Henri Matisse was an artist for the Jazz Age, willing to practice for years in order to get a drawing right the first time, treating the obligation to entertain not as an obstacle to sophisticated experiment, but as its very foundation—or at least as an inviolable rule of the game. “Matisse and the Model,” curated by Ann Dumas for Eykyn Maclean, tracks the diligent charm, lordly insight and eternal flirtation of the artist’s gaze over half a dozen models and the course of his career, beginning, in a springily precise India ink drawing from 1944, with himself.
He draws his own face with the watchful, hungry, intelligent look of a man who sees a new plate of canapés being laid down across the room and is prepared to barge his way through the whole party to get to them. Leaning back slightly, with collar veering right and eyes left, he looks, with careful but distant attention and a polite but totally insuperable refusal of engagement, out of frame. Both formally and emotionally, this surface is too finely finished to admit of any real entrance. You aren’t invited to introduce yourself to the artist’s soul: all you can do is enjoy and admire.
Matisse seems to draw, like a cartoonist, from the outside in. Unlike a cartoonist, however, the skin he draws contains real bones, blood and muscle. He’s seen it, and he’s even drawn it—he just hasn’t drawn it on the page. (The best example of this in the show is Nu allongé au chien , in which he catches with a single line the curve of a model’s back, the way that curve elongates her breast, and the tension and texture of the elongated flesh.) A number of charcoal drawings show figures sharply marked in solid black lines surrounded by gray penumbras that read not as preparatory work for the final figures, but as equally finished possible poses that the artist considered and rejected.
Because the point of the drawing isn’t to explore the model’s body; the point of the model’s body is to hold her pose. Hilary Spurling, in her catalogue essay, mentions that Matisse had famously remarked that “human models meant no more to him than a spoon or a leaf,” and then says that she would have “realized the sheer absurdity” of inferring any sexism from this if she had “remembered how tenderly … he talked about the leaves he drew.” (In Nu allongé au chien, even the decorative flowers on the rug are alive.) It’s just a question of keeping your eyes on the prize: you dance with the models, but you go home with the muse.
Marguerite (1906), a small oil portrait of the artist’s first child, uses the broad brushstrokes of an Impressionist in bright rose pinks and violent, consumptive greens that seem as if they ought to clash. The little girl has the extended, monumental, impossibly narrow and symmetrical nose later also seen in Modigliani and Brancusi. But the stumpy brushstrokes line up like iron filings around a magnet; the colors, once we’ve recovered from a small initial shock, join together with the sinuous fluidity of a Pre-Raphaelite; and the artificial nose, unless you really stare at it, simply looks like a nose. Every part, including the artist’s evident love for his daughter, is subordinated to the whole.
The gallery and Ms. Dumas managed to assemble, in addition to paintings, prints, cutouts, charcoal drawings, drawings in pen and a few incredible brush-and-ink drawings from the 1950s, a handful of the artist’s sculptures. The Serf, a 1903 bronze borrowed from the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, stands with hips thrust forward but head diffidently tilted. And Head of Jeannette V, the last in a series of five busts, shows a head carved down to its motivating forms, a nose, an eyeball, a large cranial egg. But the 1929 bronze Large Seated Nude, appropriately placed in the center of the room, best exemplifies Matisse’s later approach both to character and to figure: her face and features are smoothed and abstracted, not in the direction of depersonalization, but in the direction of fantasy. You suspect that the model would be as easy to pick out of a crowd as the model for the earlier, more literal Serf—her proportions, and even her simple face, are very particular—but she has less physical presence.