Archives: Henri Matisse, le laboratoire intérieur

2 December 2016 – 6 March 2017

Throughout the artist’s life (1869-1954), drawing was a core discipline for Henri Matisse, for which he used a wide range of media (pencil, charcoal and stump, pen and ink, quill and brush ...) and supports (sheets from sketchpads, margins of letters, or fine art paper). This continuous practice in the privacy of his studio was the laboratory for his work as a painter and for his sculpture – Matisse often compared himself to a juggler or an acrobat, daily maintaining the flexibility of his instrument of work. Matisse’s drawings surround, precede, accompany and extend other artistic forms in his oeuvre and also reveal themselves as independent constellations.

The exhibition illustrates the main moments in this artistic journey, arranged in fourteen thematic and chronological sequences: from the apprenticeship years at the very start of the 20th century, through to the studies for the chapel of the Rosary in Vence (1948-1949), the final masterpiece and culmination of an entire lifetime for Matisse. The suggested path identifies the pivotal points in Matisse’s approach to drawing – from the black of ink or pencil to the modulated white of paper, from the softness of smudged shadows to the light emanating from the final brush drawings, in relation to his experiments with colour in his painting or his work on volume in his sculptures. In the exhibition, each room offers a dialogue between drawings and paintings, etchings and sculptures, with works echoing each other and restoring something of the atmosphere of his various studios: Quai Saint Michel, in Paris from 1894, Issy-les-Moulineaux from 1909, Nice from 1918 until his death in 1954, with the exception of 1943-1948 which Matisse spent in Vence.

Learn. Unlearn

Henri Matisse is twenty-one years old when he goes to train in Paris. He attends evening classes at the École des Arts Décoratifs and at the École Nationale des beaux-arts, in particular in Gustave Moreau’s studio where he rubs shoulders with Albert Marquet and Georges Rouault. He was to stay there from 1892 to 1898, six years during which he works in the studio and assiduously visits the Louvre, where he copies the old masters, including Vermeer, Chardin and Raphaël. Copying gives him an occasional income until 1904, but is above all an essential exercise in the mastery of his craft. In addition to these figures from the past, he is hugely influenced by the great artists of his time, Paul Cézanne and Auguste Rodin, who help him formulate his own pictorial language. While Matisse had always assumed an artistic affinity with the old masters, in 1898 he casts off the weight of the past and escapes from it in all the genres he pursues: the self-portrait, landscapes from nature, or working from life with a model. In the early days, his work appears to be a long journey; he works from the major artists of the past and also with his contemporaries - he admires and challenges by copying, reworking and constantly questioning. And finally he unlearns from the masters.

The grammar of poses

In Matisse’s work, the period from 1904 to 1908 is generally associated with the advent of pure colour. During the summer of 1905, the artist worked in this direction, in the company of André Derain, at Collioure. It was in this mythical place that, under their impetus, fauvism was invented – a founding moment of modernity where colour ceases to bear any reference to local colour, where people and objects are indicated by signs, and where volumes and models are absorbed by the coloured surface. Thus, in La Japonaise: Woman beside the Water, colour and line, figure and decorative background become interchangeable, to the extent that they dissolve in a single movement. This apotheosis of colour is however intimately connected to drawing. These two skills feed the manifestly fauvist canvas The Joy of Life (1905-1906, Philadelphia, The Barnes Foundation), its genesis being evoked by a coloured landscape sketch and numerous drawings. The artist develops a repertoire of poses which he uses constantly throughout his oeuvre. In parallel to the paintings from this period, he also works on a group of three woodcuts, plus a set of small ink drawings. Here too, Matisse delves into his grammar of poses, exploring the ability of the black line to modulate the white surface and thereby give it a luminous, almost “coloured” quality.

A motionless dance

From 1906, Matisse concentrates more on the human figure and develops his creative process, alternating painting sessions with life drawing and sculptures. An overall logic unites these various media around the same conceptual approach to form. Pairs, or even series, can thus be organised around the major sculptures from this period. While Two Négresses reveals the artist’s attraction to African sculpture, they also reflect his interest in the theme of the back which he was to explore both in drawings and in paintings. It was again at the heart of the series of monumental sculptures, Back I, II and III, produced from 1909 to 1917 in step with the drawing-sculpture-painting chain focussing on this subject matter. Designed to be looked at from all angles, other sculptures from this period testify once again to Matisse’s interest in the plastic form of the back. This reflects – in Decorative Figure – a quest for monumentality and – with The Serpentine which was produced after The Dance I (New York, The Museum of Modern Art). In this continuity, a series of drawings is produced, centred on the theme of the issue of spatial expansion originating from the representation of a static figure - a motionless dance.

From portrait to face

Only late on does Matisse express his long-held interest in the “human face”. However, particularly between 1910 and 1917, he is encouraged by a group of fervent lovers of Byzantine art and disciples of philosopher Henri Bergson, who found the principles of a non-representative aesthetic in his art and sought to rethink the links between reality and perception. Matisse then embarks on a journey to develop and to get to the essential, reworking this specific theme in depth. In the portrait of Yvonne Landsberg, in 1914, in the drawing portraits of Eva Mudocci and Josette Gris in 1915, in that of Greta Prozor in 1916, or of George Besson in 1918, Matisse does not flinch from deconstructing and then recomposing his models’ faces, striping them right to the bone, producing unsettling works, often beyond the comprehension of their sponsors. He relies on the subtle use of different drawing methods, a practice he was subsequently to develop further and to theorise thirty years later, in his “Notes of a Painter on his Drawing”. Indeed, in the constellations of drawings and prints associated with the portraits from the period 1914-1916, a cinematography of snapshots already co-exists with a part of informed elaboration. It is thus in and by painting that Matisse finally accesses the spiritual truth of his models.

Trees and oranges

In the preface to the catalogue for the Matisse Picasso exhibition held at the Paul Guillaume gallery in Paris in 1918, Guillaume Apollinaire writes: “If one were to compare the work of Henri Matisse to something, one would have to choose an orange. Like an orange, Henri Matisse’s work is the fruit of dazzling light.” A recurring element which prevails, throughout his oeuvre, as a major subject in his compositions, orange is not a simple motif, which plastic possibilities Matisse explores: it is a real testing ground where the artist confronts the tensions in himself. Present in his early compositions, the fruit reappears during Matisse’s first visit to Morocco in 1912. The artist, in a difficult position due to the rise of cubism and futurism which call into question his role as leader of the avant-garde, will then seek to rethink his art in the light of the artistic tradition of this country. This experiment allows Matisse to set himself apart from the development of the avant-garde to better prepare himself to face it. During the winter of 1915, he travels to L’Estaque, in the footsteps of Paul Cézanne and Georges Braque. There, he abandons the motif of the orange, preferring instead that of the tree, its relationships between forms and forces allowing him to question the vocabulary of cubism. This subject was to occupy him again through force of circumstance : in this period of uncertainty marked by the First World War, active contemplation of nature offers Matisse the resources he needs to regain his equilibrium.

The life-drawing session

In late 1916, Matisse embarks on a new working method, a daily face-to-face, repeated for months and sometimes years, almost exclusively with one model, an Italian called Laurette. A professional model, paid by the hour, she poses for close to a year for around forty canvases, and particularly powerful charcoal drawings. Following the rupture marked by his move to Nice, where Matisse reconnects with the human figure, and during the whole of 1919, the young Antoinette Arnoud replaces Laurette. She inspires a remarkable series of drawings, sometimes worked in great detail, sometimes more elliptical, that Matisse decides to put together in an album published at his expense. Cinquante dessins par Henri-Matisse is objectively the first book composed by the artist, to the content and production of which he was completely committed. A demonstration of virtuosity, in an apparently classical mode, this album is however the contrary to a “return to order” – as Matisse’s period in Nice has often been described.

The odalisque form

Actress, musician and ballerina, Henriette Darricarrère becomes Matisse’s principal model from 1920 to 1927, her body alone incarnating the odalisque form. This word and this motif of odalisque, used by 18th and 19th century painters such as Boucher, Ingres and Delacroix, evoke the representation of nudes without sham mythologies, placed in an allusively oriental decor. In this tradition, Matisse inaugurates in 1921, with the Odalisque with Red Trousers (Paris, Musée national d’art moderne), a long series of works in which the odalisque is no longer a simple motif or an iconographic category, but a way of questioning the insertion of the figure in space. In his apartment, at 1, Place Charles Félix in Nice, Matisse even creates a bedroom like a theatre set, with a platform and decoration of fabrics and wall-hangings, to expose the nudity of the odalisque. Matisse examines the possible ways of achieving the tension of body and decor in various techniques – painting, sculpture, drawing and print – without establishing any hierarchy between them, but regarding them as joint methods of exploration. This series is part of the continuing personal quest of the Orient in relation to the decorative art, crystallised during this time of doubt and intense anguish, the Nice period, during which Matisse seeks to renew his approach by following the lessons of the old masters.

Metamorphoses. Nymph and satyr

Matisse develops the theme of the satyr charming a sleeping nymph, in parallel to that of dance, starting from his fauvist years with The Joy of Life (1905-1906). He reconnects with this motif in the illustration of “The afternoon of a satyr” for the Poems of Mallarmé published in 1932 by Albert Skira, which he creates in parallel to The Dance, a mural for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (United States). Between May and June 1935, he re-engages with this subject once again, producing a series of charcoal sketches, the chronology of which is difficult to ascertain, as Matisse changed and reworked them constantly. Starting from a fairly traditional iconography of the satyr, the artist then stylises this figure, neglecting his traditional attributes (horns and goat’s hooves), to focus on the expressive lines of the body. In these compositions, he was to discover the memory of the work he had started the previous year, on illustrations for James Joyce’s Ulysses, for which he turned to Homer’s Odyssey. These elements reappear in the canvas Nymph in the Forest (Greenery), started in 1935 and pursued tirelessly through to the early 1940’s. Its variations around a single motif and its constant metamorphoses testify to the Matisse’s creative process, who stated: “At each stage, I have a balance, a conclusion. In the next session, if I find that there is a weakness in the entire work, I re-enter myself to my painting via this weakness – I enter via the breach – and I redesign the whole thing.”

The artist and his model, Lydia

A young Russian recently arrived in Nice, Lydia Delectorskaya is initially employed by Matisse as a studio assistant in 1930, while he is working on The Dance for the Barnes Foundation. Although she sits for the artist once in 1934, she really only becomes his model in the following year. In The Dream, he shows her in what is to be his favourite pose, her head resting on her crossed arms surrendered to the gaze. This canvas is Lydia’s inauguration into Matisse’s painting, to which she was to be intimately bound for the rest of his life. In the same period, he develops a series of enormously sensual line life drawings of her, in which he returns to the theme of the “painter and his model” and develops the deconstruction approaches started at the beginning of the century. The presence of a mirror in the composition allows the reflection of the model and the hints of the artist’s presence to be mixed in a continuum of lines, which he explores until 1937. It is at this time that Lydia poses again for a major canvas, Large Blue Dress and Mimosas, in which Matisse paints with relish the dress and the ruffles in a set of drawings seeking harmony between pose and facial expression.

The Romanian blouse

Matisse’s close relationship with textiles, culminating in the Romanian blouse series in 1936-1940, seems to have been triggered by his birth into a family of weavers, and confirmed by his path through life : Le Cateau-Cambrésis, Saint-Quentin, Bohain – all towns centred on bobbin lace factories , wool and textile mills. When he arrives in Paris in 1891, he starts to collect fabrics, wall-hangings and rugs – which would feed and support his artistic creation. In parallel, he builds up a wardrobe for his models, one which grows throughout the 1930’s, containing numerous Romanian blouses, which become a favourite element in his graphic vocabulary. His long-held interest in this item of clothing seems to have grown from his contact with Theodor Pallady, a Romanian painter and former studio comrade of Gustave Moreau, but also from the presence of Lydia Delectorskaya, a young woman originally from Russia, who was to become his favourite model. During this period in which Matisse was seeking a simpler structural method, the graphical aspect of the Romanian blouse allows him to explore a work of purification, down to the expression of simple signs, capturing the character of his subject in the most succinct way. The culmination of Matisse’s interest in textiles, the “ Romanian blouses ” series, also occurs at the time when he embarks on a more general reflection on the decorative, starting from the study of specific motifs.

Cinematography. Themes and variations

In 1941 and 1942, Matisse concentrates on drawing. And he produces hundreds, a “flowering”, as he was to say, comprising series in which the initial drawing is a charcoal study of the developed motif. Other sheets of paper then evolve from this work, as if traced by a blind man, in a state of extreme concentration: “drawings in pen or pencil are like the perfumes emanating from this first master drawing.” He was to return to this approach, referring to “a cinematography of the feelings of an artist. A series of successive images resulting from the work on a given theme by the creator.” Matisse wanted to show this culmination, reconciling the two methods of drawing in a book, Themes and variations. The preface, written by Louis Aragon, is the fruit of an intense dialogue between the painter and the writer. Started in autumn 1941, continued in spring 1942, in the darkest days of the war, this dialogue was to go on in a regular correspondence and discussion, commented by Aragon in Henri Matisse roman, published in 1971. Interiors in Vence. Colours, black and white The season of Interiors in Vence, the final “flowering” of Matisse’s painting, starts in the spring of 1946 and ends two years later with Large Red Interior. This canvas sums up this dazzling series and makes reference to the Red Studio from 1911 (New York, The Museum of Modern Art). A double series in fact, in which strongly coloured canvases are accompanied by large brush-and-ink drawings, with the same motifs: interior (studio) / exterior (garden), nudes, ferns or pomegranates, and always palm trees. Palm trees fill the windows of villa Le Rêve in Vence, into which Matisse settles in June 1943, following the threat of the German occupation of his apartment and studio at the Hotel Régina and afteran air raid at Cimiez. Between painting and drawing, Matisse plays masterfully with black and colour, line and mark, the light of white and that of black. The entire series, exhibited in 1949 is received with great public acclaim, first in New York at his son Pierre Matisse’s gallery, then in Paris at the Musée National d’Art Moderne.

From face to mask

After Louis Aragon, Matisse subjects the faces of his grandchildren to the process of “Themes and variations”. Both adolescents, Claude Duthuit and Jackie Matisse meet their grandfather once again after the separation during the war, in 1945 and 1947 respectively. He drew studies of them in charcoal, extensively worked, followed by quick variations in line, arising from successive sensations and transcribed immediately, as well as simplified “faces”, still portraits yet already masks. They all need to be viewed in relation to these words by Matisse: “The face doesn’t lie: it is the mirror of the heart.”

Vence Chapel. Colour and light

The Vence Chapel of the Rosary project arose from Matisse’s meeting with Monique Bourgeois, a young nurse who cared for him following a major operation in 1941, before becoming his confidante and model. Having joined the order of the Dominicans of Vence in 1946, she tells Matisse in the following year of her plan to extend the chapel of their congregation. With the assistance of Brother Rayssiguier and Father Couturier, the artist produces an initial drawing which is approved by architects Auguste Perret and Louis Milon de Peillon. From 1948 to 1951, Matisse also designs the stained glass windows and the ceramic panels opposite them, as well as the liturgical ornaments. The Vence chapel project allows Matisse to design a space in its entirety and to produce a pictorial language which is a synthesis of his work. As the artist expressed it : “In the chapel, my main aim was to balance a surface of light and colour with a solid wall, with a black on white drawing. This chapel was for me the culmination of a whole lifetime’s work for which I was chosen by destiny at the end of my road, which I continue by my research, with the chapel giving me the opportunity to define it by uniting it.” As a whole, the various preparatory studies for the ceramic panels, stained glass windows and the door of the confessional testify to the long process resulting in Matisse’s final monumental project.

Henri Matisse and Lyon

In January 1941, Matisse’s health deteriorates and he is rushed to hospital, initially the Clinique Saint-Antoine in Nice, from where he is subsequently transferred to the Clinique du Parc in Lyon. There, in 1941, he undergoes an operation for duodenal cancer, carried out by Professor Santy assisted by Professors Wertheimer and Leriche. Matisse “miraculously” recovers from this procedure. He leaves hospital in April and convalesces at the Grand Nouvel Hôtel, rue Grolée in Lyon, before returning to Nice in May. During this period, he has many talks with art critic Pierre Courthion, about Lyon, a “city through and through” which is described as “consistent”. It is at this time that René Jullian, the director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, approaches Matisse in order to acquire one of his works. In 1943, the artist sends the museum a copy of his book Themes and Variations, accompanied by a series of six original drawings produced for the book. From this time until 1950, Matisse sends his illustrated works to the museum, including the album Jazz, each bearing an inscription to the Musée de Lyon. The culmination of this relationship was the purchase, after lengthy negotiations, by Jullian in 1947, of a painting by Matisse: the portrait of the Antiquarian Georges-Joseph Demotte. This collection of Matisse’s works at the museum was to grow further in 1993 by the addition of Young Woman in White, Red Background, from the Centre Pompidou to which it had been gifted by the artist’s son Pierre Matisse.