Henri Matisse
Henri Matisse; drawing by David Levine

Un artiste ne doit jamais être prisonnier de lui-même, prisonnier d’une manière, prisonnier d’une réputation, prisonnier d’un succès…. Les Goncourts n’ont-ils pas écrit que les artistes japonais de la grande époque changeaient de nom plusieurs fois dans leur vie. J’aime ça: ils voulaient sauvegarder leurs libertés….”

—Matisse, in Jazz

In the visual arts, two forces above all others determine the character of our response and the quality of our judgments: our experience of the masterworks that carry a particular style or vision or idea to its most complete realization, and our sense of the aesthetic history in which these masterworks take their central, transfiguring place. Especially in our encounters with works of modernist art, this sense of history is often the primary intermediary, indeed the very medium of our aesthetic experience, for modernism is itself the offspring of an acute historical self-consciousness. Aesthetic emotion, which offers its pleasures in the guise of a spontaneous and transcendent response to an unanticipated revelation, is, more often than we generally care to admit, in thrall to a theory—some generalized notion of the terrain on which such revelations will take place, and even perhaps of the form they may be expected to assume.

But what if this sense of history, with its elaborate scenarios of victories and defeats and its disposition to favor some revelations over others, turns out to be something of a myth—a synthetic construction based on imperfect knowledge and the need to believe that the aesthetic imperative follows a logic and enjoys an ontology all its own? The process of putting art in a museum, itself a coefficient of the modernist movement, reinforces this myth by imposing—on our consciousness no less than on the walls of the museum—a series of masterworks in which all trace of the problematical, all those failed alternatives and rejected misadventures which occupy so large a place in any serious artistic career, have been subsumed in the final process of consummation. Yet it is doubtful if a theory of art based on a scenario of such perfect consummations is any more faithful to the actual vicissitudes of art history than a theory of love based on nothing but the realization of an ideal communion would be to the vicissitudes of life. In art, as in love, or indeed in any form of contingent human experience, what has misfired, what has been refused, and what has actually failed are frequently the key to a real understanding of what has been achieved.

The great virtue of the large and astonishing Matisse exhibition which Pierre Schneider organized at the Grand Palais* in Paris this summer lies precisely in the extent to which it disturbs the established museological view of the artist’s accomplishments and, even if only temporarily, places the myths of art history at a certain distance from our immediate apprehension of the artist’s true quality. Masterpieces—well-known, little-known, and unknown—certainly abound in this exhibition. But in assembling a more detailed and comprehensive account of Matisse’s oeuvre, especially in the early decades of his career, than any we have ever had before, Mr. Schneider has restored these masterpieces to their proper context—the arduous, workaday, seesawing progress of an artist who was often profoundly unsure of his course, who frequently recoiled from his own audacity, and for whom no “breakthrough” was ever mistaken for a fixed solution to the problems that haunted his imagination. Rarely has an exhibition of an artist so familiar and so firmly established in his greatness modified so decisively not only our appreciation of his greatness but our understanding of all the timidities, hesitations, and anxieties—all the false starts and temporary obstacles—that have contributed to it. There is ample reason indeed for Mr. Schneider’s claim to have brought us in this exhibition “un artiste peu connu, voire méconnu.”

He has accomplished this feat, first of all, by crowding the early sections of the exhibition with a great many small pictures from the Nineties and the first two or three years of the century—the first decade of Matisse’s production. Here is Matisse, already well into his twenties—compared to Picasso, a latecomer to his profession—testing the ground in every direction, copying the Old Masters, rehearsing with painstaking care the realist conventions of Chardin and Courbet, assaying Impressionist color and a post-Impressionist facture, zigzagging his way from the pieties of tradition to the innovations of the avant garde and back again, uncertain, intense, ambitious, intelligent, immensely talented, and absolutely serious.

From the dark and rather clumsy Courbetesque structure of La grotte (1896)—years later Matisse acquired one of Courbet’s masterpieces on this theme—to the brilliant impastoed sun of Van Gogh in Coucher de soleil en Corse (1898); from the bleak, near-monochrome austerity of Grande marine grise (1898) to the Cézannean color and architecture of the Homme nu (1900); from the prescribed rendering of tones and half-tones to the frontiers of that promised land—the naked use of pure color—in which Matisse achieved his most celebrated victories and which ultimately became in his eyes a kind of paradise of feeling: these are but a few of the many courses traced in this first decade of his work.


In certain pictures of this period the artist’s search for a definitive statement—either in the form of a summary of what he has already mastered or as an intimation of new ground to be explored—yields him a stunning success. But even the best of these pictures are far too various to permit us to generalize about any concrete “direction” they may prophesy. Some, like the famous La desserte (1897), simply close the door on a path never again attempted, while others—I think especially of the Pont Saint-Michel (circa 1901) in the Wright Ludington collection, with its stunning clarity of color and design—seem to arrive too soon at solutions too radical or too disconcerting for Matisse to act upon. Certain paintings of the Pont Saint-Michel motif—and of other motifs too—are executed with an almost Expressionist pâte, yet a picture such as Madame Matisse en Japonaise (1901), with its grayish light and its nervous, sketchy texture, looks like nothing so much as one of Giacometti’s portraits of the 1950s. In this first decade of Matisse’s life as an artist, we are still a long way from the mythic scenarios of art history. Everything is open, unsettled, and problematical. At thirty, an age when an artist might nowadays be planning his first retrospective, Matisse had not yet found the ground on which his sensibility could flower.

He made his first tentative exploration of that ground in the summer of 1904 when he submitted to what he afterward called “la tyrannie du divisionnisme,” adopting Signac’s somewhat freer modification of Seurat’s pointillist method—a method that called for the juxtaposition of small touches of color as the sole means of pictorial construction. Matisse was never an orthodox divisionist; his temperament was singularly devoid of that appetite for doctrinaire solutions that such orthodoxy answered to. But the very narrowness of the divisionist method signaled the release of something essential in his own sensibility. The “tyranny” of this highly restrictive and exceedingly laborious method gave him the first inkling of the expressive freedom he was seeking—the freedom to construct a painting of pure color, unfettered in its application by anything but the dictates of the artist’s own emotions.

The Baudelairean title Matisse chose for his first foray into this terrain—Luxe, calme et volupté—is, in some respects, as significant as the style in which the painting is executed. It alerts us to the kind of imaginary paradise that now begins to beckon from Matisse’s oeuvre. In his long and interesting essay for the catalogue of the Grand Palais exhibition, Mr. Schneider is at some pains to separate his own interpretation of the artist’s sensibility from the popular image of Matisse (“Un nom qui rime avec Nice“) as the “peintre du plaisir, sultan de Riviera, hédoniste raffiné.” But such a separation, as Mr. Schneider himself certainly recognizes, is hardly possible. The most eloquent pages of his essay celebrate Matisse as a poet and connoisseur of pleasure, a specialist in satisfying his own very personal and distinctly raffiné standards of well-being. The popular image of a sensibility on a permanent and ideal holiday only trivializes what is essentially the truth. Mr. Schneider’s catalogue is crammed with an anthology of marvelous quotations from Matisse himself, many of them never before published, in which the artist insists over and over again upon the primary criterion that governed the work of his maturity: sheer delectation. What Matisse was, in effect, repeating—and many times—was the answer once given by Debussy when he was asked what his method of composition was: “mon plaisir.”

What the popular image of the “sultan de Riviera” can never accommodate and therefore discounts is not only the fact that even a peintre du plaisir requires, after all, a method of composition and a mastery of his métier in order to realize his goals but, equally important, the exact quality of the emotion that governs his search for this elusive Cythera. It discounts the extraordinary artistic conscience that is invested in this search, and the flights of inspiration that are encompassed in its course. It makes banal what is actually sublime.

Historically, the most famous of Matisse’s achievements are, of course, the Fauvist paintings of 1905-1906 and the greatly simplified, color-drenched paintings that follow from them, almost in unbroken succession, until the beginning of the First World War. Here too, in the period of the artist’s best-known works no less than in the preparatory paintings of the Nineties. Mr. Schneider has significantly enlarged our understanding of the scope of Matisse’s oeuvre. By reuniting the paintings from the great Russian collections—some of them now seen in the West for the first time since the Revolution—with the more accessible paintings from Western collections, the exhibition allows us to follow the workings of Matisse’s unflagging invention with a closeness formerly reserved for a few specialists. (Not that the Russian pictures are the only, or even the most important, of the revelations which this exhibition offers us. The large number of paintings from the Matisse family, many being shown for the first time, constitute the single most important addition to our knowledge of Matisse’s work.)


Fauvism—of all the curious names to have attached themselves to a pictorial style, this is surely the silliest—was indeed the crucial breakthrough. In Matisse’s Fauvist paintings the firm pictorial architecture of the post-Impressionist picture is significantly modified in favor of a structure composed of pure color—color applied with a broader freedom, color released from its fixed contours and answering more and more to the lyric improvisations of the artist’s emotion. Improvisations: this is what Kandinsky called his first abstract expressionist pictures a few years hence—pictures that owed a great deal to Matisse’s separation of color from its accustomed place in the picture-making process. Yet the Fauvist style, daring as it certainly was, retained a firm hold on the modeling of objects and the carving out of a three-dimensional image. The modeling was looser, the illusionist space shallower, the solidity of every object more precarious as it showed signs of dissolving in a blaze of light, but tradition was nonetheless upheld, however minimally, in those vestiges of a boxlike conception of space.

It is in the immediate post-Fauvist paintings—in the great La desserte rouge (1908), in the two mural-size versions of La danse (1909 and 1910), and in those two masterpieces in which Matisse summarized his entire aesthetic up to that time, L’atelier rose and L’atelier rouge (both 1911)—that he revised this received conception of pictorial space with such radical effect. Drawing upon the precedents of Islamic art and Japanese prints, of Gauguin and the decorative strategies of art nouveau, Matisse launched his first frontal attack or the syntax of three-dimensional illusionism—which is to say, on the pictorial tradition which had nurtured him and which he had displayed such extraordinary gifts in mastering.

Flatter patterning, drawing simplified to the contours of a silhouette, larger areas and heavier saturations of unbroken color, the pictorial image more and more reduced to a single plane—these are the salient elements of the new pictorial syntax which he was here proposing as an alternative to the established procedures of post-Impressionist painting. The authority Matisse brought to this bold innovation is still breathtaking. The sheer grandeur of these paintings is overwhelming. Without going farther in this exhibition, one is already certain that one is in the presence of the greatest painter in modern times.

But even in this, the most joyous and exalté period of Matisse’s accomplishment, he was constantly drawing back, reconsidering his ground, casting a covetous eye on the conventions he was so effectively dissolving, and repairing his links with a tradition he had already seriously, if not irrevocably, undermined. Among the most daring of these post-Fauvist pictures are others—the Nature morte à la danse (1909), from the Hermitage, for example, or Les poissons rouges (1911), from the Pushkin Museum—which play inspired games back and forth across the shifting boundary lines that at once divided and bound together his newly realized vision and the traditions from which he had wrested it.

Not only in the L’atelier pictures but in many others, Matisse was constantly anthologizing his own work, remeasuring the distance he had so swiftly traversed, re-exploring the nuances and possibilities that might still lie undeveloped there. So fertile was the ground he cultivated in this period that he found himself in the rare and enviable position of being able to produce something extraordinary whether he pushed forward or looked back to where he had already been.

What closed the door on the glories of this period, as it did on so many other glories of those years, was the coming of the First World War. We shall have to await the biography of Matisse on which Mr. Schneider is now at work before we know the full story of the war years, but it is already clear that Matisse experienced a profound disruption in his artistic thinking at this time. For anyone who had invested so great a part of his sensibility in his own sense of bien-être, it was perhaps inevitable that such a disruption would occur under the pressures of so fateful a catastrophe. But the artistic course which this change of feeling assumed has been very little discussed, and criticism will be a long time in coming to terms with the work Matisse produced under the shadows of the war.

For here, in the emotional isolation of these years, he turned his attention for the first time to a confrontation of the single most important development that had occurred in painting concurrently with his own prewar achievements: the creation of Cubism. Some of the key pictures of this period are still relatively new to us: Une vue de Notre-Dame and Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (both 1914), pictures that would still have looked incredibly daring had they been painted in New York in the late Forties, were exhibited for the first time at UCLA in 1966.

Alfred H. Barr, Jr., in the monumental study of Matisse he published in 1951, had already suggested that it was the artist’s sudden friendship with Juan Gris at the start of the war that turned him toward a consideration of the formal challenges posed by Cubism—challenges from which he had, until then, carefully averted his glance. But the subject was left unexplored. Here again, the exhibition organized by Mr. Schneider greatly enlarges our understanding of Matisse’s development at this time. But it must be said that Mr. Schneider’s own discussion of Cubism and its effect on Matisse’s painting in his essay for the catalogue—a discussion that invokes a mythical “geometry” and lumps Cubism together with the Neoplasticism of Mondrian and his followers as a foil for Matisse’s superior sensibility—obscures far more than it clarifies. For what Matisse seems to have attempted in his Cubist and near-Cubist paintings was precisely the kind of pictorial synthesis that came to occupy the New York painters of the Forties—a synthesis of those broad saturations of color which he had himself pioneered and the superior intellectual rigor of Cubist syntax. With the pictures that Matisse himself never exhibited now becoming more familiar to us, some of the well-known masterpieces of these years—Les Morocains and La leçon de piano (both 1916)—acquire a deeper significance. I predict that this phase of Matisse’s oeuvre—with its many magnificent pictures and many unanswered questions—will be a fecund field for scholars and critics for years to come.

Whatever he achieved in the war years and whatever the reasons for his hesitations about showing the most radical pictures he produced at that time, Matisse turned his back on such bold adventures once the war was over. Without precisely calling it that, Mr. Schneider pretty much accepts the standard view of the “decline” that occurred in Matisse’s work in the Twenties and Thirties—the period of the “odalisques”—and the sections of the exhibition devoted to these decades are, though not without some fine pictures, a shade perfunctory. For an appreciation of those years, one was almost better off at the splendid exhibition of Matisse’s graphic oeuvre which was mounted at the Bibliothèque Nationale as a companion event.

But the exhibition at the Grand Palais closes—as did Matisse’s long career—on a note of high excitement. There are hints of what is to come in the decorative murals called La danse (1931-32) and in other works of the Thirties—one reason why it would have been worth examining this period more closely—but the momentum accelerates again during the early Forties, another wartime period that seems to have affected Matisse deeply, and comes to flower in the great decorative projects of his last years. Still again, in this last section of the exhibition, Mr. Schneider brings us a great many unfamiliar works, some of them enormous in size, and without necessarily concurring in his judgment that Matisse’s final gouaches découpées represent the artist’s “supreme accomplishment,” one cannot help finding this last powerful avowal of the artist’s vision tremendously moving.

Georges Duthuit once spoke of these works as carvings of light. Matisse himself said that the papier découpé allowed him for the first time to draw in color. In this medium, the last fetters of the traditional easel picture are swept away, and the artist finds himself in a realm in which there are no longer any clear distinctions between painting, sculpture, and drawing—a realm in which, as Mr. Schneider puts it, there is “rein que l’émotion dans tout l’espace.” Matisse had, in a sense, fulfilled his dream in this medium, transcending what he called “the eternal conflict between drawing and color,” and thus bringing the art of painting as we had understood it theretofore to a close. This, certainly, is the accepted current view. But it is not the only view one can take of this work. The question that is raised in Matisse’s last works acquires a more immediate artistic urgency when one recognizes that it is precisely the question that has dominated abstract painting in this country for the past decade—the question whether this unfettered and highly decorative conception of color is sufficient for the artistic tasks that are now assigned to it.

For myself, I do not find Matisse’s last works, marvelous as they are in so many ways, his supreme accomplishment. They remind me, in fact, of how fortunate he was that the “eternal conflict between drawing and color” remained so long unresolved, so long a source of creative tension in his imagination and thus the fulcrum of so many of the emotions we treasure in his work. Indeed, painting itself seems to require such “eternal conflicts” if it is to encompass modes of feeling that are not utterly simplistic. The emotional impoverishment of so-called “color field” painting is eloquent testimony to the fate of an art that has liberated itself from every trace of the tensions that were once the crux of the artistic vocation itself, an art that reduces the conflicts of painting to a series of ingenious technicalities.

It may have been in the very nature of modernist painting to seek ways in which it might transcend its own limits, but Matisse’s oeuvre, detached from the teleological scenarios of art history, is not to be valued for its final success in this task. Matisse stands supreme in the painting of this century for the quality of feeling that he invested in his struggle with the traditional problems of his medium. How odd that this figure—so bourgeois, so distant from the well-publicized gyrations of the bohemian avant garde, so fundamentally conservative in everything but his sensibility—should have triumphed so decisively in a realm in which history itself seemed to demand a quite different posture. But Matisse warned us, in the text he wrote for Jazz, against making the artist a prisoner of history, and this glorious exhibition answers that warning with a triumphant affirmation of his great singularity.

This Issue

October 8, 1970