Color him rad
Get ready for Matisse with our handy cheat sheet.
If Henri Matisse (1869–1954) hadn’t broken a sculpture, 20th-century art history might have turned out very differently. When his unfinished clay figure Reclining Nude (I) (Aurore) fell off a table in early 1907, the panicked French artist painted the piece from memory. That canvas became Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra) (1907). As he repaired Reclining Nude, Matisse altered the sculpture to reflect innovations he made in the painting. When he returned to Blue Nude, he developed its composition in response to the sculpture.
“Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–17,” on view through June 20 at the Art Institute of Chicago, suggests this incident transformed Matisse’s artistic process. The artist began advancing his ideas by moving among painting, sculpture and printmaking as he created several versions of the same image. He reworked pieces over time, leaving certain changes visible. Curators Stephanie D’Alessandro of the Art Institute and John Elderfield of the Museum of Modern Art in New York also highlight Matisse’s sculptural approach to painting, which involved scraping and incising his canvases. They portray the Art Institute’s painting Bathers by a River (1909–10, 1913, 1916–17) as the epitome of Matisse’s revision-oriented process, having exposed the piece’s surprising evolution through cutting-edge software and years of research.
“Radical Invention” offers several juicy revelations, but it’s hard to appreciate them if you’re not familiar with Matisse before and after 1913–17. If you don’t own a set of Jazz note cards or a poster of Dance, read on.
1. Cézanne was Matisse’s idol. Matisse didn’t finish his artistic training until he was 27. (It largely consisted of copying Old Masters at the Louvre.) A few years later, he purchased Cézanne’s painting Three Bathers (1879–82) and kept it, despite various financial crises, for the next 37 years. Matisse embraced this painting’s motif—and its idyllic rather than naughty treatment. From Cézanne, he learned to foreground his work’s expressive qualities over its realism.
2. Matisse made critics see red. In the early 1900s, Seurat and van Gogh inspired Matisse to experiment with Neo-Impressionism. He constructed a few significant paintings from small blocks of color, then moved on to large, flat areas of color influenced by sources such as Gauguin and Greek vase painters. A critic dubbed Matisse and some of his peers Les Fauves (the “wild beasts”) because of their shocking colors and brushwork. Not everyone appreciated Fauvism: Collector Leo Stein described Matisse’s 1905 painting The Woman with the Hat as “the nastiest smear I have ever seen”— and he’s the one who bought it.
3. Matisse and Picasso were frenemies. The artists, who met around 1906, had a profound impact on each other’s work despite their mutual jealousy. According to the massive “Radical Invention” catalog, Matisse introduced Picasso to African sculpture and influenced the latter’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. By 1907, Picasso’s Cubism had lured Georges Braque and other artists away from Fauvism, which collapsed. “Radical Invention” shows Matisse borrowing techniques from Cubism without giving up his alternative form of modernism.
4. Because of their extreme experimentation and subdued palettes, the works created from 1913–17 are the artist’s most “un-Matissean.” That’s what Elderfield writes in his catalog for MoMA’s 1992 Matisse retrospective. Matisse’s early work offended many, including students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who in 1913 burned his paintings Blue Nude and Le luxe (II) in effigy. After the period “Radical Invention” addresses, he courted controversy for his “bourgeois” emphasis on the visual pleasure derived from color and pattern—as well as from nudes frolicking in the south of France, where he moved in 1917. During the 1940s, Matisse became as famous for his colorful paper cut-out collages as for his painting, which he abandoned due to illness and decreased mobility.
5. By the 1950s, artists saw Matisse as avant-garde again. His distinctive treatment of color and space has inspired Abstract Expressionists, Color Field artists and a steady stream of blockbuster exhibitions.