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.


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