‘Matisse: In Search of True Painting’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

'The Large Blue Dress' (1937) by Matisse. (Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum)

‘The Large Blue Dress’ (1937) by Matisse. (Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum)

Henri Matisse was a nostalgist as much as he was an innovator. A painter who remained figurative in the face of abstraction and colorful in spite of Cubism’s monochrome palette, he primarily worked in oil on canvas despite the radical material innovations of Dadaism, and throughout his career he remained committed to traditional genres like the portrait and the still life. This exhibition, which curator Rebecca Rabinow has packed with 49 paintings that Matisse made in pairs or trios between 1899-1948, shows that he clung to more than just artistic tradition—he often painted and repainted the same theme in multiple styles, sometimes halting work on one painting only to continue on another, and preserving much of his own process along the way.

The Met exhibition is a meditation on the practice and purpose of making art. How does work change over time? When is it done? What does it mean to have a style? Still Life With Purro I (1904) is a table and a water pitcher rendered in a style reminiscent of Paul Cézanne, all green and white flat brushstrokes describing volumes; Still Life With Purro II (1904-5) is the identical scene in the style of Paul Signac: a flurry of complementary-colored red, blue and green Divisionist dots. In both cases, a palette that swerves toward turquoise hues marks the paintings as Matisse’s own. His early double and triple canvases explicitly compare the styles of Gauguin, Pissarro, Vuillard and Monet.

So different were the styles in some of these pairings that Matisse admitted to having painted his Young Sailor I (1906), but initially told collector Leo Stein that his mailman had painted Young Sailor II, from the same year. The two paintings of a high-cheekboned young man show the painter leaping from looser, more open brushwork in the first to simplified blocks of wide, flat areas of color—green, blue, pink and brown—in the second. To blame the second painting on an innocent postal worker betrays Matisse’s unease with what might have looked like stylistic schizophrenia. Ultimately, though, it’s the “mailman’s” picture that is the knockout—experimentation yielded progress.

Not all such groupings have clear stylistic winners and losers. A black-and-white charcoal take on the three nudes in Le Luxe of 1907 was made as an aide memoire for the artist after he sold his first version of the painting. A second painting, emerging from this drawing, recreates the first painting in all new colors. Matisse painted the red-stained Seated Nude (1909) to keep in his studio after the sale of Nude with a White Scarf (1909). In these cases the function of multiple paintings was to create a souvenir, a memento of something beloved, a ghost inventory of an original work sold but not forgotten.

There are few visual experiences available to a museumgoer that are as pleasurable as looking at a painting by Matisse, and this show has some of his best work. His paintings of lush Moroccan vegetation (Moroccan Landscape, 1912) and his repeated takes on the languidly posed Italian model Laurette (Laurette in a Green Robe, Black Background,1916; Laurette Seated on a Pink Armchair, 1916) arrange areas of green, violet and black to eye-popping effect. Matisse’s later paintings often mix textiles, silhouetted leaves, flowers, patterned walls, exotic women and brightly colored fruit in voluptuous explosions of color and pattern. He worked every inch of the canvas.

Matisse often painted the same things simply because they were close at hand. A pot of red goldfish in his studio at the Pont Saint-Michel is the subject of multiple canvases over the years, and we see the fish’s numbers go from four, to three, to two. Notre Dame, just outside his window, pops up in works spanning 14 years. The iconic building goes from a thickly painted green and pink edifice set against bustling Paris to a dematerialized blue volume crowning a canvas of crisscrossing black lines.

When Matisse left Paris for the South of France, his work changed dramatically. Interior at Nice (1918) makes an effortless zoom from the pattern on the carpet and gleam of a coat-hook to the spume of sea foam on a distant wave visible through the hotel window. This kind of peripatetic living created another sort of serial image: the Hotel Méditerranée looks like the Hotel Beau-Rivage, and all the gracious patterned wallpaper, sun-bleached stucco balconies and awkward angles of hotel furniture start to take on an analogous decorative, abstract and anonymous feel.

A novel element to the show is the inclusion of the actual bright blue silk dress that model Lydia Delectorskaya posed in for the painting The Large Blue Dress (1937). But more surprising is that, alongside the painting, photographs over several months show the process of the artwork’s development—the dress’s ruffles and folds seem to sway to the right and left before Matisse settles on a symmetrical composition. In the 1930s, Matisse hired a photographer to document his painting process, and the resulting black-and-white photographs, blown up to painting size and framed, were exhibited alongside his paintings at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1945. Each painting was surrounded by a halo of six or eight black-and-white photographs showing various stages in its creation. The result is like a time-lapse film, or as though the paintings were dreaming of moments in their own creation.

Even as he used photography to document the way his paintings changed over time, Matisse resisted depicting mechanization. The paintings were never of machines or about mechanical reproduction. If he hired someone to photograph the works, it was to better remember their process and their quirks, the way a parent might obsessively photograph every stage of a child’s development. (Through March 17) ‘Matisse: In Search of True Painting’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art