Henri Matisse, Laurette in Green Robe (Black Background), 1916, Oil on canvas, 28¾ x 21½ inches
Judgements about art have diversified in recent decades, but in the last century, much of the discussion revolved around two towering figures of modernist painting, Picasso and Matisse. Many artists picked sides. Some especially admired Picasso for his virility and brashness, for his protean output and cunning exploitation of historical artworks — and, of course, for the sheer genius of his drawing. With Matisse we had a master unsurpassed for his sensuous color, and for the seemingly effortless technique with which he shrewdly records his visual environment.
I fall into the Matisse camp. While I admire Picasso’s drawing, prints and sculpture, Matisse still represents for me the fullest mixture, in the modern age, of discrimination and passion. He lived at the beginning of a period whose pulses we now take for granted — a time of unsurpassed access to the great paintings in museums, but also of an increasing bombardment by mass-media images. Where to root one’s own approach? Matisse set a very high bar for any painter attempting to paint in today’s world with an awareness of the past.
The key to Matisse, obviously, is his color. His life as a painter famously commenced when his mother presented him with a watercolor set, as, aged 20, he lay recuperating in hospital bed. Seduced by its array of hues, he never turned back; every painting he was to produce, stronger or weaker, reveled in relationships of colors.
And yet, over the years I’ve encountered a number of people who saw nothing special about his color. It’s difficult to express verbally the visual actions of color, but in the following paragraphs I’ll relate what I see in one of my favorite paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, Matisse’s “Laurette in a Green Robe, Black Background” (1916), currently hanging in Gallery 904.
First, what can color do? Colors on a canvas want to move. As the formula goes, warm hues tend to come forward, and cool ones recede. A more accurate account might be that two juxtaposed colors will establish a shift – an almost physical sensation of stepping in space. They might represent a blue book in front of a red pillow, or bright, distant sky framed by a warm, dim window sash. By some fascinating property of artists’ pigments, they can not only describe the local colors of objects but also palpably capture their reaction to light: densely shadowed, elusively shaded, softly illuminated, fiercely lit. And, in recording the contradictions of light, they show us how things exist in the world.
Jean Siméon Chardin, The Silver Tureen, ca. 1728–30, Oil on canvas, 30 x 42½ inches
Composing is a kind of role-assigning: one shape leads to another, that gangs up with a third, then resists a fourth, before resolving in a fifth — which may be a hand, a teapot spout, or a tree on the horizon. Color plays a vital role, not only as forward-and-back tensions that suggest volumes, but also by vitalizing sequences across the surface. If we’re not in an analytical frame of mind, we may simply savor the liveliness of a semblance: the extension of an arm, expressed with such memorable gravity by Rembrandt, or the way a vase of flowers breaches the air above a shelf in a Chardin still life. If we care to look beyond semblances, we sense a remarkable coordination of weighted events – the reason why the arm extends and the vase rises so poignantly. We see, in other words, the artist’s intent, moment by unfolding moment.
This is the beauty of Matisse. As a denizen of the modern era, he set aside the dross of convention, concealing nothing in a pursuit of what painting, uniquely, achieves. Academic polish and theatrical gestures didn’t impress him; the authority and gravity of the Italian “primitives” did. If a great painter like Giotto could make something almost miraculous out of patches of color, what alternative was there than to pursue, as Matisse put it, “a modern equivalent”?
As a visual experience, “Laurette” is rooted in a very specific scenario of light, but it ends up being a sublime meditation on how objects occupy space. Matisse conveys the way light descends, full-force, on the figure’s forehead and shoulder and the top right portion of the chair’s back. A milder illumination lights most of the robe and the hands and feet. The chair back to the left of the head turns darker; behind the hands, the robe becomes a zone of deep intimate shadow. In other words, even though the color scheme seems simplistic — green robe/pink armchair/ochre skintones/black background — it’s a faithful expression of a light-filled scene. We also may become aware of something particularly lively about this semblance of a woman in a chair: the sense of her weight, and how her forms expand rhythmically across the chair, which surrounds and supports her almost like a giant blossom. It’s as if figure and chair had generated themselves from some sort of autonomous, internal energy. And if you are sensing this, you are feeling the genius of Matisse’s contrivances in color.
What is happening? Colors add pressure to Matisse’s drawing of forms: the large, enclosing movements that resolve in collections of small details. We may sense intervals of pressures. The lower foot anchors the broad rise of the dense, emerald green robe, which spreads upward to the horizontal of the upper leg. Here the small intense lights of the hands – perched like bright beige boulders just past the crest of a hill — trail sideways towards shadow. A shift over, and the figure continues its vertical rise to be contained a second time by the horizontal arc that wraps the shoulders as well as the painting’s most contrasting notes, the highlights of shoulder and dark swaths of hair. Meanwhile, with periodic loops of buoyant pink, the chair embraces the ascending greens.
Henri Matisse, Young Sailor II, 1906, Oil on canvas, 40 x 32¾ inches
Matisse’s drawing can sometimes seem generalized, the product of an “intelligent glance,” as Derain once put it. The large, curling movements of color in Matisse’s “Young Sailor II” from 1906 (hanging on an adjacent wall at the Met) tend to melt into the details of the hands rather than resolve in them. But in “Laurette,” the gestures of figure and chair culminate with wonderful power in the details of the face, which draw us inward through a series of contrasting, concentric movements: the surrounding pinks of chair back, then the inner frame of black hair — stepped on one side and free-flowing on the other — and finally the slightly tilted face, whose angle responds both locally to the off-balance hair and more broadly to the entire development of limbs and robe below.
The artist reserves his most concise modeling for the face, with its complex shading about the eyes and chin. He uses the head’s overall division between lit and shadowed areas to accentuate its tilt. How to achieve, with apparent spontaneity, so rich and vital a likeness? It’s tempting to read the self-possession of the face — at once luminous and sober — as a reflection of the artist’s own overarching intent.
At no point does Matisse attempt to disguise his improvisations. The black background is thoroughly unnatural, and probably an instance of his habit at the time of painting over unresolved portions of paintings with black as a kind of “reset.” (Laurette’s lower foot in fact consists of parts of floor and ankle left over from just this sort of reset.) But the background, subtly differentiated from the richer blacks of chair trim and hair, works as the perfect foil — an anonymous, quietly vibrant depth — for every other action of color.
Giotto di Bondone, The Adoration of the Magi, ca.1320, Tempera on wood with gold ground, 17¾ x 17¼ inches
In its vast collection, the Met contains any number of paintings that contrast intriguingly with Matisse’s approach. Around the corner in Gallery 903, an oil painting by Norman Rockwell conveys a lively scene in literalistic volumes, leaving totally untapped the compositional powers of colors and forms. Upstairs in Gallery 602 hangs “The Adoration of the Magi” (ca. 1320) by Giotto, whose vivid rhythms find their echoes, six hundred years later, in the paintings of Matisse. In Gallery 615 hang two canvases by Chardin, a superb but subtle colorist who Matisse as a young man studied more than any other master at the Louvre.
Pablo Picasso, The Dreamer, 1932, Oil on canvas, 40 x 36¾ inches
And then there is Picasso, whose “Gertrude Stein” (1905-06) and “The Dreamer” (1932) count among the Met’s highlights. It’s fair to say that Picasso was a more dynamic draftsman than Matisse, and perhaps the more instinctive and agile artist. He was certainly the greater showman and conjuror of auras — of the artist as audacious gladiator and nimble usurper, as the absconder and subverter of every style and tradition. But it could be argued that Picasso also encouraged our laziest expectations of painting. By my reckoning, Matisse studied his own visual surroundings more conscientiously, and showed a more consistent understanding of the strange and particular possibilities of color. One imagines him standing before his easel, consumed with this visual world and this set of pigments on the palette, and compelled by a deep understanding of great traditions. He stands as an inspiration for the painter of any era.
John Goodrich, Model with Red Dress, 2013, Oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
John Goodrich is a New York City-based painter who exhibits at Bowery Gallery, NYC. His writings on art have appeared in Review, The New York Sun, Artcritical.com, Hyperallergic.com, and Paintingperceptions.com