Matisse Challenged By Painting: Surprise!

“Unbeknownst to many, painting had rarely come easily to Matisse.”

This quote, from Rebecca Rabinow for the Metropolitan Museum’s presentation about the show, Matisse in Search of True Painting, reminds me of the story of the emperor who had no clothes. Really, he struggled to create these horrendous works? Amazing. We all agree that he’s a talented artist? Hmm. I am obviously not a fan of Henri Matisse’s art, and I’ve continued to try and keep an open mind, thinking, that perhaps there’s something that I just don’t get.

I look at the work, and imagine it in it’s original historical context review it as academically as possible, using concepts of art, aesthetics, color, etc., that the traditional concepts of art were being challenged, that this was some sort of break through moment. Perhaps I needed to be there, at the time.

I think about the eighties, with punk rock, and new wave, crazy fashion, hairdos, makeup, and remind myself how we used to strut around feeling so cool, hip, and cutting edge. Now looking back at those photos, I cringe at the thought that someone might post those pictures of me on Facebook. Perhaps it’s the same sort of thing, meaning that has been lost by times passing, and because I wasn’t there.

From what I see, he clearly struggled— with composition, with color… with everything.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)
Young Sailor I, 1906
Oil on canvas; 39 1/4 x 32 in. (99.7 x 81.3 cm)
Collection of Sheldon H. Solow
© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)
Young Sailor II, 1906
Oil on canvas; 39 7/8 x 32 5/8 in. (101.3 x 82.9 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998 (1999.363.41)
© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I try to look a little deeper, to find some sort of meaning, and understanding of what might have been going on. I hear that even he had trouble convincing viewers of the success of his work, how he reworked, and reworked the pieces to get the paintings to the point of satisfactory completion. But what I see is lazy, unintentional painting. I see work by a student who only half cared about what he was doing, and that perhaps there were other things distracting him in his life.

He began to photograph the process, and show how his paintings began, developed, changed, and were simplified. He would create installations of the final painting, and presented black and white photographs of the interim development alongside the finished work. Perhaps to try and reveal his thoughts, his process, and how the final works were a simplification of what was there before.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)
The Large Blue Dress, 1937
Oil on canvas; 36 1/2 x 29 in. (92.7 x 73.7 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1956
© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Photograph documenting Henri Matisse’s process of painting The Large Blue Dress, 1937
February 26, 1937
Photograph; 5 3/4 x 4 1/2 in. (14.6 x 11.4 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Henry McIlhenny Papers
© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


I’m thoroughly not convinced. At no point is there anything that I want to look at. The paintings, at early stages, show potential, only to be destroyed with horrific colors, odd perspective, poor paint application, strange composition.

I find children’s paintings more interesting, more intriguing, because of the naivete. I search for insight in how children may be thinking when composing art with their errors in representation. I try and interpret the stories they are attempting to portray.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)
Laurette Seated on a Pink Armchair, 1916–17
Oil on canvas; 39 3/8 x 28 3/4 in. (100 x 73 cm)
Private collection
© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I look at the work of Henri Matisse, and all I see is bad painting, stuff that, if created today and offered for sale on the streets of any city would be frowned upon as simply bad art.


    Are you kidding? oye….Matisse is one of the great colorists of all time. His colors have a quality of expansion and sensuality. His compositions are wonderful; his technique incredible. Not to mention his sculptures. He was modern, inventive, open to new thoughts and ideas. And he was a consummate draughtsman, revered as an artist by many many other artists. Picasso was awed by him and they exchanged work. I am unclear if you have seen a large show of his in person. I don’t know what you are thinking, but perhaps you need to re-visit.

  • I agree with you on his lack of perspective. I have heard that some brains are unable to draw perspective and proper depth of field. Matisse was awful in his inability to draw proper perspective.
    But as to color, he WAS a master, especially for his genre of painting.
    I don’t love his work like many do but I am always mesmerized by his rich paint colors.

  • An art blog that tries to discredit Matisse. Good luck with that;)

  • I agree. In art history, theory, and technique development Matisse is often brought into the discussion ‘a priori artist’. The idea that the colors introduced by matisse are innovative or master work, does not seem to have a foundation. I am not one to require others to conform to realism, or to have mastered perspective prior to moving out to new places. I am frustrated when I am questioned about why I don’t love the work of matisse. It seems to me more a social faux pas in the art world to critisize his works and I wonder often how much of the furvor is crowd based. I simply have yet to hear a persuasive comment about the meaning, depth, or emotion in a matisse work, that is original and personal. I often hear about how he changed this or shifted that, I just never hear how any person is actually feeling connection or depth. I would love to hear that point of view and a personal evocative experience with a work by matisse. Until then I put his work alongside the miniature statues at ikea, funny animal photos of freinds pets, and the checklist of things a person ‘should’ like to view and praise to be part of the group. I will buy a large print and put it on my wall next to disturbing photos and black and whites of other peoples weddings and see if people comment on it more because it is safer to do so emotionally.

  • You are correct. The emperor has no clothes. High School students with talent and a little training produce better works. People say they like Matisse because they have been told by “experts” that he is great. If a blind test was done of works that Matisse produced but that the test subjects were unfamiliar with, mixed in with similar crummy paintings done by no names I am positive no one would be able to tell the difference between the “great” Matisse and the no names. Works should be judged on their own merits, or lack therof, but unfortunately the art world is as susceptible to celebrity as the rest of the culture. Famous for being famous, not for any real accomplishment. Thank you for the courage to speak up and point out that the emperor has no clothes.

  • My fridge has been graced with better art.

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