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Did Matisse Ever Reach “True Painting”?

Sometime in the early 1930s, Henri Matisse hired a photographer to document his paintings at different stages of development. These photographs became signposts along the road toward what Matisse wanted to achieve in his painting and served not just as reminders, but also as alternative paths for consideration and reconsideration. In Matisse: In Search of True Painting, which runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 17, 2013, Matisse’s well-known recursive process is once again displayed, but for the first time art historians question why the master worked this way. “Taken as a whole,” curators Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow write in the introduction to the catalog to the exhibition, “it reveals Matisse as an artist who conducted a dialogue with his earlier works, someone who continually questioned himself and his methods in order to, as he put it, ‘push further and deeper into true painting.’” By the end of the exhibition, the question remains for us, as for him, if Matisse ever reached his destination.

Aagesen and Rabinow see the origin of Matisse’s practice in his academic training copying the Old Masters. “The traditional practice of copying supplied Matisse with both a conceptual basis and a methodological background for working with repeated images,” they explain. Placing two still lifes by Matisse from 1899 side by side, we can see one done in the style of Cezanne and the other in that of Signac—the two artists most powerfully present in Matisse’s mind at the time. Matisse’s early mimicry, however, put into question his originality. “I have never avoided the influence of others,” Matisse countered. “If the fight [with the Old Masters] is fatal and the personality succumbs, it is a matter of destiny.” Matisse met the anxiety of influence head on, believing that what influences didn’t kill his painting would only make it stronger.

From paired works, Matisse soon moved on to series of works similar to the series of Impressionist artists such as Monet and Renoir, both of whom he sought out and met in 1917. But, “[u]nlike Monet,” Claudine Grammont writes in the catalog, “who tends in his series to reproduce even the most subtle variations of atmosphere and light without varying the technical approach to the motif, Matisse tries out various modes of representation.” Matisse could do a simple view of the Pont Saint-Michel in multiple styles (several of which are in the show), tinkering with brush strokes in this one or pushing the envelope in terms of color in another. The selection of works in the exhibition really allows you to see Matisse’s racing mind at work as early as the late 1890s. By the late 1910s and early 1920s Matisse settles in to the series subjects that would dominate the rest of his career: still lifes, odalisques, and hotel interiors.

Matisse in the 1930s, thanks to photography, continued his experimental evolution by turning a single painting into a series of sorts. “For the artist and anyone else fortunate enough to see them,” Aagesen and Rabinow comment, “these photographs have the capacity to multiply one canvas into a series, thereby adding a dimension of time and process to the final painting.” Matisse’s first post-World War II show in 1945 featured several canvases surrounded by these step-by-step photographs. In a telegram to the gallery owner, Matisse stressed the “didactic character of this exhibition,” which he felt showed how, “[f]ollowing my personal logic, I continue from one state to another toward conclusive and definitive results.” Where others might hide the process of painting, Matisse placed it front and center, hoping that it would teach the public the importance of process and “personal logic” to the painter.

But why was it so important to Matisse? Alastair Wright evokes the literary theory of Fredric Jameson as a possible explanation. Jameson argues that a signifier can never have a stable sense, that is, a sign can never be limited to just one meaning. That instability can either paralyze you with doubt or it can energize you with possibility. Wright sees Matisse “celebrating” the instability of modern art’s multi-movement approach and experiencing “a sense of euphoric intensity” about process that he longed to share. Aagensen views Matisse’s process photographs as acting “much the same way as the frames of a film do,” thus creating “a ‘filmic’ painting—an image whose contents were governed by its genesis.” In other words, a Matisse looks the way it does precisely because of the whole history of its experimentation and not just because of its final presentation. Cecile Debray, in an analysis of Matisse’s last interiors, quotes Matisse from 1946, years after a brush with death from intestinal cancer, looking back on that experience and calling it “a liberation,” after which “life was gratis from [then] on.” Perhaps Matisse always felt that liberation, which was boosted by a moment in the shadow of death. One “true” explanation for Matisse’s purpose for his process proves as elusive as “true painting” itself.

Matisse: In Search of True Painting is one of those shows in which reading the catalog is essential to realize all the subtleties that a trained eye working for a lifetime gathers. The short chapters in the catalog serve as case studies each peeling away a different layer of the mystery of Matisse. Rabinow and Isabelle Duvernois look at two versions of a portrait of a young sailor and link the “forced deformations” to Matisse’s appreciation for African sculpture. Later, Rabinow and Duvernois take two almost identical versions of the same subject and note how when Matisse “shifted himself a few feet to the right and turned to view his subject on a diagonal” that small change generated “a dynamic energy and a more traditional sense of depth.” Jack Flam explains how Matisse plays with time itself in the simple portrayal of goldfish swimming in a fishbowl in an otherwise still, almost timeless room. Flam later demonstrates how Matisse’s juxtaposition of women with plants or flowers creates a “transfer of linear energy” by “[k]eeping the viewer’s eye in continual motion” in pursuit of a “main subject… diffused over the entire surface of the canvas.”

In one of the more interesting explorations, Doina Lemny examines The Dream (shown above, right) in the context of the 15 photographic states documented (the earliest of which is shown above, left). “Preoccupied at the time with ‘liberating’ his paintings from perspective,” Lemny argues, “Matisse treated the embroidered areas on the blouse almost as decoupage.” Thus, the woman’s features take on a secondary role to the pattern on her garment. Borrowing a phrase from Flam, Demny presents The Dream as a prime example of Matisse’s “metaphysics of decoration” in which a simple pattern could take on a powerful life of its own and dominate what could have been a simple figure study.

This metaphysical Matisse flows throughout the exhibition. Matisse had an almost Zen-like dedication to the process rather than the result. The discipline to pursue some elusive truth must have required a religious zeal for art. And yet, the personality of the painting remains—the connecting, continually improvising thread that resists the personlessness of Zen. Focusing on Matisse’s process and its documentation in paint and photography made me think of the seemingly endless versions of songs by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who seemed as much in pursuit of true music as Matisse was of true painting. If there’s such a thing as Zen Jazz, Matisse and Coltrane would have practiced it.

“I have set out on a very hard road that seems troublesome to me because of the little time that my age will grant me,” Matisse wrote in his later years. “And yet, to be at peace with myself, I cannot do otherwise.” Matisse needed to pursue “true painting” to be truly Matisse. Anything less than wanting it all could never satisfy him. Matisse: In Search of True Painting may not answer the questions it raises in any satisfying way, but it will raise your awareness of the dedication of this artist (and any artist) who strives for the unattainable.  

[Image: (Left) Reprint of archival photograph documentingHenri Matisse‘s processof painting The Dream, 1940.January 7, 1940. Reprint of archival photograph. 31 1/2 x 26 15/16 in. (80 x 68.4 cm) (Frame) Image: 23 1/4 x 18 5/8 in. (59 x 47.4 cm). © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. (Right) Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). The Dream, 1940. Oil on canvas. 31 7/8 x 25 9/16 in. (81 x 65 cm). Private collection. © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.]

[Many thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for providing me with the images above and other press materials related to Matisse: In Search of True Painting, which runs through March 17, 2013. Many thanks also to Yale University Press for providing me with a review copy of the catalog to the exhibition.]


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