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

Gallery Two

Matisse: In Search of True Painting, installation view of gallery 2

© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

An Experiment in Deformation

Matisse painted Young Sailor I (1906) in Collioure, an isolated fishing village in southwestern France. The model was a local teenager who is thought to have posed for just one day. Matisse used thin, repetitive pencil lines to block the figure onto canvas. He traced the graphite with black paint and filled in the resulting fields with loose, vividly colored strokes. He left the canvas bare in many places and in others applied thin paints that ran down the surface, emphasizing its two-dimensionality.

Intrigued by the possibilities of the composition, Matisse reinterpreted it on a second canvas. His choice of colors for Young Sailor II (1906), particularly the monochromatic pink background, evokes Van Gogh's L'Arlésienne, which Matisse had tried in vain to purchase several years earlier.

The collector Leo Stein recalled that Matisse showed him the two Young Sailor paintings when he returned to Paris: "He brought back from the country a study of a young fisherman and also a free copy of it with extreme deformations. At first he pretended that this had been made by the letter-carrier of Collioure, but finally admitted that it was an experiment of his own." Simplification of form and the related concept of "deformation" increasingly intrigued the Parisian avant-garde during the early twentieth century. In his "Notes of a Painter" (1908), Matisse explained that he aimed to "condense the meaning of [a] body by seeking its essential lines."

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Curator Rebecca Rabinow discusses Henri Matisse's process of painting Young Sailor I and Young Sailor II. Transcript available in Met Media

The Academic Tradition Revised

The composition of Le Luxe is indebted to the work of Cézanne, Ingres, and the Italian primitive painters, yet Matisse presented his ideas in a radical new way. He had little interest in "anatomical exactitude" and instead sought to convey the essential qualities of his figures. When Matisse first exhibited Le Luxe I (1907), he included the word esquisse ("sketch") in the title, implying that he did not consider it to be definitive. He elaborated in a 1912 interview, "I never retouch a sketch: I take a canvas the same size, as I may change the composition somewhat. But I always strive to give the same feeling, while carrying it on further."

The second and final version, Le Luxe II (1907–08), is painted in distemper, a water-based medium with a matte surface akin to fresco painting. Matisse altered many compositional elements in the second canvas: the position of the standing woman's foot, the contour of the stooped figure's back, and the placement of the woman with the bouquet.

Scholars hypothesize that Matisse created the charcoal drawing to serve as an aide-mémoire in the absence of the first painting, which was displayed at the 1907 Salon d'Automne and acquired soon afterward by the artist's friends Sarah and Michael Stein. Matisse superimposed a grid onto the drawing. Its lines correspond to traces of red chalk under the paint of Le Luxe II. This technique for transferring a motif from one surface to another did not continue as part of Matisse's standard working method. He may have considered it too time-consuming or simply unnecessary given the extensive changes he made to the second painting.

Nudes with Drapery

For years, Matisse prominently displayed Seated Nude (1909) and Nude with a White Scarf (1909) in his studio. Recent conservation revealed that he initially painted the model in exactly the same pose in both paintings. He set Seated Nude aside and concentrated his efforts on Nude with a White Scarf. He repeatedly repainted the lower left corner of the canvas with red, pink, and even blue, leading to the suggestion that at one point he conceived the subject as a bather near a body of water.

A Moroccan Sojourn

When Matisse visited Tangier in winter and spring 1912, he found "the landscapes of Morocco just as they had been described in the paintings of Delacroix and in Pierre Loti's novels." The extensive grounds of the Villa Brooks, a private estate near his hotel, inspired three identically sized canvases, two of which are displayed here. The third, Periwinkles (Moroccan Garden), is in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Palm Leaf, Tangier (1912) is thinly painted, whereas Acanthus (1912) was repeatedly reworked. Matisse recalled his fascination with the wide green leaves of the acanthus plants, which appear in a row across the bottom of the painting. Afraid that he had failed to capture the essence of the scene, Matisse brought Acanthus with him when he returned to Morocco later that year. He decided that the painting pleased him after all and, in the end, made no changes.

Despite their different finishes, both landscapes found ready buyers. In 1912 Matisse's dealer, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, sold Palm Leaf, Tangier to the German art historian Curt Glaser. Acanthus, meanwhile, passed through two art dealers before it was purchased in 1916 by Matisse's former student Walther Halvorsen, who donated it to Stockholm's Nationalmuseum a few months later.

The Painter's Studio at Issy

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Curator Rebecca Rabinow discusses Matisse's modification of the composition of Nasturtiums with the Painting "Dance" I when he repeated it on a second canvas for his patron Sergei Shchukin. Transcript available in Met Media

In summer 1909 Matisse constructed a 1,076-foot studio outside his house in Issy-les-Moulineaux, just southwest of Paris. Three years later, after a prolonged stay in Morocco (where he painted the landscapes at left), he returned home. He was inspired to paint several views of his studio's interior, including Nasturtiums with the Painting "Dance" I. It shows a wooden chair and a tripod sculpture stand arranged in front of the large painting Dance (1909; The Museum of Modern Art, New York), which at the time was propped against his studio wall.

Matisse created a second version of the painting on an identically sized canvas for his Russian patron Sergei Shchukin. In contrast to Nasturtiums with the Painting "Dance" I, which is painted so thinly that the ground and underlying pencil marks are visible, the second version is constructed in a complex manner that involved much reworking, scraping, overpainting, and incising. Significantly, the effort that he put into the second painting did not dampen Matisse's satisfaction with the first. He loaned Nasturtiums with the Painting "Dance" I to early international presentations of modern art, including a 1912 exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London and the 1913 Armory Show in New York, which traveled to Chicago and Boston. In none of these displays was it referred to as a sketch.