Exhibitions/ Matisse: In Search of True Painting/ Gallery Five

Gallery Five

The Beach at Étretat

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Curator Rebecca Rabinow discusses Matisse's and several other artists' paintings of the dramatic cliffs at Étretat. Transcript available in Met Media

Étretat's distinctive cliff formations were depicted by a succession of famous nineteenth-century French artists, including Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet. Matisse presented himself as an heir to that tradition with these three canvases painted during his visits to the resort town on the Normandy coast in summer and early fall 1920.

Large Cliff—Fish most likely was created first. It is thinly painted with no pencil underdrawing. The clumps of seaweed on the beach and the indistinct forms of a villa and boat in the distance are naturalistic touches. Large Cliff—Two Rays and Large Cliff—Eel, on the other hand, are more stylized, as if Matisse had painted them in order to explore the effects of subtle differences. In Two Rays, curved lines create a receding sense of depth and emphasize textural details. Eel is flatter, with a straightened shoreline. The tail of the ray in the foreground bends down, while the eel's curves up; one beach is full of calligraphic pebbles, the other is smooth.

Two Rays and Eel were featured in Matisse's successful 1920 exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. The following year, when Eel was included in a presentation of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art at the Metropolitan Museum, Matisse was criticized for his modern interpretation of this traditional scene.

Still Lifes of the Mid-1920s

Matisse's critical reception waned in the mid-1920s. The serial nature of his work was condemned as monotonous, while his themes—still lifes, odalisques, and hotel interiors—were considered by some to be dated and bourgeois. This was, after all, the period in which Dada and Surrealism challenged traditional subject matter. Matisse's earlier defenders feared that he had lost his edge.

From about 1920 to 1927 Matisse's preferred model in Nice was Henriette Darricarrère, a former ballerina. When she was unavailable to pose, he turned to still lifes. Matisse was particularly fond of anemones, which were readily available at the nearby flower market. Intrigued by the juxtaposition of colors and patterns, he positioned his bouquets in front of a screen paneled with a blue-and-white printed cotton remnant he had purchased decades earlier. At times he added another Niçoise specialty to the arrangement: fruits confits, whole candied oranges and pineapple, displayed in their woven gift boxes.