The Shy Museumgoer


Henri Matisse and that cursed armchair

One day as Henri Matisse was walking through the leafy Paris neighborhood of Montmartre on his way to visit Pablo Picasso’s studio, he noticed that all the sidewalk urinals were covered with the same rude graffiti:

“House painters, stay away from Matisse”

“Matisse has done more harm in a year than an epidemic”

“Matisse causes insanity”

It turns out house painters had posted leaflets on the male restrooms to warn Parisians about white lead, an ingredient in paint that can cause brain damage. A local wag replaced the words “white lead” with “Matisse” on every handbill.

Matisse irks some people

A year earlier, the response to Matisse’s paintings at the Salon d’Automne exhibition had been vicious. In a flood of contradictions, bewildered critics called him both overly emotional and devoid of feeling, both too mechanical and too sloppy.

The artist didn’t set out to make waves:

The Impressionists’s aesthetic seemed just as insufficient to me as the techniques of the Louvre. So I asked myself, “What do I want?” For a brief time, I wanted to exalt all colors together, sacrificing none of them.

Henri Matisse, Art News interview, 1951
Henri Matisse, "Open Window, Collioure (1905)"
Henri Matisse, Open Window, Collioure (1905)

Matisse painted this way for roughly three years, as did André Derain and a dozen other artists. Critic Louis Vauxcelles referred to them collectively as les fauves (the wild beasts) and the epithet stuck. Their unruly brushwork was dubbed Fauvism. Matisse was crowned king of the wild things.

Alarmed that his work was being dismissed as a joke, the artist publicly defended his basic tenets:

What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter….a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.

Henry Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908

His defense backfired. Critics frequently dredged up “something like a good armchair” whenever they wanted to characterize Matisse’s more nuanced paintings as simple-minded decorations for the haute bourgeoise.

Henri Matisse, "Interior at Nice (1917-18)
Henri Matisse, Interior at Nice (1917-18)

Matisse is less a pictorial artist than a designer for stuffs to be sold by the yard. The larger his canvases, the more vapid he becomes; and when blown to mural dimensions, his work is nothing but leaping silhouettes and empty gestures lacking in human significance.

Thomas Craven, New York Herald Tribune, 1933

To which Matisse replied, “In my work, I try to create a translucent setting for the mind.” In other words, Interior at Nice (1917-18) isn’t a hotel room on the French Riviera, it’s your moment of Zen.

Is pleasure a serious subject?

If you suffer from chronic anxiety, what do you paint? If you’re Matisse, you paint desperate snatches of happiness. Does this mean he’s not quite serious enough as an artist?

“Anyone who thinks so must have a low opinion of joy,” replied critic Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker magazine.

In photographs, Matisse is always buttoned up in a suit. It’s a very conventional image, and people have deduced from it that he was dull and timid and relatively shallow.

Matisse is the exact opposite. He was a very passionate man. Painting devoured him, it ate him up, and it also tormented him. He couldn’t sleep, he had nightmares, he had panic attacks. His life was never easy or simple or comfortable at all.

Biographer Hilary Spurling, on the Charlie Rose show, 2006

One person who never made the mistake of underrating Matisse was Pablo Picasso, who kept stopping by the older man’s studio to see what he was up to. Initially, Picasso was behind Matisse in creative audacity. At times, they provoked each other into painting the same subject.

Pablo Picasso, "Woman with a Book (1932)" and Henri Matisse, "Reader Against a Black Background (1939)"
(left) Pablo Picasso, Woman with a Book (1932)
(right) Henri Matisse, Reader Against a Black Background (1939)

When you put these two paintings side by side, it’s clear the final result depended as much on their personalities as it did on their individual styles.

In Picasso’s Woman with a Book, a young woman sits in an armchair. She holds a book, which she’s not reading. The artist, needless to say, portrays her seducing him, in a pose that is all too credible.

In Matisse, you don’t find the sense of self-enthrallment so common in Picasso. In Reader Against a Black Background, a woman reads, or maybe her thoughts have turned inward. Behind her, the luminous black wall is extraordinary. Somehow it expresses both anxiety and tenderness.

If you have never painted, you cannot fully appreciate what lies behind Matisse’s mastery of pure color. It is comparatively easy to achieve a certain unity in a picture either by allowing one color to dominate or by muting all the colors. Matisse did neither. He clashed his colors together like cymbals and the effect was like a lullaby.

John Berger, “Selected Essays,” 1954

Why aren’t we bored with Matisse?

Picasso and Matisse lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, and unprecedented urbanization. Picasso’s work is often cynical. Matisse’s work is refreshing. He painted quiet moments of repose so he could catch his breath before returning to the turmoils of life. “Peace of mind” is what he craved and what he wanted to bestow.

Matisse’s intense feelings are, in a way, why we’re still looking at his paintings. Because although they look so beautiful….they’re brilliantly colored paintings of great balance and serenity….there are depths behind them.

Biographer Hilary Spurling, on the Charlie Rose show, 2006
Henry Matisse, "The Sorrows of the King (1952)"
Henry Matisse, The Sorrows of the King (1952)

Matisse died in 1954. His final self-portrait is titled The Sorrows of the King. It synthesizes concepts that were in his mind for most of his working life. The central black form represents Matisse sitting in a good armchair, surrounded by the pleasures he values and will miss dearly: family, flowers, sunlight, music. So much joy rises and radiates from this scene, for a moment I forgot Matisse was bedridden with abdominal cancer and exhaustion.

None of us can say what would have happened if Matisse had abandoned art to become a troubadour, but I have a hunch his lyrics would have sounded something like this:

And I thought to myself
Wouldn’t it be great
Wouldn’t it be great if just for one moment
Everything was alright

I would give this to you, baby
I would give you a moment
Where everything’s good
Everything’s safe
Everything’s warm
A moment where everything is alright

“Mystic Eyes” by Van Morrison, additional lyrics by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

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