Pure Essence: What makes Matisse great

While writers are never expected to produce a book, a play or even a single poem without prior drafts and rewrites, artists are sometimes held to a different standard: the spontaneous masterpiece. This is especially true of modern artists whose work involves distillation or the capturing of a feeling or the conveying of energy or all these at once. The wonder of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is that he could render paintings that appear spontaneous, pared to their essential qualities, full of exuberant, unconventional colors, and might, like a ballerina’s leap, seem easy to execute. The reality, of course, is quite different.

Like a toned dancer, Matisse could produce his work only after submitting to an arduous process. Matisse sketched and painted his subjects repeatedly in pairs, trios and whole series, sometimes over a period of years. This creative process is the organizing principle behind “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, on view through March 17, 2013. The exhibition was organized in collaboration with the National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, where it has been shown already. In it you will find galleries of the artist’s finished paintings presented alongside other treatments of the same subject.


The effect of seeing these various efforts grouped together is enthralling. That is because the viewer can almost glimpse into the mind and heart of Matisse himself. We can almost see him at work, looking, thinking and comparing the results of his earlier choices before striking out in yet another direction with a new version—creativity in motion. Matisse found his subjects “ever new,” he said, even when he painted the same still life or view from his studio window over and over again.

Matisse maintained a disciplined manner of working throughout his career. Of the 49 canvases in this show, the first was painted when he was 30, the last when he was 79. And he didn’t stop then, but continued the same process to the end of his life, making a number of preparatory drawings in different styles for the Stations of the Cross in the cathedral at Vence. (These sketches would have fit well with the theme of the exhibition, but are not included; nor are the more familiar variations of “The Pink Nude.”)

Matisse fans will likely have seen in previous exhibitions a few of the pairs and trios shown here. “Young Sailor I” and “Young Sailor II” (1906), for example, are often shown side by side. The first of the two paintings is a more realistic portrait of the sitter, while the second is a looser, flattened interpretation, referred to as a “deformation” intended by the artist, lest anyone think it was a slip up. Matisse himself sheepishly said it had been painted by the postman.

In “Seated Nude” and “Nude with a White Scarf” (1909) Matisse followed up his sketchy first effort with a second painting much more deliberate and conclusive, its colors deepened and the figure outlined thickly in black. A comparison of the 1914 pair “Interior with Goldfish” and “Goldfish and Palette” is even more striking, in that the first painting led the artist to explore a detail in a second work. And explore it he did. In the first version, Matisse directs the viewer to look through his studio window to a well-lit building in the distance. In order to see it, we must look past the goldfish bowl set in front of the window and a balcony grill. In the second painting, by contrast, Matisse leaves out the entire view and instead makes the goldfish the focal point, setting it off against a large, black vertical stripe, a decision that causes him not only to obscure the palette mentioned in the title (look for it on the right) but to convert the grillwork into a horizontal pattern set off against solid blue. As a result, the second painting is transformed. It is no longer a “scene” painting at all, but has become modern, cropped, abstract. 

The paintings of Laurette, a professional model who spent half a year with Matisse and posed in various costumes, hats and accessories from among his extensive collection, constitute the first series he painted. Of some 50 paintings of her, three are shown and can be compared.

Matisse selects one of his favorite sculptures, a nude woman with her arm raised behind her head, as a subject in three paintings (“Goldfish” and two with the same title, “Sculpture and Vase of Ivy”). His placement of the sculpture next to other objects—an apple, a goldfish bowl, a vase—looks to be part of the artist’s exploration of flattened space. He also uses the sculpture to present the human figure as “one form among many” of comparable size. Seldom has the artist reduced a live model to the size of other objects in a composition, but this little sculpture allows him to do so. Matisse was an accomplished sculptor who often turned to sculpture’s tactile three-dimensionality when he reached an impasse in painting. Sculpture became another excavation tool that helped him dig deeper in his search for what he called “pure essence.”

Matisse also painted images of his own paintings into new works. He may have loved these paintings particularly or painted them anew to consider them again. He may also have considered them to be elements or building blocks of a new creation in the making (see “Nasturtiums with the Painting ‘Dance’ I” and “Large Red Interior”)

The artist’s practice of looking repeatedly at his own work and plumbing its depths served him in another vital respect. It enabled Matisse to drink from his own well (or to stick to his own inner lights, to change the metaphor) even as other artists, many of them his friends, broke new ground. He painted with Paul Signac and tried pointillist paintings himself (see “Luxe, calme, et volupte” and “Still Life with Purro II”). He also incorporated cubist elements in much of his work and understood what Picasso was doing over decades. Matisse was influenced by new movements but not bowled over. None of these other forces derailed him from his own track.

In the 1930s Matisse hired a photographer to document his work in various stages of development and used the photos—all in black and white—as another step in his creative process. Then in 1945, for the first time he publicly displayed six paintings at the Galerie Maeght in Paris with the photos of his preparatory works. In this way Matisse insisted that the process of making art was as important for the public to see as were the finished works. Fortunately, the current exhibition includes three sets from the Maeght show: “La France,” “The Dream” and “Still Life with Magnolia”—all of them magnificent. “The Dream” series, with myriad preparatory drawings, illustrates the evolution of an artist’s idea. Viewers might wish to spend time in Gallery 7, comparing for themselves what Matisse has done, considering and assessing his decisions. Since it isn’t always obvious why he changed this or that, it helps to read in the wall text that the artist’s stated aim was to “condense the meaning of [a] body by seeking its essential lines.” But which lines are those? A careful look will reveal exactly what Matisse thought they were. 

Short of being invited into the artist’s studio for a tour and a long chat about how he works—sadly, no longer a possibility—this exhibition provides the next best thing.

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