Although Henri Matisse (1869-1954) is one of the most acclaimed artists of the 20th century, painting rarely came easily to him. Throughout his career, he questioned, reevaluated, and repainted his work. He used his completed canvases as tools, repeating compositions in order to compare effects, assess his progress and, as he once put it, “push further and deeper into true painting.” This fascinating process of working with pairs, trios and series is represented in “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On display until March 17, it was organized in collaboration with the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, with the sponsorship of watch brand Vacheron Constantin. The show presents 49 colored canvases that demonstrate how the creative process was as important for Matisse as the final result.
In his early years, Matisse copied old master paintings as part of his academic training. He found much to admire on the walls of the Musée du Louvre, and was particularly intrigued by the work of Paul Cézanne and Paul Signac. In 1904-1905 Matisse arranged a still life and painted it in two different ways, one evoking Cézanne, the other Signac. Matisse’s stylistic exploration sparked the creation of pairs in which neither painting is entirely indebted to another artist.
During a sojourn in the fishing village of Collioure in the summer of 1906, he depicted a local teenager in a work that bears the hallmarks of his vividly colored, expressive Fauvism (Young Sailor I, 1906). He then painted a second version of the compositionon an identically sized canvas, this time employing flat color and deformation to produce a drastically different effect (Young Sailor II, 1906). Unsure of his new direction, Matisse told friends that Young Sailor II had been painted by the local postman.
Over the next 10 years, Matisse took a variety of approaches to creating pairs. He used a full-size cartoon and squaring to create his next major pair, life-size representations of a trio of nudes near the sea (Le Luxe I, 1907 and Le Luxe II, 1907-08). In 1914, he painted two large views from the window of his Parisian studio (Notre-Dame, 1914). Seen together, they emphasize issues that intrigued him at the time: means of representation, the role of color and the question of what constitutes a finished canvas. Painting in pairs on canvases of the same size offered Matisse alternate solutions to any given pictorial challenge.
Painting sessions with the sensual Italian model Laurette over a period of six or seven months in 1916-17 were instrumental in changing the direction of Matisse's work, as he abandoned the restrictions inherent in painting in pairs and fully embraced larger series. This 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 painted in Nice in the winter and spring of 1917–18, including Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage). And it was on his mind again when he painted the distinctive cliffs of Étretat in 1920.
In the 1930s, Matisse hired a photographer to document his progress on certain paintings. His model and studio assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, recalled that the photographer was called in “when, at the end of a session, it seemed to Matisse he had come to the end of his work or he decided he had arrived at a significant stage....” Instead of setting his canvas aside and repeating the composition on a new canvas of identical size, as he had done in the 1900s and 1910s, Matisse used the photographs 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.
In December 1945, six recent paintings by Matisse were displayed at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. Each was juxtaposed with large framed photographs documenting its evolution. The photographs are not depictions of related works; instead, they trace the evolution of the canvas they surround. Matisse embraced the opportunity to put his process on display and, in so doing, dispelled the notion that he worked spontaneously. He insisted that the only point of the exhibition was to present “the progressive development of the artworks through their various respective states toward definitive conclusions and precise signs.” By agreeing to make the photographs public, Matisse implicitly acknowledged that their presence added to the viewers’ understanding and appreciation of his work, similar to the way this new exhibition functions. In fact, the Metropolitan Museum will recreate three walls of the Galerie Maeght exhibition, featuring La France(1939), The Dream (1940), and Still Life with Magnolia (1941).
The theme of the studio interior—a consistent motif in Matisse’s oeuvre throughout his career—was addressed in his final painted series, created from 1944 to 1948 at the Villa Le Rêve in Vence, France. The septuagenarian artist felt that a lifetime of work had prepared him to use color as a means of intimate expression. In the spring of 1948, he wrote to his son Pierre that his most recent paintings “impress everyone who has seen them because they are vivid and rich. Interior with an Egyptian Curtain (1948), Interior with Black Fern (1948), and Large Red Interior (1948) 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. At the time, critic Clement Greenberg concluded that “Matisse is at the present moment painting as well as he ever has painted before, and in some respects perhaps, even better.”