The 20th century
Instinct must be thwarted just as one prunes the branches of a tree
so that it will grow better.
— Henri Matisse
Matisse, Henri (-Émile-Benoît)
(b. Dec. 31, 1869, Le Cateau, Picardy, Fr.–d. Nov. 3, 1954, Nice)
artist often regarded as the most important French painter of the 20th century.
The leader of the
movement around 1900,
Matisse pursued the expressiveness of colour throughout his career.
His subjects were largely domestic or figurative, and a distinct
Mediterranean verve presides in the treatment.
Matisse, Master of Color
The art of our century has been dominated by two men: Henri Matisse and
They are artists of classical greatness, and their visionary forays
into new art have changed our understanding of the world. Matisse was
the elder of the two, but he was a slower and more methodical man
by temperament and it was Picasso who initially made the greater splash.
was a born leader and taught and encouraged other painters, while Picasso,
inhibited them with his power: he was a natural czar.
Matisse’s artistic career was long and varied, covering many different
styles of painting from
Impressionism to near Abstraction.
Early on in his career Matisse was viewed as a Fauvist, and his
celebration of bright colors reached its peak in 1917 when he began
to spend time on the French Riviera at Nice and Vence. Here he
concentrated on reflecting the sensual color of his surroundings and
completed some of his most exciting paintings. In 1941 Matisse was
diagnosed as having duodenal cancer and was permanently confined to
a wheelchair. It was in this condition that he completed the magnificent
Chapel of the Rosary in Vence.
Matisse’s art has an astonishing force and lives by innate right in a
paradise world into which Matisse draws all his viewers. He gravitated to
the beautiful and produced some of the most powerful beauty ever painted.
He was a man of anxious temperament, just as Picasso, who saw him as his
only rival, was a man of peasant fears, well concealed. Both artists, in
their own fashion, dealt with these disturbances through the sublimation
of painting: Picasso destroyed his fear of women in his art, while Matisse
coaxed his nervous tension into serenity. He spoke of his art as being
like “a good armchair”– a ludicrously inept comparison for such a
brilliant man– but his art was a respite, a reprieve, a comfort to him.
Matisse initially became famous as the King of the
inappropriate name for this gentlemanly intellectual: there was no wildness
in him, though there was much passion. He is an awesomely controlled artist,
and his spirit, his mind, always had the upper hand over the “beast”
Notre-Dame, une fin d’après-midi
(A Glimpse of Notre Dame in the Late Afternoon)
1902 (130 Kb);
Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 72.5 x 54.5 cm (28 1/2 x 21 1/2 in);
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY
Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA
The experimental years
Matisse’s Fauvist years were superseded by an experimental period, as he
abandoned three-dimensional effects in favor of dramatically simplified
areas of pure color, flat shape, and strong pattern. The intellectual
splendor of this dazzlingly beautiful art appealed to the Russian mentality,
and many great Matisses are now in Russia. One is The Conversation
(1909; 177 x 217 cm (5 ft 9 3/4 in x 7 ft 1 1/2 in))
in which husband and wife converse. But the conversation is voiceless.
They are implacably opposed: the man– a self portrait– is dominating and
upright, while the woman leans back sulkily in her chair. She is
imprisoned in it, shut in on all sides. The chair’s arms hem her in, and yet
the chair itself is almost indistinguishable from the background:
she is stuck in the prison of her whole context. The open window offers
escape; she is held back by an iron railing. He towers above, as dynamic
as she is passive, every line of his striped pyjamas undeviatingly upright,
a wholly directed man.
His neck thickens to keep his outline straight and firm, an arrow of
concentrated energy. The picture cannot contain him and his head continues
beyond it and into the outside world. He is greater that it all, and the sole
“word” of this inimical conversation is written in the scroll of the
rail: Non. Does he say no to his intensity of life?
They deny each other forever.
But denial is essentially antipathetic to Matisse. He was a great celebrator,
and to many his most characteristic pictures are the wonderful odalisques
he painted in Nice (he loved Nice for the sheer quality of its warm, southern
light). Though such a theme was not appreciated at the time, it is impossible
for us to look at Odalisque with Raised Arms
(1923; 65 x 50 cm (25 1/2 x 19 3/4)) and feel that Matisse is exploiting
her. The woman herself is unaware of him, lost in private reverie as she
surrenders to the sunlight, and she, together with the splendid opulence of
her chair, he diaphanous skirt, and the intricately decorated panels on
either side, all unite in a majestic whole that celebrates the glory of
creation. It is not her abstract beauty that attracts Matisse, but her
concrete reality. He reveals a world of supreme decoration: for example,
the small black patches of underarm hair on the odalisque are almost a witty
inverted comma mark round the globes of her breasts and the rose pink center
of each nipple.
Sculpting in paper
Picasso and Matisse were active to the end of their lives, but while
Picasso was preoccupied with his ageing sexuality, Matisse moved into
a period of selfless invention. In this last phase, too weak to stand at
an easel, he created his papercuts, carving in colored paper, scissoring
out shapes, and collaging them into sometimes vast pictures. These works,
daringly brilliant, are the nearest he ever came to abstraction.
Beasts of the Sea (1950; 295.5 x 154 cm (9 ft 8 in x 5 ft 1/2 in))
gives a wonderful underwater feeling of fish, sea cucumbers, sea horses,
and water-weeds, the liquid liberty of the submarine world where most of us
can never go. Its geometric rightness and chromatic radiance sum up the
two great gifts of this artist and it is easy to see why he is the greatest
colorist of the 20th century. He understood how elements worked together,
how colors and shapes could come to life most startingly when set in context:
everything of Matisse’s works together superbly.