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Around the galleries

Matisse as serial painter

— February 2013

Article read level: Undergraduate / student

Associated media

Henri Matisse  Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage)  1918  Oil on canvas (73.7 x 60.3 cm)  Philadelphia Museum of Art, A.E. Gallatin Collection, 1952  © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Matisse in Search of True Painting

Edited by Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow

‘Matisse in Search of True Painting’, which closes at New York’s Metropolitan Museum on 17 March,is subtitled ‘an exploration of Matisse’s painting process’. Some still lifes and landscapes from his formative period (1899–1905) seem to show that Matisse wanted to test traditions that seem opposed to one another and to find where he stood or how he might reconcile these contradictory cultural resources (light/colour atmosphere as against line and form, or empirical observation as against a priori method). By 1906–7, though, it looks as if Matisse was finding his mature idiom.

The show originated as ‘Matisse: paires et séries’ at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 2012 and was modified for its subsequent showings and provided with the new English-language catalogue reviewed here. It sprang from a comprehensive study of the pair of paintings, Le Luxe I and II, made (along with a full-scale drawing) during 1907–8. The project ballooned into an examination of pairs, trios and series of paintings made throughout Matisse’s career but excludes the late paper cut-outs (perhaps unavailable for loans overseas, since some were included in the Paris version of the show).

There is much careful scholarship in this catalogue as a whole but it is not without its faults. Sampling the Luxe chapter, for instance, the connoisseurship and science are good. A just-visible red grid is noticed in Le Luxe II, while infrared photographs reveal the pencil markings for the grid at the picture’s edges. The use of transfer processes and distemper rather than oil in an effort to emulate fresco is seen as a stylistic influence of Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes, recently seen by Matisse, as is the hardening of surfaces in version 2 at the expense of breathy brushwork and surface modulation.

Simply confronting such stylistic history on its own terms for a moment here, Le Luxe II actually expunges the intense modelling of Giotto’s work and produces something closer to, say, Egyptian murals but with the plasticity of Renaissance figuration. Certainly Matisse wanted to simplify and flatten, but what is missing from this analysis is the contemporary interest in ‘primitivism’ (and its social context), which led Matisse to associate flattening with greater naivety, truthfulness, sincerity, expression and force. Seen from that point of view, the Luxe paintings become a critique of academic art rather than what the writers here describe as a ‘dialogue’ with it.

It is impossible to summarise the varied scholarship of so many essays, but one issue calls for some discussion: the way that the focus on ‘pairs and series’ as an organizing concept becomes slippery, unfocused and open to query. As Aagesen and Rabinow acknowledge, ‘Matisse’s pairs are part of a continuum’. Firstly, it would be feasible, for example, to take one of the first proper pairs of paintings, Le Luxe I and I, and connect them serially to Matisse’s earlier nudes and to his involvement with arcadian imagery and other ‘elemental’ figurations made around 1907. Secondly, the 1907–17 groupings of two or three works are often not at all visually connected except by locale (as in the Moroccan Garden trio) or else we find loose explorations of a still-life-in-interior set-up involving changes of position, scale, focus and colour pattern that persist through to the end of his painting practice. This is true of Matisse’s ‘Nice period’ hotel rooms with figures. Themes and Variations, the (sub)title of a book of drawings published in 1943, is the more nuanced final characterization of Matisse’s later sets of pictures.

Finally, the catalogue treats the photographs of the different states of Matisse’s paintings as a sort of series. Recasting painted images in their entirety was a characteristic of Matisse’s practice from an early period. This was what Matisse wanted his public to see when he began releasing for publication photographs of the different states of his paintings along their way to completion. He finally exhibited paintings with photographs of these states alongside them at the Galerie Maeght in 1945. Completing them involved satisfying standards of spontaneous expressivity and surprising personality. We can see that clearly in the light, floating effect of The Dream (1940). Matisse really did work hard at putting himself in the position of achieving such expressivity through fairly rapid recasting of the painted image.

Aegeson and Rabinow argue that the photographs of the different states are ‘another example of seriality in Matisse’s work’, the states being equal to the short runs of paintings examined in the rest of exhibition. The ‘process of creation…[becomes] a dimension of his art as important as the finished canvas’. The states apparently suggest a dimension of time for us in the finished work.

Against this, I would argue that Matisse’sNotes of a Painter (1908) contradict these assertions, as in the Notes Matisse expressed a yearning for an image outside time, and his process was geared to achieving a calm and blissful state within both himself and the potential spectator from the finalized work. Clearly, the final image in The Dream is a big expressive leap from the earlier states: the process of painting has achieved a more daring image of ‘dream’. Put simply, it is a postmodernist travesty of Matisse to suggest that the earlier states of the painting were equal to the finished work. Happily the evidence provided by the exhibition and the bulk of the catalogue texts strongly suggests the aesthetic power achieved by such studied and daring creative endeavour.

The catalogue includes an overview by the chief curators and editors Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabonow, followed by 28 short pieces by them and other authors, each piece devoted to one set of works in the show. Many of these are by the curators of the museums where the works are housed and thus include their institution’s focused scholarship and conservational research.

Matisse in Search of True Painting, edited by Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow, is published by Yale University Press, London, 2012, 260pp., 151 colour illus, 51 mono illus, £35 . ISBN 978-0-300-18857-8 (hbk)



Adrian Lewis
Art historian and artist

Media credit: © 2012 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Background info

Henri Matisse  lived from 1869 to 1954.

The full text for Matisse’s ‘Notes of a Painter’ (La Grande Revue, 1908, 25 Dec., 2, 24, pp.731-45) can be found online at
A good Matisse website for beginners is
Matisse can be seen on film working on the Vence Chapel at

Editor's notes

A sampling of the Metropolitan exhibition can be found by clicking the slideshow at the New York Times website.

Various paintings are introduced on video by Rebecca Rabinow (gallery by gallery) if you click the Met Media link alongside the room texts (rooms 2, 5, 6, and 8 only) on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

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