In Matisse’s View of Notre Dame, a diagonal line reaches out of the pentimenti, which establish the artist’s side of a French window, and spans the Seine. Just as the line is about to touch the cathedral, or rather the transparent blocks that stand in for Notre Dame, it blossoms into the shadow of a green tree and sets off a chain reaction–shadow dislodging tree, tree nudging building.
The line isn’t descriptive of anything, although the combined shape of the black line and the black shadow resembles a feather duster. It’s like Matisse touching Notre Dame with his charcoal stick, or a relic of a paintbrush he could have extended to measure the distance between windowsill and cathedral. Most of all, what the line represents to me is Matisse’s line of sight, the activity of looking at something, or looking at something in order to paint it. It’s a metaphor for vision.
Blue stands in for the elements, water, earth and especially air. The sky and the Seine are the same color. The painting breathes. The history of its making left visible under all the blue doesn’t feel like the weight of the past but like a scaffolding of breathing holes. It lightens the painting, allows light to rise up through the surface, provides an underglow.
Matisse’s paintings often changed a great deal as he made them, and the painting’s shimmering blue surface was probably initially intended to obliterate a more representational image. In The Museum of Modern Art’s 2012 exhibition, “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917,” it was paired with a contemporaneous painting he made of the same view that was sketchily realistic.
View of Notre Dame was painted in 1914. Matisse never signed it and it wasn’t exhibited until after his death. We don’t know if he considered it finished or if he just abandoned it but didn’t throw it away. Since then it has inspired many artists, including Robert Motherwell, who kept a postcard of it on his wall when he made his Open series, and Richard Diebenkorn, who positioned a large poster of it next to his studio windows so that he could paint while seeing the image and the ocean at the same time.
View of Notre Dame challenges me in its simplicity and multivalence. It’s beautiful in the most un-hokey way, fresh, succinct, not nostalgic, thrilling in the possibilities it suggests. It argues for painting as a place where, even in the most rigorous of settings, anything can happen–abstract forms can interact with representational things; a line can be a verb. Like a little kid enthralled by a magician’s tricks, I’m a sucker for the miracle of a diagonal line making the illusion of space. Matisse creates the kind of space I want to be in and to make in my own work, airy and open, simultaneously inside and outside, not fussy, but acknowledging the struggle that a painter goes through in arriving at an image and all that’s left is the condensation of that process and the possibilities it offers.
Laura Newman, Interior with Paint Chips, 2016, oil, acrylic and ink on canvas, 72 x 56 inches