Passions of Matisse

Henri Matisse: A Retrospective 1992–January 12, 1993

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York September 24,

Henri Matisse: A Retrospective

catalog of the exhibition by John Elderfield
Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 480 pp., $37.50 (paper)

Collecting Matisse

by Albert Kostenevich and Natalia Semenova
Flammarion/Abbeville Press, 192 pp., $60.00


In 1950 Bernard Berenson visited Henri Matisse at his apartment in the Hotel Regina overlooking Nice. Berenson, who had been one of Matisse’s early supporters, was irritated to find that the man whom he chose to remember as a starving young Fauve now displayed a seigneurial self-absorption even grander than his own. Polite but remote, Matisse seemed to take it for granted that the noted connoisseur’s visit was an act of homage. Five years after this encounter, Berenson took his revenge by ending a short essay about the recently deceased artist as follows: “My conclusion about Matisse is that in the neck-and-neck race with Picasso for the highest place in the art of the last fifty years he ended by coming in second.”1

At the time, most people would have agreed with Berenson, but during the past twenty years or so, a consensus has slowly been building about the importance of Matisse’s art. The large Paris retrospective in 1970 gave people a new awareness of the extent of Matisse’s accomplishment, and in the years since a number of other shows have concentrated on the brilliance of specific aspects of his work, such as his drawings, his paper cutouts, and his painting in Nice and Morocco. I can think of no one in recent years who has exerted a greater effect on contemporary art. Painters as different as Richard Diebenkorn, Ellsworth Kelly, and David Hockney have drawn on Matisse, and his influence is also quite apparent among countless younger artists.

The Museum of Modern Art has made the extraordinary gesture of giving over to Matisse’s work the second and third floor galleries usually dedicated to its permanent collection—the first time that an artist has been so honored since a similar display was made twelve years ago for Picasso. It is a very large and impressive exhibition, which will, I believe, greatly increase the number of people who think that Matisse is the equal of Picasso or just about any other modern artist. 2

The exhibition presents us with more works by Matisse than have ever before been seen together—some four hundred in all, ranging from his early realistic paintings to his near-abstract late cutouts, and including sculpture, prints, and drawings as well as works in color. The size of the exhibition calls attention to Matisse’s immense formal diversity, the way he was able to work in very different styles not only at different times in his career but frequently at the same time, producing widely divergent works within the same week or month. Such intensive scrutiny can have a devastating effect on an artist, and many people had serious misgivings about how Matisse’s work would appear in the Museum of Modern Art’s rather cramped and claustrophobic galleries. But the curator, John Elderfield, has installed the pictures with a deep understanding of the inner rhythms of Matisse’s art. Not only do most of the individual paintings look wonderful, but they are enhanced by the way that the installation brings out their formal and thematic affinities. So strong are these paintings that they actually seem to transform the Museum of Modern Art’s second and third floor galleries into luminous and open spaces, to push back the walls and fill them with light.

Seeing this exhibition is a pleasurable experience and also a very demanding one. For Matisse is at once a quite accessible and extremely difficult painter, depending upon how much effort one wants to invest in actually looking at his works. The challenge of the exhibition lies in reconciling Matisse’s obvious surface charm—the bright colors, pleasing patterns, and sensual subjects—with his pictorial complexity and psychological elusiveness. This is a challenge that he has presented to viewers since the beginning of the century.

Throughout his career, Matisse has inspired very different, often contradictory, reactions. Early in the century conservative critics attacked him for the roughness of his work, and like Courbet and Manet before him, he was called “an apostle of ugliness.” But with the rise of cubism, avantgarde critics began to accuse Matisse of painting pictures that were too pretty. The man who had been considered the most radical painter alive soon came under attack for being a mere decorator, and an old-fashioned one at that, because of his insistence on working directly from nature. Around World War I, at the time that he was creating some of his greatest works, he appeared to be oddly removed from the preoccupations of the rest of the European avant-garde. He seemed to have no interest in theory and he could no longer be identified with any of the movements into which modern art was so conveniently divided. His works were unique and uniquely unsystematic.

Yet when we look at the large sampling of his work in the current exhibition we sense that there were nevertheless a number of essential elements that gave coherence to his enormous stylistic diversity. For one, perhaps more than any other artist of our century, Matisse was determined to explore and extend the purely pictorial qualities of painting. He was acutely aware of how to take advantage of the expressive opportunities offered—sometimes almost by chance—by the manipulation of paint. And to an astonishing degree, he was able to make meaningful use of the resistance that the process of painting offered to representation. In his paintings, there is a strong tension between the painter’s immediate vision and the duration of the process of recording it. Matisse uses this tension to bring out the contradictions between the way things look and the feelings they inspire. In a very real sense, the subject of Matisse’s paintings emerges from the interplay between what the artist painted and how he has gone about painting it.

As you walk through this show, you are intensely aware of how exuberant Matisse’s visual imagination was. His ways of handling color, line, surface, and space are so inventive and complex that many of their implications are only beginning to be understood. You come upon image after image that is so strikingly original and suggestive—and distinctive, even within Matisse’s own work—that it is hard to believe that one man produced them all. For certain pictures he invented new and strikingly original ways of painting that he never used again in quite the same way, as in French Window at Collioure or Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Landsberg of 1914, or The Yellow Curtain of 1915.

Sometimes he seems to flaunt his inventiveness, as in the pictures he purposely painted in pairs, in which he presents the same subject composed in virtually the same way, on canvases of almost exactly the same size. In viewing these pairs, such as the two versions of the Young Sailor of 1906, we are especially aware of the degree to which style in and of itself is an integral part of Matisse’s subject. The first of these two pictures of a young Catalan fisherman is loosely brushed and intensely modeled, while the second is painted in bright, flat planes. Matisse uses the differences in rendering to convey very different aspects of his understanding of the model. In the first version, the electric brushstrokes and somber tones emphasize the feral intensity of an apparently “primitive” man; in the second version, with its colorful, almost childlike simplicity, Matisse emphasizes the innocent, folkloric aspects of the exotic young fisherman.

One of the most stunning moments of the entire show is the side-by-side presentation of the two versions of the Dance that Matisse painted in 1909 and 1910 for the Russian collector Sergei Shchukln. Although the two compositions seem at first to be very similar, on closer study they are profoundly different. Without making any major alterations in the overall design, Matisse, in the second version, has nonetheless radically changed his conception of the dance. In this version, the figures are more firmly modeled and more intensely colored, and each one conveys a strong sense of individual will and energy. In the first version, the figures are not only flatter and paler, but they seem to move in harmony with an outside force rather than propelled by their own wills. In the second version the dancing is more aggressive and more physical, in contrast to the lyrical and supernal round of the first version.

Paintings like these remind us that the enormous diversity of Matisse’s pictorial means reflects his refusal to follow a fixed method. It is as if each time he approached a subject, even a familiar one, he was seeing it for the first time. Or, as he himself said, as if he were seeing “with the eyes of a child.” The ideal that underlies this way of working goes directly back to impressionism, especially to Claude Monet’s notion of the innocent eye. But what different use Matisse makes of it!

Seeing so much of Matisse’s work together also makes us aware of a number of repeated themes and formal concerns that appear to have concentrated and guided his immensely varied vision. We are constantly struck by how frequently Matisse reworks these themes and how differently he treats similar themes in different images. One of the most striking examples of this can be seen by comparing his Blue Nude of 1907 with his Pink Nude of 1935, in which a similarly posed reclining woman is treated so differently that the “subject” is ultimately transformed. The earlier picture is vigorously painted and sculpturally modeled and employs a number of rhyming curves that evoke the relationship between the woman and the surrounding landscape. She is earthy, rough, and sensual, and suggests the procreative energy of the earth in spring. The picture evokes a world of dynamism and flux. The figure in Pink Nude, by contrast, is painted in a more restrained and gently lyrical way. The image of the woman is more ethereal, and more elegant, and evokes a cooler sort of sensuality. This is a more obviously rationalized image, in which the woman becomes an abstract evocation of the idea of sensuality within a geometrical, intangible environment.

Because Matisse’s art is formally so diverse, for many years he was discussed as if his concerns were purely formal ones and his subject matter of little importance. As a result, Matisse was frequently associated with a superficial kind of hedonism—the “purely” visual aspect of his work, as John Elderfield aptly points out in the catalog, became confused with the “merely” visual. The association of Matisse with a superficial hedonism was also in large measure the result of the constant comparisons made between him and Picasso, in which he was cast as the lightweight and Picasso as the artist who confronted the burning issues of his time. The two were constantly compared from the beginning of their careers, and as early as 1920 Clive Bell was writing,

The names go together, as do those of Shelley and Keats or Fortnum and Mason. Even to people who seldom or never look seriously at a picture, they have stood, these ten years, as symbols of modernity.3

They seemed, however, to represent opposite notions of what modernity was. As Elderfield observes, the two artists, arguably the greatest of our century, have come to stand for “alternative views of the world.” But as he makes clear, such a schematic view of their accomplishment does injustice to both artists by making each appear to be more one-sided than he really is. Most of the polar opposites with which they are characterized—such as harmony versus dissonance, facility versus difficulty, and simplicity versus complexity—turn out to be misleading. Matisse’s paintings, for example, are full of unexpected formal tensions: jolting combinations of color, dissonant compositions, and provocatively abstract drawing. Not infrequently, they radiate an unsettling psychological rawness; pictures such as Conversation or Bathers by a River contradict the image that most people have of Matisse as an amiable hedonist.

It must also be said that Matisse’s work has tended to be trivialized by much of the writing about it, in contrast to the larger claims usually made for Picasso. In part, this is a result of the inherent visual elusiveness of Matisse’s works, but it also results from the way Matisse himself talked about his art, particularly in his 1908 essay “Notes of a Painter,” in which he said he dreamed of

an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter…a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

In contrast to the violent and disturbing Picasso, Matisse became the painter of the “good armchair.”

Because he could not be associated with a single style or movement, Matisse was regarded as a “chameleon.”4 Especially in the years before World War I, Matisse’s prodigious variety of styles was taken as evidence of his lack of a clear direction. “From one stage to the next, Henri-Matisse contradicts himself,” the poet and critic André Salmon wrote in 1912. “He is the most incoherent of artists.” Salmon, one of Picasso’s early supporters, accused Matisse of having the “second-rate” taste of a modiste and of producing sterile work that “comes to nothing.”5

As late as the 1970 Paris retrospective, one prominent critic characterized Matisse’s art as “so easy on the eye and…in no way profound.”6 More recently, another influential writer predicted that he would be “given only a minor place in the history of modern art: he will increasingly be seen as a decorator and hedonist.”7

Seeing so many of Matisse’s best works together at one time, however, makes it clearer than ever that Matisse’s lack of stylistic consistency was the reflection of something deeper than indecision. It was the product of an extraordinary freedom of spirit, which was one of the most important aspects of his genius. Matisse not only created one of the most complex and varied bodies of work in our century, he was also one of those rare artists whose late works are as original and vital as their early innovations. The window view suggested in the large 1953 cutout, Memory of Oceania, is as original and challenging an image as that in the 1915 Yellow Curtain; and the 1952 cut paper Blue Nude series is in its own way as inventive as the 1907 painting with the same title.

Matisse is also an artist who is still being discovered in the most literal sense. For much of the past seventy years, many of his major paintings have been difficult to see, even in good reproductions. There is no catalogue raisonné of Matisse’s paintings, and some of the most important collections of his work have been inaccessible. Among his earliest major patrons were the Russian businessmen Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, whose collections were appropriated after the 1917 Revolution and more or less dropped from sight for more than half a century. Only within the past decade or so have these paintings started to become adequately known. Matisse’s important connection with Russia is only now beginning to get the attention it deserves. Between 1908 and 1913, he seems to have been particularly responsive to the tastes and psychological needs of his Russian patrons. These are treated in depth for the first time in Collecting Matisse, which brings together a fascinating collection of previously unpublished documents related to Matisse’s Russian patronage and to his 1911 voyage to Russia. A number of previously unpublished letters and photographs give us detailed background about Matisse’s complex and often difficult relationships with his Russian patrons and their cultural milieu, and about how his paintings were received by Russian artists and critics. Though many thought his work outrageously radical, by the time of his 1911 visit others already thought that he had been eclipsed by cubism.

But the works that went to Russia were not the only ones that were for a long time lost from view. One of the most important Matisse collections was acquired by Albert C. Barnes for the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, and access to these works has been restricted for many years. Only this coming spring will some of them be reproduced in color for the first time.8

Finally, the Matisse show at MOMA is not only the largest ever to take place, but also the most balanced. Although particular emphasis is given to the great period before World War I, no aspect of his career is neglected. More than any previous Matisse exhibition, it shows the continuity as well as the diversity of this immensely inventive artist—the clear relationship, for example, between some of the flat and simplified early paintings, such as Pink Onions of 1906, and the intensely flattened late paper cutouts. In many ways, this exhibition will make people think differently not only about Matisse’s stature but also about the way he developed.


If the exhibition offers the possibility of seeing Matisse’s work in new and different ways, a reevaluation of Matisse’s position is carried out with energy in the catalog, which contains an introductory essay by John Elderfield, followed by the most detailed chronology of Matisse’s career that has yet been published. It is profusely illustrated, with documentary photographs and color reproductions of over three hundred paintings, most of which are in the show.

The catalog is a valuable addition to the critical literature on Matisse. It revises the still incomplete view that we have of Matisse’s development, redating a number of works and drawing on previously unknown documents. A newly discovered photograph of Matisse with the sculpture usually known as Two Negresses (now retitled Two Women) shows that the sculpture was begun in 1907, a year earlier than was previously thought. A diary by Inez Haynes Irwin is quoted to provide an eyewitness account of Matisse’s studio during the spring of 1908.9 Photographs taken in 1913, while Matisse was working on the Art Institute of Chicago’s Bathers by a River, offer additional documentation about the development of this great and historically important picture. This is one of Matisse’s largest and most experimental paintings, and he struggled with it for more than seven years. He began it in the spring of 1909, as part of the Shchukin Dance and Music commission, and it went through a number of radical transformations before it was completed in the fall of 1916. During this time, Matisse tried to work out the problems it presented in several different styles, and it changed from a decorative, idyllic scene of bathers lounging by a waterfall to a mysterious, unsettling, and daringly abstracted image.

The extensive research that went into locating the pictures for the exhibition has also led Elderfield to reconsider the origins of Matisse’s Fauve paintings. Matisse said he had brought back only fifteen canvases from the first, so-called “Fauve” summer he spent at Collioure in 1905. From this Elderfield concludes that some of Matisse’s most important Fauve landscapes may not have been painted directly from nature but were probably done from sketches after he returned to Paris. This seems entirely plausible. As with many insights of this kind, once the essential observation is made, evidence for it begins to appear elsewhere. The presence of a small figure walking in the foreground of the Hermitage Museum’s View of Collioure, for example, clearly recalls the similar small figures in the Port of Abaill, a Neo-Impressionist painting of the same time that we know was not done directly from nature. Elderfield’s hypothesis also makes us realize that Fauve painting, like Impressionist painting before it, involved imaginative reconstruction as well as direct responses to nature. And this in turn reminds us that virtually all of Matisse’s paintings have a strong conceptual basis—even those that were painted directly from life.

Elderfield’s introductory essay, “Describing Matisse,” tries to redefine the ways in which Matisse’s art is discussed. Because of the complex and contradictory nature of Matisse’s art, he is one of the most difficult artists to write about, and Elderfield is acutely aware of this. “If we are to come near to understanding the multiple levels of meaning in Matisse’s art,” he states in his preface, “we must be deeply skeptical about the adequacy of any single approach to it…. My introductory essay thus proceeds from a stance of interpretive doubt.”

Elderfield acknowledges that the situation that surrounds writing about Matisse is complicated not only by Matisse’s having been for so long considered a “purely visual” painter, but by the degree to which Matisse himself discouraged specific symbolic and biographical interpretations of his work. As a result, for a long time there was a kind of tacit restriction about what one was in effect permitted to say about his art. I remember, for example, giving a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978 in which I proposed a number of metaphorical and symbolic interpretations of Matisse’s works, and suggested that some of his paintings depict surrogate self-portraits, in the form of people or objects that stand for the presence of the artist himself. After the lecture, I learned that some in the audience had been extremely upset by the very idea that Matisse’s paintings could be considered in any but purely formal terms. Was he not after all the “purest” of painters, whose work had been suggestive for some of the best abstract painting?

It is therefore especially gratifying to see that Elderfield takes such symbolical readings for granted as commonly held attitudes that serve as points of departure for further interpretation. He has much to say about the metaphorical relation of the woman and the landscape in Blue Nude—where Matisse “has rhymed the contour of the woman’s hip and buttocks with the arched frond of the palm tree in the oasis behind her.” He also discusses the symbolic interpretation of the spatial structure in Harmony in Red, in which the artificial, decorative arabesques on the tablecloth and the wall contrast with the naturalness of the flowers and fresh fruit on the table, and where, he writes, “the internal and external are reconciled.”

Elderfield’s essay addresses with admirable open-mindedness a number of the most interesting issues in Matisse scholarship today, particularly the subtle ways in which form and subject interact in Matisse’s work and the degree to which “the complexity of meanings thus produced by interpenetrating forms and levels of reality is, quite literally, incredible.” He offers a number of insights into specific aspects of Matisse’s paintings, including a radical and challenging interpretation of the mysterious Luxe, calme et volupté, of 1904–1905. He sees the standing child who looks at the nude women in the picture as a surrogate self-portrait of the artist and considers the painting to be “a mass of symbolism that may be read as offering in various ways glimpses of maternal plenitude and premonitions of adult sexuality.” Not content to stop with the most obvious Freudian conclusions, he provocatively sees the painting as a kind of Lacanian image that reflects an awakening of self-awareness parallel to that of a child who has become aware of his separation from his mother after seeing himself in a mirror. Elderfield connects this with Matisse’s explicit claim that his art had “a primal view of the world comparable to that of a child.” Elderfield’s suggestive interpretation of this picture makes us think differently about some of Matisse’s other work, which may also be seen as expressing unresolved psychological conflicts.

Writing about the interiors with women of the 1920s, which are often filled with intensely decorative and sensuous patterns, Elderfield observes that they provide instances of how “Matisse displaces the eroticism of the body to its surroundings.” This kind of formal displacement is an integral part of Matisse’s subject matter, as he emphasizes, and is central for understanding Matisse’s art as being engaged in a constant dialogue between internal and external meanings, in which the artist modifies his images of the material world in accordance with his inner responses to it.

The belief that the artist’s own feelings are deep and true enough to produce images that are intensely personal yet can also be universally understood is central to Matisse’s art. Indeed, this is also one of the basic underlying assumptions of modernist art itself. What is so extraordinary about the way Matisse transforms the personal into the universal is that—unlike such artists as Kandinsky or Mondrian, or, often, Picasso—his imagery is produced by an exquisitely subtle balance between optical perception of nature and formal invention.

While Elderfield is sensitive to the open-ended quality of Matisse’s art, and aware of the difficulty of finding a language that adequately describes it, he sometimes develops his arguments in a dense and excessively mannered way, a tendency especially noticeable in his attempt to apply literary conceptions to Matisse’s painting. “Despite Matisse’s reputation as an artist devoted to the purely visual,” Elderfield asserts, “he was actually mistrustful of visual sensations” because they provided a “false model of reality,” which shows “only its accidentality and not its essence.” But it seems to me, on the contrary, that Matisse was not at all mistrustful of visual sensations, and that for most of his life he depended upon them as the primary source of his formal inventions. In fact, it is precisely the felt presence of specific visual sensations, even in his most abstract pictures, that gives his works much of their force and their conviction. One could even say that for Matisse, painting was a way of probing reality by means of visual sensations. His goal was to extract from the often contradictory flow of those sensations concise imagery that would consolidate many sensations—the “condensation of sensations” that, as he put it in “Notes of a Painter,” allows the artist to “give to reality a more lasting interpretation.” Part of the challenge of painting was to create an image on canvas that would imply flux, movement, and duration, even though paint on canvas is a physically static medium.

Elderfield’s claims about Matisse’s mistrust of visual sensations are part of his more general view that in the paintings we find “a mode of pictorial illustration with the clarity of a text.” But this, it seems to me, undermines some of Elderfield’s more interesting ideas about Matisse’s visual powers. Although Elderfield’s attempt to apply literary analysis to Matisse’s paintings is thought-provoking, his use of such terms sometimes confuses his discussion of the art instead of clarifying it. Two examples will illustrate what I mean.

Elderfield sees the importance of the underlying metaphorical structure of Matisse’s paintings. But he also finds that Matisse’s metaphors, “if examined separately from their contexts, are indeed somewhat hackneyed.” He sees this weakness as coming from the fact that Matisse tends to compare objects and signs that “already resemble each other,” such as women and flowers, or landscapes and bodies, as in the Blue Nude. Seeking to explain why Matisse’s metaphorical images are nonetheless so powerful, Elderfield sets out to demonstrate that Matisse strengthens his metaphors through “metonymy,” a concept whose application never becomes entirely clear but which emphasizes differences as well as general resemblances in the ways particular “attributes” of objects in paintings correspond with one another. He suggests, for example, that a reclining figure in Le Bonheur de Vivre was reimagined in Blue Nude.

This approach seems questionable. First, I am not convinced that when we compare a woman to a flower we are dealing with things that are really similar. Where is the resemblance supposed to reside? In their similar appearance, or in a certain, already metaphorical, conceptual equivalence? Although we may link the procreative potentialities of women and flowers, they do not necessarily look alike or act alike. Elderfield’s argument leads him to make what I find to be an incomprehensible distinction between what he calls “resemblance” and “likeness.” (Matisse is said to be “indifferent to resemblance because he is preoccupied with likeness.”) And in some cases it turns out that the terminology Elderfield uses cannot be consistently applied to individual pictures. Writing of Blue Nude, he first says that “the figure is the painting, and vice versa.” But this he later modifies by saying that “the image of the figure is the painting, and vice versa.” Although he says that “this is not meant as a retraction” of his previous position, it seems to me that his line of argument more or less forces him to do exactly that.

More important, if we examine Matisse’s metaphors “separately from their contexts,” we are of course doing precisely what Elderfield himself has wisely cautioned us not to do. We are separating meaning from its specific embodiment, from its specific network of forms—which is exactly where Matisse’s deepest meaning is to be found. It is not so much that Matisse uses “weak metaphors,” as Elderfield claims, as that the metaphorical use of language is itself a poor medium for conveying the nature of his intensely visual tropes. In fact, Elderfield is much more convincing when he relies on a more intuitive approach, as in his discussion of Plum Blossoms, Green Background, where he evokes the forceful impression made on us by “the ovals describing the woman’s face and the pears.”

My second general point is that Elderfield’s excessive emphasis on reading paintings as if they were texts leads him to a questionable interpretation of Matisse’s well-known comment to Louis Aragon that the truly original artist invents his own signs, and that “the importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the language of art.”10 Elderfield feels that Matisse’s conclusion is “hard to accept” because of the way that it emphasizes quantity over quality. And this in turn leads Elderfield into a digression about notions of plenitude in Matisse’s imagery. It seems to me, however, that what Matisse said about the quantity of signs was actually germane to his own situation. For as Matisse explained to Aragon, his conception of signs was very fluid, and he saw the creation of signs as an integral element of the creation of a picture. Ideally, he felt, the artist would be constantly creating new signs for each and every single part of each and every single work. This ideal, I think, is one that Matisse took very seriously. It is the driving force behind his extraordinarily broad range of styles, and it is one of the reasons that he made so much of wanting to preserve his innocence and keep “looking at life with the eyes of a child.”

One reason Matisse’s paintings can be so difficult to grasp is that the images he paints are so varied, not only in their shapes, but also in the complexity of the ways in which they convey meaning. In The Red Studio of 1911, for example, the arabesque-like form of the nasturtium branch that wraps itself around the statuette on the table is not only a condensed graphic sign for the tendril and flowers of a plant. Within the whole picture, it also functions as a sign for the passage of time—as a symbol that gains meaning from its relation to the clock at the center of the picture. Nor does its significance stop there, for it further functions as an image for growth and vitality, as the only actual living thing represented in the room; and it does so not only because of what it physically represents, but by the way that its springy curved lines and its green color set it off against the planes and dense redness of most of the rest of the picture.

In Matisse’s paintings, signs are not merely signifiers of things; they are also visual embodiments of feelings and concepts that cannot ordinarily be seen with one’s eyes. The different ways in which Matisse makes the same forms signify different things and concepts can often be quite varied, even within a single painting. Matisse’s signs—his own word for his condensed images—are not simply a form of pictorial writing but rather an integral element in the way he transforms lived experience into plastic form.

But these are relatively small disagreements with an essay that is full of fresh information and insights and makes an important contribution to “describing Matisse,” precisely because it will provoke new approaches to his work. Elderfield is certainly right when he expresses his confidence that the exhibition he has organized “will definitely alter our understanding of Matisse—as well as afford undescribable pleasure.” Polite and remote as Matisse may have been in his daily life, he emerges from this exhibition as a passionate artist whose work is only beginning to be understood.

  1. 1

    Bernard Berenson, “Encounters with Matisse,” in Essays in Appreciation (Chapman and Hall, 1958), p. 133; the essay, dated May 23, 1955, was first published in Italian as “Incontri con Matisse,” in La Biennale di Venezia, December 1955, pp. 9–10.

  2. 2

    The strength of the impulse to sustain this comparison is evident even now at the Museum of Modern Art. As you stand near the ground floor escalators and glance toward the galleries that have been set aside to show selections from the permanent collection, the only painting clearly visible is Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon—as if to remind us that even now we should not forget to locate Matisse in relation to Picasso.

  3. 3

    Clive Bell, “Matisse and Picasso: The Two Immediate Heirs to Cézanne,” Arts & Decoration, Vol. 14 (November 1920), p. 42.

  4. 4

    Gustave Coquiot, Les Indépendants (Paris: Ollendorf, 1920), p. 114.

  5. 5

    André Salmon, La Jeune Peinture française (Paris: Albert Messein, 1912), pp. 18–19.

  6. 6

    Denys Sutton, “Matisse Magic Again,” Financial Times, June 3, 1970.

  7. 7

    Norman Bryson, “Signs of the Good Life,” Times Literary Supplement, March 27, 1987, p. 328.

  8. 8

    In Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Early Modern, to be published by Knopf.

  9. 9

    Such documents, however, should be used with caution. In his discussion of Harmony in Red, Elderfield speaks of the landscape as depicting “an ambiguous season, either winter with snow on the trees or spring with blossoms that have not yet produced fruit.” Here he refers to a long scholarly debate about whether the trees are filled with blossoms or snow, which originally started with Alfred Barr’s attempts to date the painting in relation to Matisse’s remembering a late snowfall the year it was started. In a note, Elderfield says that there is “a simple solution” to “whether what we see is snow or, in fact, blossoms,” and then cites Inez Haynes Irwin’s diary entry about her visit to Matisse’s studio while the painting was in progress, in which she writes that “the air is a swirl of flying, white atoms that seem to be blossom-petals, or snowflakes—one cannot differentiate them.” While Irwin’s diary provides evidence that the painting was done in 1908 (and not repainted in 1909, as Alfred Barr had supposed), it does not of course tell us what we actually see in the painting, in which the trees are rendered in pastel pinks and blues that clearly depict petals rather than snow. The lawn is filled with flowers and the season is clearly spring.

  10. 10

    Louis Aragon, “Matisse-en-France,” in Henri Matisse, Dessins: Thèmes et Variations (Paris: Martin Fabiani, 1943); translated in Louis Aragon, Henri Matisse: A Novel, Vol. 1 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), pp. 110–111.