Henri Matisse and how to paint

Henri Matisse was a remarkable artist and at any point in his life we are reliably greeted with outstanding works of art. Let’s talk classics first. Woman Reading (1904) is attractive in its quiet brilliance, the softness of the colours an absolute joy, akin to a rewarding sigh after a long day.
Then there’s fauvism, as exemplified by Woman with a Hat (1905). Like a religious participant in the Indian festival of Holi, his wife Amelie is decorated with splashes of iridescent colour. One’s eyes feel like they’ve struck gold.
And finally, we have the famous cutouts. Composed towards the end of his career, they reveal not a man in decline, but one who is still blessed with a phenomenal ability. Blue Nude II (1952) is minimalistic, bold and as arresting as any of his other work. This style is also noteworthy for the reason that it marked the end of painting for Matisse.
Though this meant the world benefited from his cutouts, it was nevertheless a tragedy, the harsh realities of human fragility denying him his right to paint. He was ill, his body unwilling to grant him greater freedom. All that said, Matisse saw it as being somewhat liberating. It was therefore as a continuation of his practice, “painting with scissors” as he put it.
Still, it was heartbreaking. Tragedy is being denied the ability to do what we love and as a new exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art reveals, the French artist was a true master of painting.
And here lies a clue – what we love. For Matisse was not a natural when it came to painting, as hard as that is to believe. Like great novelists, who write, rewrite, edit, scrap, cut and erase, Matisse always repainted and re-evaluated his work. He was honing his skill for one, while also pushing “further and deeper into true painting”.
What this resulted in was a deeply immersive approach to painting, a willingness to adopt various methods, all of which informed and shaped his own narrative. This included copying the old masters, always a reliable way of equipping oneself with the skills needed to compose solid works of art.
He then started to paint in pairs, which were effectively the same thematically, but, massively different in composition. Was it about progress? Was the second effort, at least to Matisse, better than the first? For the viewer it’s difficult to determine.
Take Le Luxe I (1907) and Le Luxe II (1907-08). The former is a much cleaner rendering of nudes by the sea, the latter less so, almost done in haste. Both are beautiful though and it would be like asking a mother who her favourite twin is.
Other intriguing processes included hiring a photographer in the 1930s to document his progress on certain works. Unlike the pairs, where the second one was, to a degree, a redraft, in this instance, when he arrived at a critical point, he would stop and have the painting photographed.
These would then serve as the “original work”. Upon taking up the brush again and working on the very same painting, he would look back, assessing whether he had made progress or ruined something special. It was a risk, of course; the photograph a depressing reminder of what was in its unblemished glory, but what doesn’t kill you certainly makes you stronger. “Creativity takes courage,” he once said. Matisse proved that to be as a painter.
Henri Matisse: In Search of True Painting at The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York runs until March 17th 2013.
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