Nancy and I have just spent a marvelous afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum seeing MATISSE: IN SEARCH OF TRUE PAINTING.  This incredible exhibition (organized by The Met, in collaboration with the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, and the Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris), which opened in early December, is on display until 17 March 2013, and it simply should not be missed!


Matisse (1869–1954) was one of the greatest French artists of the first half of the 20th century, and when he was good, he was extraordinarily good.  Some of his work is among our very favorite art of all time.


This show, MATISSE: IN SEARCH OF TRUE PAINTING, has assembled some fabulous examples of his painting—some that we haven’t seen since the amazing 1992 retrospective of his work at MoMA, and some we have never seen.  (While many of these great works are from museums we frequently visit [the Met, MoMA, and the Pompidou Center in Paris], many are from places we seldom get to [Baltimore, St. Louis, Washington, DC, Philadelphia], some from places we never get to [Denmark, Switzterland, Finland, Belgium, and Houston], and some are from private collections. This fact alone would make the show a necessary experience.  But, in addition, this show has attempted to bring together some of the works Matisse did in pairs or trios or series, which provides a most unusual insight into the process of his creativity.  As described by Rebecca Rabinow for the Metropolitan Museum's presentation of the show,


Throughout his career, he questioned, repainted, and reevaluated his work. He used his completed canvases as tools, repeating compositions in order to compare effects, gauge his progress, and, as he put it, "push further and deeper into true painting." While this manner of working with pairs, trios, and series is certainly not unique to Matisse, his need to progress methodically from one painting to the next is striking. Matisse: In Search of True Painting presents this particular aspect of Matisse's painting process by showcasing forty-nine vibrantly colored canvases. For Matisse, the process of creation was not simply a means to an end but a dimension of his art that was as important as the finished canvas. (from the Met’s website)


The comments I quote below from the Met’s online presentation of the exhibition were written by Rebecca Rabinow, who, along with Dorthe Aagesen, are the editors of—and important contributors to—the very well-done and informative catalogue from the exhibition, Matisse: In Search of True Painting, ed., D. Aagesen and R. Rabinow, Yale University Press, 2012.  (FYI: this book is readily available from at $31.50—far below the Met’s $50 price tag.)  My remarks below are highly personal and impressionistic (as, of course, is the selection of images I have included in my online version of this review); for a fuller presentation of images and a more extensive, room-by-room scholarly commentary, I very much suggest you check out the Met’s online description of the show.  I do include some of what I considered the Met’s most insightful comments along with my own, below.



Room One


The online description notes,


Matisse turned thirty in 1899, the year he painted Still Life with Compote and Fruit (1899) and Still Life with Compote, Apples and Oranges (1899). He had not yet received any critical recognition and worried that he would be unable to support his growing family. For an artist on a limited budget, still lifes were an obvious and inexpensive subject. Rather than rework a single picture until it reached a definitive state, Matisse painted these two interpretations on identically sized canvases. It is not known which was begun first. Both are related to a larger composition of that year, Sideboard and Table (Kunsthaus Zürich).


Here are images of the two still lifes Rabinow is describing.  They are both quite lovely, and interesting juxtaposed with one another.  (I rather liked the former more than the latter.)

Still Life with Compote and Fruit, 1899
Oil on canvas; 18 1/8 x 21 7/8 in. (46 x 55.6 cm)
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis

Still Life with Compote, Apples, and Oranges, 1899
Oil on canvas; 18 1/4 x 21 7/8 in. (46.4 x 55.6 cm)
The Baltimore Museum of Art

Room Two


In 1906, Matisse painted two versions of the Young Sailor.  I rather like the earlier version better. With is Picasso-esque, powerful, proto-Cubist feel.

Young Sailor I, 1906
Oil on canvas; 39 1/4 x 32 in. (99.7 x 81.3 cm)
Collection of Sheldon H. Solow


In the reworking, Matisse has simplified the elements—especially the background, which he has reduced to a monochromatic pink (which Rabinow claims “evokes Van Gogh's L'Arlésienne, which Matisse had tried in vain to purchase several years earlier).

Young Sailor II, 1906
Oil on canvas; 39 7/8 x 32 5/8 in. (101.3 x 82.9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the 1907-8 Le Luxe II, creates a much more interesting, forward-looking, and—to me—pleasing—version of the earlier 1907 painting, Le Luxe I (also in the show, along with a charcoal on paper he did of this composition).  Although based on an academic theme, Matisse’s originality and freedom shines through in this painting.

Le Luxe II, 1907–8
Distemper on canvas; 82 1/2 x 54 3/4 in. (209.5 x 138 cm)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

In his pair of nudes from 1909. Nude with a White Scarf (below) is to me a very good work, while I liked his earlier Seated Nude far less—as did he, I believe.

Nude with a White Scarf, 1909
Oil on canvas; 45 7/8 x 35 1/16 in. (116.5 x 89 cm)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Nancy and I were totally caught by surprise—and blow away—by his 1912 Acanthus (Moroccan Landscape) (below), with the incredibly vibrant and resonant range of the purples and violets, contrasting with greens.


Acanthus (Moroccan Landscape), 1912

Oil on canvas, 45 ¼ x 31 ½ in, (115 x 80 cm)

Moderna Museet, Stockholm


Matisse painted several views of the interior of his studio (in Issy-les-Moulineaux, just southwest of Paris interior), including Nasturtiums with the Painting "Dance" I (below).  In the background he has painted a representation his large 1909 painting Dance (now part of the permanent collection at MoMA), which at the time was propped against his studio wall; in the foreground there are objects from his studio—a chair and a tripod table with a vase of nasturtiums on top of it.  The second version (not included here), is much more heavily worked over and dense in comparison to the thinness of the pigment of the first; but ultimately it is far less satisfying.

Nasturtiums with the Painting "Dance" I, 1912
Oil on canvas; 75 1/2 x 45 3/8 in. (191.8 x 115.3 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Room Three


This room contained four paintings Matisse did of the cathedral of Notre-Dame—all interesting, but the two large ones from 1914 quite wonderful.  They all are views from his studio and contain elements of his studio within them—some obvious, others, as in the one from MoMA (below), as subtle as a vertical line suggesting the frame of his window, and curved line suggesting the railing of his balcony.  As the online description notes,


Matisse's pictures of Notre-Dame are not a series per se, at least not in the way that Claude Monet methodically depicted some thirty views of the façade of Rouen Cathedral during his two visits to that city in 1892–93. For Matisse the view was part of his daily life. "I never tire of it," he said. "For me it is always new." The two larger paintings of 1914 underscore issues that engaged Matisse in that year: means of representation, the role of color, and the question of what constitutes a finished canvas.


We both thought that the one from MoMA (first, below) was quite fabulous in the evocativeness of its minimalism, the subtle complexity of its textures, and the elegant beauty of its colors—in particular his marvelous handling of the shades and saturations of the blues.

Notre-Dame, 1914
Oil on canvas; 58 x 37 1/8 in. (147.3 x 94.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art


While not as sublime as the painting above, the Notre-Dame, also from 1914, below is also wonderfully pleasing.

Notre-Dame, 1914
Oil on canvas; 57 7/8 x 38 9/16 in. (147 x 98 cm)
Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller-Stiftung, Switzerland

1914 is also the year in which Matisse painted some interiors which rank among our very most favorite pieces in his oeuvre.

  One, his sublime Interior with Goldfish (below), is one we spend a great deal of time looking at in the Beaubourg in Paris—and paused twice to spend time with in this show.  The deep, rich blues of the interior are highlighted with contrasting orange elements (the diagonal of the window ledge, the flower pot, and the goldfish themselves, the outline of the pillow and piece of furniture on which it is placed, and the mix of colors on the top surface of that piece of furniture), which actually function powerfully in creating the compositional structure of the painting.  And the details within the work are endlessly fascinating and satisfying: the curved line of the fish bowl which mirrors the curve of the underside of the bridge; the way that the stems of the plant carry one’s eye around to the line of the stairs on the quay).  It is an amazing work of art. 

Interior with Goldfish, 1914
Oil on canvas; 57 7/8 x 38 3/16 in. (147 x 97 cm)
Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris

Goldfish and Palette, also from 1914 (and an old friend from MoMA) is far more abstract and les directly representational than the one above, and exists far more on the surface plane of the painting itself.   There is a Cézanne-like tilt to table on which the fishbowl is standing; and there is an almost Picasso-like sense of geometry.  It is another painting of his we cherish and spend a great deal of time taking in.

Goldfish and Palette, 1914
Oil on canvas; 57 3/4 x 44 1/4 in. (146.5 x 112.4 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art

In 1916-7 he painted Sculpture and Vase of Ivy (below), which is the far more interesting of the two by this name (the earlier one, done in 1916, is not shown here).  In the later version, the deep blues add meaningfully to the richness of the painting—and effect that is enhanced by introducing the contrasting vertical tan element of the left side of the composition.  The tilted-forward top to the dresser adds a Cézanne-like quality and tension to the composition—and there is something reminiscent of Cézanne in the appearance of the fruit on that surface.

Sculpture and Vase of Ivy, 1916–17
Oil on canvas; 28 3/4 x 36 1/4 in. (73 x 92 cm)
Tikanoja Art Museum, Vaasa, Finland

There is only one of the three paintings of Laurette I found at all interesting, and it was Meditation (Portrait of Laurette), below.  Concerning the woman herself, the online notes tell us that,


Laurette was the first professional model with whom Matisse worked over a prolonged period. She posed for him for six or seven months in 1916–17, a period of intense creativity that resulted in some fifty pictures of her. Her presence was instrumental in reorienting Matisse as he abandoned the restrictions inherent in painting in pairs and fully embraced larger series.


As with many of the good paintings of Matisse, this one seems to have elements that are reminiscent of Cézanne—in this case some good allusions to his portraits of Mme. Cézanne.

Meditation (Portrait of Laurette), 1916–17
Oil on canvas; 19 1/2 x 13 1/2 in. (49.5 x 34.3 cm)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


Room Four


The Open Window (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage) of 1917-8 (not included here), is by far the least interesting of the three included in this show.   His 1918 Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage) (below), an almost identical view of the very same elements from the identical perspective, is wonderfully different in the details of its presentation—and thus a much better painting, with much more life in it.

Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), 1918
Oil on canvas; 29 x 23 3/4 in. (73.7 x 60.3 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art

The third of this group, Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), also from 1918, is almost totally different from the other two, even though it is essentially the same scene in the same hotel room.  It is an exciting painting, with an intensity created by the contrast between the blacks and grays of the interior and the blues and greens in the bright light outside the window—with the counterpoint, of course of the intensely bright blue of the interior of the violin case, and the highlights of yellow and orange inside the room..   According to the online notes:


Matisse repeatedly returned to Interior with a Violin, painting over his earlier composition. The predominant use of black and gray felt fresh to him and enhanced his impression of "the silver clarity of the light in Nice." Matisse considered it to be a particularly important work and later commented that in this canvas he had used black to paint light.


I had never heard his use of the phrase, “used black to paint light”—but I love it!

Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), 1918
Oil on canvas; 45 11/16 x 35 1/16 in. (116 x 89 cm)
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen


Room Five


This room features three paintings which are 1920 variations he painted of a spot on the beach under the cliffs at Étretat.   Neither of us found them to be very good or interesting.  I’d suggest sticking with the far better paintings done of this area by Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet.


The three still lifes included from this period are slightly better, but nothing to get excited about.


Room Six


The Large Blue Dress of 1937 (below) is not a particularly satisfying painting—particularly in its subject matter, which we both found more off-putting than engaging.  The details of line, color, and composition, however, are quite interesting and merit close examination.

The Large Blue Dress, 1937
Oil on canvas; 36 1/2 x 29 in. (92.7 x 73.7 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art


Room Seven


Room Seven contains a totally fascinating presentation of works from 1945.  In December 1945, there was an exhibition of six of Matisse’s paintings at the Galerie Maeght, in which each painting was accompanied by a series of black and white photographs recording stages of that painting’s evolution.  In this room, sets of three of the paintings and accompanying photographs from that Galerie Maeght exhibition are presented.


We were completely entranced by these presentations—but I must confess that both Nancy and I misinterpreted the nature of what was being shown in this room!  We thought these were multiple studies Matisse had done for each painting, not photographs of stages of the paintings themselves.  (We do not read the descriptions on the walls of these exhibitions; we look directly at the work itself and develop our own reactions.  Only later do we consult the catalogues and/or online information to get the curator’s take on what we have seen.)  Although wrong about the physical nature of what we were viewing, it turns out we were not so off about the meaning and artistic nature of what we were looking at.  As the online notes say,


Matisse embraced the opportunity to put his process on display at the Galerie Maeght. He repeatedly insisted to Aimé Maeght 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." The photographs proved that the paintings were the result of a complex process. By agreeing to make them public, Matisse tacitly acknowledged that their presence added to the viewer's understanding and appreciation of his work.


And Dorthe Aagesen, co-editor for the catalogue, wrote in one of her pieces in the catalogue, “Painting as Film” (pp. 159f):


The photographs of Still Life with Magnolia reveal how the painting gradually fell into place.  Viewed as a whole, they may seem at first to describe a linear progress towards a specific end, a movement toward simplification and clarity as superfluous details are culled away, elements are rendered more distinctly, and differences are accentuated so that each element becomes a sign.  Yet, upon close inspection, they may also be viewed as a sequence of different—and, in principle, equally valid—“takes” on how the final painting might have looked.  According to Marguerite Duthuit [Matisse’s daughter and often used source about his works], her father had his works photographed only when he felt that they had reached a certain stage of completion.  This suggests that in addition to capturing stages of the creative process, the photographs were intended to capture different versions of a given motif that had proved productive for that process.  They may therefore be regarded as analogous to the multiple canvasses that Matisse employed as he worked out various versions of a painting.


The least interesting of the three was his 1929 La France (not shown here), a woman in a huge gown (described by the online notes as “patriotic” and “dating to the early days of World War II.”  The only thing of interest to me was the subtle variations Matisse went through in the positioning of the woman’s arms and elbows (which extend outward on both sides of her):  at some stages they were more rounded in overall form, at some more angular—but these minor variations greatly affected the feel of the composition.


The very most interesting was his 1941 Still Life with Magnolia (below).  The final painting is a good—but not great—one; but the process of getting there was riveting.  The online note quoted him as having said, “He has put all of his strength into its creation,” and that it was one of his favorites.  Looking at the photographic record of the stages of its progression (which we erroneously had taken to be separate studies made for the final painting) was riveting: how it simplifies, combines, changes emphasis; how problems appear and are resolved.  I have included (below the image of the finished painting) a reproduction of a page from the catalogue that shows all six of the photographs of this painting included in the exhibit.  We both we totally taken by “c,” the photograph from 3 October 1941—and in particular by the way he has condensed the representation of the flower and leaves into a marvelously draughtsman-like composition.  It was a version that we both individually focused on as most exciting to each of us.

Still Life with Magnolia, 1941
Oil on canvas; 29 1/8 x 39 3/4 in. (74 x 101 cm)
Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris

a. 7 September,  b. 8 September,  c. 3 October,  d. 6 November,  e. 18 November,  f. (final) December



The third, The Dream from 1940 (shown below), is also more interesting for its progression than for its end product.   There are 14 photographs (8 of which I have included below the image of the finished painting) of stages of the painting studies, taken over the period January-September.  I must say I completely fell in love with the very first, from 7 Jan, which I incorrectly took to be a perfectly wonderful drawing in its own right.   The online notes report that The Dream, “engrossed him for almost a year. He told his son that at first it was ‘very realistic, with a beautiful woman sleeping on a marble table amid fruit, [and it] has become an angel sleeping on a violet surface.’"

The Dream, 1940
Oil on canvas; 31 7/8 x 25 9/16 in. (81 x 65 cm)
Private collection


Room Eight


During the War, Matisse ended up spending time in Vence, in Provence; as the online notes say,


Matisse had the opportunity to leave France at the beginning of World War II. He refused. "I would have felt I was running away," he said. Health problems necessitated major surgery in 1941, and he spent the following years recuperating; worrying about his wife and children, who were active in the French Resistance; and working as best he could. Matisse remained in Nice until summer 1943, when, as a precaution against bombing attacks, he moved farther inland. He created his final painted series during the five-and-a-half years he spent in Vence, while living in a rented house known as the Villa le Rêve



His 1946 Interior in Venetian Red (below), is a very simple still life which owes its specialness to the off centered composition—two thirds of it is on the left half of the painting—and the fact that the background is a rather uniform but intensely rich shade of Venetian red.  The effect is quite stunning.  Add to this the playful abstraction of the evocation of the table and the floor tiles, and it is a very effective work.

Interior in Venetian Red, 1946
Oil on canvas; 36 1/4 x 25 9/16 in. (92 x 65 cm)
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

There are three paintings in this room from 1948, all quite interesting.  There is his rather playful Large Red Interior, again wonderfully enhanced by the flattened walls (even across the corner of the room) done in vibrant red—enlivened even further by the areas of brilliant white, and the playful house pets in yellows at the bottom.

Large Red Interior, 1948
Oil on canvas; 57 1/2 x 38 3/16 in. (146 x 97 cm)
Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris


The second, Interior with Egyptian Curtain (below),

 I am afraid would do better without its Egyptian curtain—which makes it far too busy for my taste.  The palm tree outside the window is fabulous—and the pink table with its white bowl of fruit below the window is also wonderful.  The fact that all of this is punctuated by the mostly vertical diagonal if the curtain works quite powerfully—except the brightly colored pattern of the curtain, while great in itself, seems overpowering in combination with everything else going on in the painting.  To me, a near miss at greatness on this one.

Interior with an Egyptian Curtain, 1948
Oil on canvas; 45 3/4 x 35 1/8 in. (116.2 x 89.2 cm)
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

The third painting from 1948, Interior with Black Fern (below), is a very interesting painting, but also just a bit too busy for my taste.  Nevertheless, its individual elements are quite wonderful—the red tiles of the walls, the bright, speckled yellow of the floor and striped yellow of the chair, and the stylized woman in white sitting in that chair, and not least of which being the whole idea of a black fern.

Interior with Black Fern, 1948
Oil on canvas; 45 11/16 x 35 1/16 in. (116 x 89 cm)
Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel

Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: Description: C:\Users\rick\Documents\T\Dead Parrot\RCN\line1.gif

Return to Dead Parrot homepage.