In the light of Henri Matisse’s birthday on the 31st here are some of my favourite paintings and a bit of text about them.
If not for a bout of appendicitis, Henri Matisse may have lived the quiet life of a lawyer and remained unknown to the world. In 1890 Matisse took up painting during his convalescence at the advanced age of 20. He soon abandoned the study of law and became a regular presence in the studios of salon painters like Adolphe-William Bouguereau and Gustave Moreau. He took every opportunity to draw from live models and attended a range of public and private art schools to make up for his lack of youthful training. At age 30 Matisse was forced out of the Paris École des Beaux Arts on the grounds of his age.
Up to this point, Matisse had paid close attention to the palette and painting practices of the impressionists. He began to move past the influence of that style and emerged in 1904 as a leader of a group of artists that came to be known as the Fauves, or wild beasts. The Fauves were noted for their use of bright colors in place of naturalistic hues and expressive brushstrokes. Throughout his career, Matisse retained his interest in the human form and the use of color, form, pattern and line to enliven a painting.
Large Reclining Nude, a masterpiece of composition and form, is evidence of Matisse’s enduring interest in using the live model to investigate the formal and emotional aspects of the human figure. By the time Matisse ceased work on this painting, his model (and assistant) Lydia Delectorskaya may not have immediately recognized herself. The finished painting went through 22 separate stages before Matisse was finally satisfied. Matisse documented the evolution of the painting with photographs. In the finished work, the figure stretches across a blue and white checkerboard plane that is set in contrast to a thick red stripe and the white and green plaid of the wall. The flat design elements and use of checkerboard pattern are missing in the first versions of this work. During the artistic process, Lydia’s body changes from a realistically proportioned figure to an elongated torso with strong legs and arms and a diminutive head. Her blue and white resting place can be identified as a couch in the early versions. The rounded brown, yellow and flesh-tone shapes above her stomach originally appear as a vase of flowers perched on a chair set behind the sofa. The thick red strip of color resembling a chair rail is actually the floor.
Beginning with the sixth revision, Matisse pinned paper shapes directly to the canvas to work on the composition. Pinholes remain visible on the canvas. (This practice predates Matisse’s cut-paper compositions he occupied himself with during his years of waning health.) The shapes of the room decorations become flatter and more geometric after this stage. Matisse introduced the checkerboard motif halfway through the process. The regularity of the line pattern and the languid pose of the figure balance each other out to create a sense of stability in the composition that demonstrates Matisse’s mastery of his art and faith in his process.