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.
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.”
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.