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As I enjoy the last week of “Matisse: Life in Color” in San Antonio, I am struck by how much I have learned from and about this modern master.
Although my first loves as an art historian happened in northern Europe at the dawn of the Early Modern Age (Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer), I have long admired Matisse’s daring, his coloristic bravura and his remarkable work ethic. Having “Matisse: Life in Color” at the San Antonio Museum of Art over the course of the summer allowed me to discover some of Matisse’s other secrets and pleasures. I’d like to share those with you, while there is still time to discover your own Matisse pleasures.
Matisse wrote extensively about his work, offering us great insight into his art, but he would have appreciated what Picasso (1881–1973)—his peer and sometime rival—said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
Matisse referred to great works from the history of art in his paintings and sculptures. Sometimes he did this overtly, as when he sculpted – blindfolded – his own version of Antoine-Louis Barye’s (1796–1875) bronze “Jaguar Devouring a Hare” (modeled 1850).
In other cases, he was more subtle, referencing Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867) in the “Standing Odalisque Reflected in a Mirror” (1923). Matisse surely knew of Ingres’ “Reclining Odalisque” (1814), which he could have seen on any or all of his many visits to the Louvre in Paris to study the masterpieces there.
Matisse also would have known the “Portrait of the Countess d’Haussonville,” completed by Ingres in 1845. Matisse has absorbed Ingres’ delight in fooling the eye with anatomical impossibilities. The Countess gestures with her left hand, and, impossibly, this gesture is reflected in the mirror behind her. Matisse does much the same in the “Standing Odalisque.”
Casually leaning against a mirrored wardrobe, as if surprised in her room, the reflection of her face and body are as impossible as the reflection of the Countess’s curled finger painted by Ingres (see top images).
Matisse’s admiration and playful emulation of Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) is undeniable. In one section of the exhibition, devoted to interiors, Matisse’s models look at books, gaze out of windows, have a music lesson or wait for the music to start, thinking about other things, echoing Vermeer’s closely observed portraits of women.
Besides the subject matter, Matisse conjured Vermeer in one of the props that the model wears in two of the most beautiful paintings, “Girl Reading, Vase of Flowers” (1922) and “Young Woman at the Window, Sunset” (1921), with the distinctive yellow and white striped jacket made of a satiny material. It must have been a studio prop that Matisse asked his models to wear. Or perhaps he imagined it while thinking of Vermeer, who frequently asked his models to wear a yellow jacket trimmed with white ermine.
Vermeer also pops up in the “Interior, Flowers and Parakeets” (1924). In this delightful play of spatial relationships, dense patterns, and partially-seen interiors, Matisse evokes Vermeer’s “Art of Painting” (1665–1668), in which we see the artist at work, capturing a complex interior with a model as muse. Matisse eliminates both the figure of the artist and the muse, but keeps the other trappings of his excessive imagination. Vermeer is truly Matisse’s muse here, drawing back the curtain to reveal the artist at work.
I could continue on: Cézanne (1839–1906), Delacroix (1798–1863), Titian (1485–1576). See if you can find Van Gogh’s yellow bed, or Matisse’s sly take on one of Degas’ bathing ballerinas. The clock is ticking down. There are a few days left. Look closely. As Picasso also said, “In the end, there is only Matisse.”
*Featured/top image: Left: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ “Portrait of the Countess d’Haussonville” (1845). Right: Henri Matisse’s “Standing Odalisque Reflected in a Mirror” (1923). Public domain images.