The Studio, Quai St Michel, 1916 by Jason Alden

He scraped the pale, ochre fleshtones down. She must be placed lower…with more space above. The sky outside his window was a muted, periwinkle blue and it’s light pulled across Laurette’s recline on the carmine sofa. He would have to adjust the drawings above her. Their present arrangement diminished her. He looked at his sketch. The plate would shift, become rounder, to rhyme with Laurette’s hip. And perhaps the bridge should come into the picture as well. It was Paris, late morning, in 1916 and Matisse was in his studio.


Two years earlier, he had gone, with newly purchased military boots, to submit himself to an entrance examination for the French army. His country had committed to The Great War. So many of his friends had volunteered, to push back against the German occupation in Belgium. Matisse’s widowed mother and younger brother were trapped in the border city of Bohain-en-Vermandois. He wanted to join and fight, but at 44 years of age and with a weak heart , Matisse was denied. He appealed to his friend Marcel Sembat, a government minister, but with no success. Sembat advised earnestly, “What you can do is continue to paint well.”

During the four years of World War I, Matisse worked in his studio at 19 Quai St Michel overlooking the Seine. He was committed to keeping the heart of painting alive while his countrymen artists were away. He sold some prints to send them food and supplies. His two sons were drafted and his little brother was taken prisoner by the Germans, leaving his mother alone in their childhood home. He painted through it all, his palette becoming more somber, shedding the high color that illuminated his earlier Fauvist paintings.

Open Window, Collioure 1905 French Window at Collioure 1914

While hunger and restriction hung over Paris and mortar shells landed within earshot of his studio, Matisse painted one of his greatest pictures, The Studio, Quai St Michel.

oil on canvas 58 x 46 “

oil on canvas 58 x 46 “

Matisse understood painting as an activity of relationship and integration. The canvas was a living environment. The elements of his pictures were tuned to each other as any living things would be in a shared space.

One of the qualities of a highly integrated painting is its’ sensitivity to change. If you alter or remove any element, you can experience the picture shift as a whole system of feeling.

Matisse describes it this way:

The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive; the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its’ share.

When your aims in a painting move beyond the purely representational, visual reality becomes more flexible. The flattened plate gives up a little truthfulness to introduce Laurette’s hip to the curve of the bridge. The circulating forms of drawings, bench, chair and table unmoor and revolve around the reclining figure. The arch of drawings amplify her curvature. She becomes exalted by her surroundings.

One of the ways of witnessing the internal, abstract life of a painting is to look at the elements, not only as named objects, but as basic visual vocabulary: line, shape, pattern, value and color. What is being created? A dappled cave and column of daylight. The communication of pattern across space.

And when forms are freed from strict object reference, they also become easier to borrow. Picasso painted Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. He would wait 9 years for Matisse’s subtle reply.

detail of Demoiselles d’Avignon detail and upright of Laurette

In the last months of the war, Matisse relocated to Nice, in the south of France. He embraced a shift toward classical aesthetics for the next decade, as did Picasso and many other painters and poets who had been haunted by the war and exhausted by the activism of the avant-garde movements. He lived a long life, into his 80’s, and continued to experiment with shape, color, light and pictorial relationship. His aim was to devote his life “to the essential thing- the thing for which I am made and which can bring a little happiness to the great family, the greatest spiritual family.”

Henri Matisse The Parakeet and the Mermaid, collage, 1952

Henri Matisse The Parakeet and the Mermaid, collage, 1952

Thank you to Pierre Schneider, Dr. Jean Willette, Dan Franck and Jack Flam for their wonderful writing about Matisse. And thank you for supporting The Drawing Studio.

The Weathered and Worried Turner by Jason Alden

Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water, 1840

The Clark Museum of Art Williamstown, MA

This complex and storied painting of a steamship being warned of running aground during a storm is one of Joseph Mallord William Turner’s many accounts of humans contending with nature. His life (1775-1851) ran the length of the Industrial Revolution and he saw the grand sailing warships of his youth being towed to the wrecking yards by the coal powered tugboats of his old age. Turner was feverishly prolific, with over 2000 paintings (watercolor and oils) and nearly 20,000 works on paper. He traveled widely through Europe, filling voluminous sketchbooks with notes on color, optics and topography. He had few friends and lived with his father, who was his studio assistant, for 30 years. Turner did not marry, though he fathered two children with his housekeeper, Sarah Danby.

This painting, Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal Water was completed in 1840 and is in the permanent collection of the Clark Museum of Art in Williamstown, MA. There were often reports of cargo ships subject to terrible storms. In place of lighthouses, blue rockets and flares were sent up to let captains know that danger was near. This painting may have been a composite of field sketches, newspaper reports and Turner’s wonderful visual memory. In the years since Turner’s death, this painting has been in many hands and subject to additions, overpaintings and restorations. Because of this, some of the specifics of the narrative can only be speculated about.


Is it a line of rocks in the middle far left or a train of looters dragging a net of cargo that washed ashore? This was a common practice in England.

Why does the figure with the spyglass point it toward the empty sea when the foundering ship is in the middle?


This earlier version of the painting suggests that there was a second vessel, on the right near the dark plume of smoke.

Much of this confusion was a result of Turner’s temperament. He seemed to value the expression of the moment more than the physical integrity of his pictures. He often used unstable mediums and pigments that were not lightfast. His response to Mr. Winsor’s (of Winsor and Newtons Paints) cautioning him about the pigments he was using was a curt “Mind your own business!” (1) Ironically, this was precisely Mr. Winsor’s business!

Patrons would return to Turner’s studio with watercolors, whose red sunsets had begun to cool to grey. No refunds, no repaints. Megilp, a popular, though unreliable medium prized for it’s warm golden glazes, would also darken and blister over time. This was exacerbated when conservators relined the linen support of the painting using a heating element, causing the resin and walnut oil mixture to run and pool below the figures on the beach. Over several generations, restorers added to and removed from the painting, refreshing fading color and stabilizing flaking paint. In 2002, the attempt was made to remove all overpainting to restore the painting to it’s original state. It could be that the second ship was removed at that time, though it seems to have been a part of Turner’s own composition.

The more time I spent with Turner and his work, the more dispirited I became. I didn’t like to think of so many hands on this picture, adding, removing, so that it was no longer a work of a unified vision, nor was it as relational and anonymous as nature. Perhaps it was hard to reconcile Turner’s love of the elements (even more apparent in the simple and spontaneous watercolors) and his seeming disdain for the people that he shared these works with and for the durability of the works themselves.

I journal about these artworks to understand them from different perspectives. My experience is that we have many aspects within us that have different dispositions and insights. When I have questions about Art, I journal to Orange Man/Dust Boy, an internal aspect that is a primordial image maker. He always knows more about art than I do.

J: Orange Man/Dust Boy, why is it painful and frustrating to look at this picture and learn about it’s circumstances?

OM/DB: It is the inappropriate preservation of it. This man knew that craft and endurance were real, that they were acts of care and conditions for sharing with humanity.

J: Should it have been allowed to flake off the canvas?

OM/DB: His pictures, yes, because he wanted them to be as nature, but he was a thief. He sold false gold to his fellows and left them to retouch and recast it until it was as a cage with no bird. The generosity of heart was not there so he did not care for his works or for those that paid for them.

J: I do feel a selfishness in him and a disdain for people.

OM/DB: He loved Nature and was drawn to join it, but he was too infected by the conditions of his day, the desire for recognition from the people he disliked. This caused him to try and steal from Nature.

J: Is this too harsh, Orange Man/Dust Boy?

OM/DB: No. He created works, like his children, and he did not care for the well being of them.

J: His mother was put into an insane asylum.

OM/DB: Yes, and he suppressed his own maternal intelligence and became irresponsible.

J: These paintings were then subject to deterioration and exposed to many hands to stabilize and restore them.

OM/DB: Restore what? This is where you are not honest Jason. Restore the conditions of neglect that contorted his innocent love of Nature? He made choices to use his gifts and access to elemental Nature to pad his self importance. So let these pictures fall back to Nature! Show them in their flaking and sagging state. Let Nature participate at last. People are so stupid sometimes. Do you imagine that the conditions that moved Turner are not available at all times? Do you think that he is asking us to honor Nature or to honor him?

J: There is something beautiful he has done, in this one and in some of the watercolors. He could see simply, arrangements and shapes and colors. He moved away from painting things and began to paint conditions. They have more life because of that.

OM/DB: Yes, but I am not as pessimistic about Art as you are. I know what it is.

J: What is it?

OM/DB: An invitation to expanded life. These pictures, for all of their effects, are positioned as substitutes for life. Let them rejoin life and not block people’s possibility of renewed vision.

J: It is very difficult to make a painting that helps us see newly without it itself becoming the new thing.

OM/DB: That is well said. That would require wanting to join life ourselves while including the well being of all others in our aspiration. Turner thought he could align himself with elemental Nature while foregoing his responsibilities as a human in community.

J: I hear you, but these are very beautiful.

OM/DB: He was often close. But he didn’t go far enough. When you fully choose Art you also at the same time choose your fellow man.

(1) Colour, Travels Through the Paintbox, Victoria Finlay, p. 168

Picasso's Late Self-Portrait by Jason Alden

Self-Portrait, Facing Death, crayon, 1972

Self-Portrait, Facing Death, crayon, 1972

Pablo Picasso was 90 years old when he drew a self portrait in crayon.

“I think I have touched on something” he told Pierre Daix, his friend and biographer. "It is not like anything ever done.”

Since he was a child, Pablo had a pervasive and vigilant fear of death. When he was 13 his little sister, Conchita, was gripped by illness. He swore to God that he would give up his art if she lived. When she did not, he internalized this basic condition of life; our bodies are here and then they are not.

He projected himself into many forms: minotaur, monkey, old lecher, classicist. Through this dispersal, he could shift his identity into the flow of myriad life. He could become and experience himself as many things. The fear of death was held in abeyance while he moved in the creative, pictorial dimension.

Picasso was perhaps the greatest visual composer in history. He understood the page as a highly sensitive field where forms would interact in perpetuity. It is why even his most grisly or despairing pictures are beautiful if you stay with them long enough. All objects, animals, people and narratives are adapted into pictorial language (mark, shape, value, color, pattern). He moved in this dimension like a lover, permissive of all things so long as they were in awakened relationship with the environment of the page or canvas. This may have been the condition to which Picasso was most faithful, the life and well being of the picture.

me messing with Picasso’s forms him putting them together

Picasso knew that forms could be released from their object names so that they could know themselves again as free visual elements: a circle, a line of dashes, a dark smudge. He wanted to remind these elements of their first identity, what they were before they were named. Then they could be recast into new forms that were both representative of life and abstractly awake. In this way, everything he experienced or could imagine was available to picture-making. A lobster and a child could wrestle together. Lovers and Las Meninas could be re-shuffled a hundred times. Doves and bombings. The press of life could be endured, metabolized and made durable and beautiful.

Picasso died on April 8th 1973, one year after making this self-portrait.

I read something years ago and I don’t know where, so I will not quote it precisely. Picasso was asked about the consequences of fame on his creative life. He said “Fame doesn’t matter. I have created a privacy for myself that no one can imagine.”

Whatever he was doing in there, he helped us to see the common elements within all diversity.

Here’s to you, Pablo!

clock wise from the upper left: Picasso Self-Portrait 1972, limestone sculpture of St Peter, detail, (14th cent, France, Smith College Museum of Art), Homer J. Simpson, Celtic Head (2-3rd cent, British Isles, Metropolitan Museum of Art), Mosaic Head, plate 133 from Jung’s Red Book, Chimpanzee

Prepared by Jason Alden at The Drawing Studio, Brattleboro VT