One day during the 1930s, Henri Matisse walked through the door of La Coupole on the Boulevard du Montparnasse and a visible thrill ran through the restaurant. As waiters raced forward to greet him Matisse turned to his companion and murmured, not without an edge of irritation, “They think I’m Picasso.”1

This incident reveals something about the relationship between the two artists, who are now the subjects of a large exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, which many have been foolishly seeing as a kind of championship match for the title of greatest artist of the twentieth century. Throughout the greater part of their careers, Picasso was better known and his art was more widely discussed and more seriously considered. Although Matisse cannot be said to have lived in Pi- casso’s shadow, the much-publicized presence of his precocious younger rival certainly blocked out some of the light that he quite reasonably expected to fall on him. In Picasso’s later years, he became as much a public figure as a movie star or leading politician. He liked to ham it up for photographers like David Douglas Duncan, and images of his family life were reproduced in magazines throughout the world. That would have been unthinkable for Matisse.

From the time they first met, in 1906, Matisse and Picasso were in direct competition with each other—initially for the preference of their first patrons, Leo and Gertrude Stein, then for the acclaim of other artists and critics, and eventually for the position of leader of the European avant-garde. Matisse, nearly a dozen years older than Picasso, was first to achieve all of these aims, but in every case his triumph was short-lived. Just as Matisse appeared to have command of the field, Picasso would overtake him. Matisse was acutely aware of the implicit comparison that was constantly being made between them and he was often uneasy about it. In 1918, when they were given their first two-man show in a Parisian gallery, he was convinced that Picasso and his friends were out to undermine him by the way they publicized the exhibition. In 1945, when he and Picasso were about to have their second joint exhibition, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Matisse wrote that showing alongside Picasso made him feel “as if I were going to cohabit with an epileptic. How well-behaved I will look (even a bit silly to some) next to his pyrotechnics.”

Shortly after they met, Matisse remarked about their different temperaments, “North Pole and South Pole.” While Matisse lived in a settled bourgeois style and was known to be obsessively private and discreet, the bohemian Picasso seemed free of inhibi- tions and his art was often interpreted as a kind of autobiographical confession, frequently charged with violent and explosively erotic themes. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with modern art is aware of how the various women in his life are supposed to have affected the rich variety of his styles.

During the first few years they knew each other, Matisse and Picasso were actively engaged in redefining the very nature of painting. Being collected by the Steins not only meant selling them paintings but also going to their Saturday night salons, where each artist would see the work of the other hanging next to his own. So each was constantly aware of what the other was doing, and their works frequently served as a direct prod or source of inspiration for the other. A number of the key paintings in the dialogue of those years—such as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Matisse’s Blue Nude and Bathers with a Turtle—figure prominently in the early part of the Museum of Modern Art exhibition. Even now, almost a hundred years after they were made, their energy and freshness take the viewer’s breath away. Seeing them, you experience some of the same excitement that was felt a century ago by those who witnessed the birth of modern painting.


The presence of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Bathers with a Turtle gives the Museum of Modern Art exhibition a distinct edge over the two previous versions of the show, in London and Paris. Both of these enigmatic and powerful paintings are large and raw representations of female figures, and they are at the summit of the two artists’ early achievements. Placed side by side at the entrance to MOMA’s spacious gallery in Queens, which is filled with superb examples of their intense and inventive works in the years leading up to World War I, the two paintings set the tone for the entire first half of the exhibition, which seems to radiate out from the gateway they provide.

To an unusual degree, the exhibition takes its point of departure from the accompanying catalog, which sets forth the basic structure of the show, in which thirty-four pairs or groups of works by the two painters are related formally or thematically and shown together although they were not necessarily done at the same time. The groupings include, to mention only a few examples, portraits, self-portraits, paintings that are relatively abstract, and many nudes. These groups of works serve as the subjects of the thirty-four essays written by the six co-curators, which are based on a stimulating combination of close viewing and wide reading, and which are full of acute insights. The rationale for the groupings varies, ranging from specific instances in which the painters influenced or inspired each other to the more coincidental sorts of resemblances or “affinities” that frequently occur in the two artists’ work.


Picasso’s famous portrait of Gertrude Stein (1905–1906), for example, is paired with a 1917 portrait by Matisse—both apparently chosen for their formidable, mask-like faces and for their affinities with Ingres’s famous portrait of Louis-François Bertin, whom Manet had wittily dubbed “the Buddha of the bourgeoisie.” Matisse’s The Studio, quai Saint-Michel of 1916–1917 is set next to Picasso’s Painter and Model of 1928, which is related by subject but not by style, while Matisse’s nearly abstract The Moroccans of 1916 adjoins Picasso’s Three Musicians of 1921, a comparison based on their similarly large size and imaginative use of black. At the end of the show, two elegiac works painted decades apart—Matisse’s 1918 Violinist at the Window and Picasso’s The Shadow of 1953—are paired because in each the artist depicts himself as if he were standing behind his own body.

The Museum of Modern Art exhibition gains strength from the willingness of the New York curators, John Elderfield and Kirk Varnedoe, to cross the boundaries of the catalog’s groupings and provide, in the ways they have hung the paintings, intriguing vistas and thought-provoking instances of call and response. While looking at Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, for example, Matisse’s Blue Nude is within sight on a farther wall off to the left, reminding us of the importance of that particular Matisse to Picasso’s work at the time; also visible is Picasso’s Still Life with a Skull, which grew directly out of Les Demoiselles and even contains a partial image of a figure resembling the figures in Les Demoiselles. Juxtaposed against this angular and brooding Picasso still life is Matisse’s fluid and sensuous Goldfish and Sculpture of 1912, which strikingly contrasts their different approaches to still life painting. And just within eyeshot of those two works is Matisse’s other great goldfish painting, the somber and ferociously abstracted Goldfish and Palette of 1914. The purposeful flow of the gallery spaces and the placement of drawings and sculptures in relation to the paintings create intricate networks of relationships that instill a sense of excitement and discovery, even of exhilaration.

A sequence showing eight vertical paintings of women by the two artists, completed between 1907 and 1917, is especially impressive and shows how much of the vocabulary of modern painting they created and refined during those years. The different ways in which the hands are rendered in these paintings—ranging from specific well-articulated grasping gestures to mere scumbles of paint—offer an object lesson about the way each artist used clashes of style within individual works for expressive ends, and how deeply engaged they both were by ideas about the inherent arbitrariness of visual representation.2 The works from this period also reveal how carefully the two artists were looking at each other’s work, and how thoroughly they were able to absorb what they took from it. As Elderfield aptly describes it, the two artists often exchanged visual ideas “not simply by borrowing from the other, but…by discovering oneself in the other and, therefore, the other in oneself.”

During these early years, Matisse and Picasso were the strongest and most influential advocates of a new kind of painting. Both were concerned with the autonomy of the picture as distinct from what the picture represented, and they both aspired to emphasize the psychic rather than the physical reality of the world around them. The spiritual and magical qualities of many of their works from this period make it clear that one of their common goals was to create a kind of painting that could evoke the sacred through objects in the everyday world. To do this, they emphasized the way the objects they depicted retained at least some of their physical identity but were also transformed into something else. Transparent or translucent effects had an important part in the work of both painters at this time, allowing them to suggest paradoxically that their subjects were at once material and disembodied. They each treated forms in a distinctive, elliptical way, enabling them to evoke their subjects without fixing them in a specific place.


Both artists were interested in trying to depict inner and outer realities in the same image, and to do so they invented radically original sorts of expressive means. Picasso’s Harlequin of 1915 may be his first clear depiction of the sort of divided personality that would become one of the staples of his later imagery. In this painting elements of two separate figures are combined in one, as if to suggest the tension between different states of mind within the same person. In Matisse’s adjoining Goldfish and Palette, the artist’s body is suggested but not clearly depicted at the right side of the picture, so we sense his spectral presence somewhat as he might discern his own body while engaged in the act of painting—as present but not entirely visible.

Within the formal vocabulary that Matisse and Picasso were then developing, the violently intersecting and overlapping planes and tensely worked surfaces of their paintings can be understood as attempts to project inner states of feeling commingled with descriptions of things in the external world. Although pictorial ideas like these have now become commonplace, even conventional, seeing side by side the actual paintings in which the ideas were worked out conveys a vivid sense of how disturbingly original those pictures were at the time. The wall on which Harlequin and Goldfish and Palette are hung, along with Picasso’s monumental Man Leaning on a Table and Matisse’s starkly distilled Piano Lesson, is not only one of the high points of the exhibition but it also presents one of the most powerful and moving ensembles of modern pictures that anyone is likely to see together for a very long time. Despite the obvious stylistic differences in these pictures, they also confirm just how many underlying concerns Matisse and Picasso shared.


Although Matisse and Picasso may have been like the North and South Poles temperamentally, it is clear that they were nonetheless very much on the same artistic planet. They painted, drew, and sculpted many of the same subjects—notably the female figure and the interplay between artists and models—and both sometimes used similar kinds of forms and shapes. In a curious way, the idea of Matisse and Picasso that emerges from this exhibition is that of a body of work that exceeds the sum of the two, as if to suggest that between them they had a view of the world that for each would have been less comprehensive without the presence of the other. In any case, it is clear from the exhibition that each used the other to set a standard for his own work and thought of the other as his ideal, most demanding audience—in effect, the reader over his shoulder. The presence of the other drove each to push himself further into kinds of painting he might otherwise not have tried but which proved to be enormously fruitful. Among the most striking instances of this are Matisse’s fractured Cubist-influenced works done between 1913 and 1916 and Picasso’s brightly colored, lyrical paintings of the early 1930s.

In many ways, the MOMA exhibition challenges a number of our received ideas about the two artists. For example, Picasso is often thought of as the passionate Spaniard and Matisse as the rational Frenchman—Picasso as a master of line and Matisse the great advocate of color. But these clichés are called into question as soon as you enter the first gallery and face the self-portraits they each did during the summer of 1906. Picasso’s painting is calm and dispassionate, the drawing restrained, the forms clearly articulated. Matisse’s self-portrait, by contrast, is passionately, almost bombastically painted; it is full of shifting planes and the linear elements are executed with remarkable vigor.

Right next to their self-portraits are the two paintings that they exchanged, under somewhat strained circumstances, toward the end of 1907. The first thing that strikes you is that the pictures are exactly the same size, evidence of the tit-for-tat that characterized all their relations, from this earliest exchange of pictures to their meet- ings during their mature years, which were something like those between crowned heads of state. These encounters were marked by personal respect and regard for the mutually elevated position they shared, but also by caution, inquisitiveness, and a sense of competition.

Despite Gertrude Stein’s claim that, in exchanging paintings, each had chosen one of the other’s weakest works in order to show him up, both are marvelous little pictures. In fact, as Varnedoe writes in the catalog, it remains unclear “whether each chose or each offered.” Matisse took home Picasso’s Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon and Picasso acquired Matisse’s portrait of his daughter, Marguerite. The energetic Picasso still life—“a rough, agitated image of shrill contrasts, colliding angles,” as the catalog puts it—has qualities similar to the ones that had so caught Matisse’s attention in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; and Matisse’s portrait is rendered in a consciously childlike way that nicely embodies the kind of straightforward simplicity that Picasso so admired in the older artist. As Varnedoe perceptively observes, while looking at these two paintings over the years “each man could repeatedly comfort himself that he would never do anything like that, and reproach himself for the same.”

To a surprising degree, Picasso’s paintings are often calmer and more self-contained than those by Matisse. Picasso’s 1919 portrayal of a plate of apples placed on a pitcher is remarkably poised and stately compared to an adjoining bowl of oranges by Matisse, which seems about to jump off the wall. At the end of the exhibition, where Matisse’s late blue and white paper cutouts are hung near Picasso’s similarly flat Acrobat of 1930 and his sheet-metal sculptures, the Picasso figures seem rather stiff compared to the Matisses, with one significant exception: Picasso’s sheet metal sculpture of an inanimate object—a chair—that has the same kind of vitality and dynamism as Matisse’s cut paper figures.

In the galleries given over to works from the 1920s and 1930s, Picasso’s paintings surprisingly seem to have the more complex and at times more vibrant color harmonies. In the superbly luminous Nude in a Black Armchair of 1932, the rich lavenders that evoke the woman’s pale skin are beautifully harmonized against the intense reds and oranges outside the window and the bright green shoots that seem to be sprouting from her body. The Matisse-like elements in this painting remind us that during the 1930s the two artists became involved in a kind of duel that revolved around their images of women who were dear to them, Marie-Thérèse Walter and Lydia Delectorskaya. To depict Marie-Thérèse, Picasso developed a lyrical style characterized by the kinds of bright colors, sweeping arabesques, and intense decorative patterning that we usually associate with Matisse. In fact, although these paintings are sometimes said to be influenced by Matisse, they actually seem to express Matisse’s vision more intensely than anything Matisse himself had previously done, and they predate Matisse’s late style by several years.

When Matisse formulated the lyrical language of his late style, which he first used to depict Lydia, he did so in part by drawing upon Picasso’s recent use of his own pictorial vocabulary, which he in turn reinvented and reclaimed as his own. This was one of several times during their long careers when one of them was provoked to a kind of artistic renewal by the work of the other. Among their many accomplishments, one of the most impressive was the ability of each painter to rejuvenate his art again and again over such a long period of time. And in that, the provocation of the other’s presence in the world was an important part.

If Matisse and Picasso seem to have more in common than we might have expected, it is partly because they actually did, but it is also to a certain degree because this exhibition emphasizes similarities rather than differences by omitting or playing down a number of crucial moments in each artist’s career. None of Matisse’s brightly colored Fauve works is included, and Picasso’s Analytical Cubism—which changed the course of twentieth-century painting and shocked, dismayed, and provoked Matisse—is also almost entirely absent, along with the large, highly patterned decorative compositions that Matisse did between 1908 and 1912. The naturalistic and sensual works that Matisse painted during his early years in Nice are also omitted, along with Picasso’s violent paintings of Dora Maar. We get no hint of paintings such as Guernica or of the Minotaur series of drawings. As a result, Matisse comes across as tougher (and less of a colorist) than we might have expected, while Picasso’s work seems unexpectedly lyrical. The exhibition, instead of setting forth their parallel and often divergent careers, suggests an entity that might be called “Matisse Picasso,” in which the two artists are seen as apolitical and devoted to the rich, formal elaboration of relatively neutral subjects.


At the time of Matisse’s death in 1954, Picasso was the most influential artist alive. Although it was generally agreed that Matisse and Picasso were both great painters, they were seen as very different. Picasso, it was widely felt, had produced a more substantial and challenging body of work, not only because it seemed more varied and more thematically structured but also because of its immense inventiveness. In both his painting and his sculpture, Picasso did much to redefine the very act of making art, for example by including objects from the outside world, such as the sheets of newsprint in his collages and found objects such as colanders in his sculptures. He showed to what degree things in the world could be recombined and reinvented in his work, and how the process of imaginatively taking things and forms apart and putting them back together in unexpected ways could invest them with new and unsuspected meanings. He could make the familiar seem uncanny and the uncanny seem familiar—a new territory into which Matisse rarely dared to venture, either pictorially or psychologically.

By the mid-1960s, however, Picasso’s inventiveness began to seem like a dead end to younger artists. In part this was because his imagery carried with it such a specific “signature.” His contorted figures and heads with double profiles or with the eyes placed next to each other on the same side of the face could be fairly easily imitated by mediocre artists, but they resisted being taken further by good ones. And during the heyday of abstract painting, the ways he conceived and filled in pictorial space were also becoming less interesting to younger artists than the more open kind of space created by Matisse.

Whereas Picasso’s subjects are painted as if he was fully conscious of each of their constituent elements, Matisse presents the visual field to us in a remarkably fluid way. In Matisse’s paintings, we often have the sense that there is more to be seen than we can hold in our attention at once; as our eyes roam over the painting we constantly feel that we are on the verge of discovering something new. The forms in Matisse’s paintings and cutouts seem to keep expanding. They evoke a space so open and suggestive that it appears to contain infinite possibilities.

When you see the two artists’ paintings side by side, you become acutely aware of these differences, and of how much energy the physical surface of Matisse’s pictures seems to contain. Picasso was aware of this quality and envied it, just as Matisse greatly envied the amazing technical virtuosity that enabled Picasso to land on his feet no matter what risks he took. “Matisse has such good lungs,” Picasso said during the late 1940s, referring to the way Matisse made his canvases seem to throb and expand.

This expansive aspect of Matisse’s paintings can be seen throughout the exhibition, and is especially telling in the comparison between Matisse’s 1915 Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem and Picasso’s Mandolin and Guitar of 1924. That work by Matisse is not one of his best pictures, while Picasso’s is one of his masterpieces of the mid-1920s—and it is a far more engaging, more interesting, and better resolved composition. But when you see the two paintings side by side, you cannot fail to notice how much visual power radiates from the surface of even this rather middling Matisse painting, and how self-contained, even reticent, the Picasso looks beside it.

Does this mean that Matisse is the greater artist? Not at all. It helps, though, to explain why Matisse has emerged as the more influential painter, and suggests that of the two he was better able to investigate and evoke those aspects of human sensibility that only painting can capture. But if Picasso’s ideas were less profoundly painterly, they were in many respects more far-reaching, especially in relation to the various kinds of art that have gone beyond traditional definitions of painting and sculpture. Duchamp’s ready-mades, the diverse forms of mixed-media art, and even some kinds of performance art can be traced back to him and actually seem to be a response to his own experiments.

In a curious way, both artists’ works still produce the kind of excitement that you feel when looking at very fresh and original contemporary art. In their different ways, they seem to speak to us as much in the present tense as in the voice of the past.

This Issue

March 27, 2003