure and modelling, the other curvilinear and more graceful, is illustrated by a comparison of Blue Nude—Souvenir of Biskra, his only exhibit at the 1907 Salon des Indépendants, with Luxury I (1907; Paris, Pompidou), shown at the Salon d’Automne later that year. The expanded volumes of Blue Nude, contained by a heavy blue contour, are forcefully displayed across the canvas surface, whereas the figure in Luxury I, attended by her handmaidens, is executed in a linear style of classical simplicity. The differences extend also to the working methods used for the two pictures. The genesis of Blue Nude was closely related to that of a cast bronze sculpture, Reclining Nude I (1907; Paris, Pompidou), in which he explored the visual balance of contrasting forms in space. Luxury I, on the other hand, followed a process of linear refinement from preliminary drawings to a full-scale cartoon. Matisse went on to paint a second, even more simplified, version (Copenhagen, Stat. Mus. Kst), probably later in the same year.

Bathers with a Turtle (1908; St Louis, MO, A. Mus.) is the first major painting of Matisse’s maturity and the first in a series of large decorative paintings in which nudes are silhouetted against an elemental background of blue and green bands. Music (1907; New York, MOMA), a sketchy painting that represents a dancing couple as well as a crouching figure and a standing violinist, apparently featured in his discussions with Shchukin for two large-scale canvases. To clinch the commission, Matisse painted Dance I (1909; New York, MOMA), basing his circle of dancers on the figures seen in the background of the Joy of Life. He then went to great lengths to rethink the composition and to treat the contours of the figures in a more fluid way in order to express more completely the idea of movement. In the bronze La Serpentine (1909; Baltimore, MD, Mus. A.), he took his formal ideas to an extreme, distorting and elongating female anatomy so as to treat it as a visual balance of opposing rhythms and volumes.

Matisse’s original conception for the Shchukin commission appears to have been for a cycle of three paintings; one of these, a composition of bathers by a waterfall, was later transformed into the great Bathers by a River (1916; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.). Eventually Matisse produced the pair of canvases, Dance II (1909–10) and Music (1910; both St Petersburg, Hermitage), which perfectly complement each other in both subject-matter and composition: one a pounding Bacchic dance, the other a tranquil vision of harmony. When exhibited at the Salon d’Automne of 1910, before being sent to Moscow, they were judged by critics and the public to be a confusing combination of archaic and remote subject-matter with a distorted and immediate means of expression.

Broadly speaking, Matisse’s figure compositions were conceived in his imagination and confirmed in studies of the nude; his development of a monumental decorative genre based on the still-life in an interior, on the other hand, arose out of his inventive transformation of objects into relationships of form and colour achieved through the process of painting itself. The outcome of this development was the Dinner Table (Harmony in Red) (1908; St Petersburg, Hermitage), which was also bought by Shchukin. In a dining-room permeated by red, a maid places a fruit dish on an equally red table. This suffusion of the interior with a single colour is balanced by the predominant green of the garden, seen through the window on the left. Matisse again drew on his previous works, notably on the Dinner Table (1897), but also on his changing response to the painting itself as it evolved; its unrelieved flatness of presentation had been anticipated in his Cézanne-like Blue Still-life (1907; Merion Station, PA, Barnes Found.).

Given that Matisse was more interested in developing his art and in expressing his, rather than the sitter’s, personality, he tended to avoid portraits, especially commissions. Instead he preferred to paint his family and friends, who were unlikely to try to dictate the final result. He was, nevertheless, sensitive to the mood and personality of the sitter or model, and he came to depend on them for inspiration. In his efforts to progress beyond a literal likeness, however, he would either bring out an aspect of the sitter’s character through exaggeration, and sometimes through association with objects or flowers, or he would resort to a more structured mode, striving through form to express some eternal human essence. Matisse’s portraits of adults are usually in the tradition of Renaissance three-quarter-length portraits. He turned for guidance to Paolo Veronese’s Portrait of a Woman with Child and Dog (late 1540s; Paris, Louvre) when painting his friend and pupil Greta Moll (1908; London, N.G.). During ten three-hour sittings this portrait changed considerably, particularly in its colour scheme.

Nicholas Watkins

From Grove Art Online

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