Matisse at the Met

Amy Lin of Saffronart visits the exhibition, Matisse: In Search of True Painting, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York

New York: Keeping with my tradition of Sunday gallery visits, I saw the blockbuster Matisse show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, it seemed the rest of the world also decided it was a great day for visiting the museum, as crowds clambered up the marble stairwell. The enormous title: Matisse: In Search of True Painting—An Exploration of Matisse’s Painting Process (December 4 – March 13, 2013) plastered in front of the exhibition does not disappoint and delivers what it promises.


Left. Henri Matisse. Luxe I, 1907. Oil on canvas, 82 5/8″ by 54 3/8″. Centre Pompidou, Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris.
Right. Henri Matisse. Luxe II, 1907-08. Distemper on canvas, 82 1/2″ by 54 3/8″. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
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The exhibition’s aim is to underline Matisse’s meticulous creative process; despite notions of him being a spontaneous painter, the artist actually took painstaking effort in perfecting his paintings, and the exhibition brings this aspect of his work to life. The display moves in a loose chronological order that highlights Matisse’s early years in Paris, with influences from the Paul Cezanne and Paul Signac, to his success at Galerie Maeght, and his final days in Venice. Rather than being impossibly linear, the show tells a story through pairs and trios of Matisse’s works.

Henri Matisse (1869 –1954) was one of the most influential Fauvist artists active during the early 20th century. His style blended bright colors with abstract shapes but stayed within the realm of traditional subjects such as still life, landscape and portraiture. It was noted that painting did not come easily for Matisse for he often repainted and reworked his pieces.


Left. Henri Matisse. Young Sailor I, 1906. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4″ by 32″. Collection of Sheldon H. Solow.
Right. Henri Matisse. Young Sailor II, 1906. Oil on canvas, 39 7/8″ by 32 5/8″. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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One of the most fascinating parts of the show is the display of the pairs and trios of Matisse’s paintings. It was astonishing to see parts of the series come together after more than half a century. Matisse’s Le Lux I and Le Luxe II are happily reunited here although the first resides in the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the latter in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen.

The artworks are like puzzle pieces falling into place to complete an image of Matisse’s artistic process. Viewers can scrutinize what the artist changed in the various versions of each subject, what he omitted and added, and how his compositions become more abstract and colors bolder over time. Matisse did not care for ‘anatomical exactitude’ as different versions of Young Solider show. Other paintings give insight into how the artist experimented with black as an enforcer when he was unsure of which color to use, and how he calculated light in relation to the windows, walls and shadows of a composition.


Met installation of Mattise’s The Dream with photographs.
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As any true artist should, Matisse’s paintings were mastered through series of sketches, practice works and variations, even for the most spontaneous pieces. He even photo documented his artistic process in The Dream and others. At the 1945 exhibition in Paris’s Galerie Maeght, Matisse declared that the only point of the exhibition was to “present the progressive development of the artworks through their various respective stages.”

I was absolutely floored by the comparisons and the dialogues they create next to each other. It’s humbling to see that even the greatest artists have struggled and persevered for their art. The show is definitely one of the most worthwhile events for this winter, but maybe not on rainy Sunday afternoons.