Looking at Art

Uncovering Matisse

The first major survey of Matisse's output during World War I uses cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned connoisseurship to reveal his radical system of scraping, scratching, and repainting.

Matisse worked on Bathers by a River in 1909–10, returned to it in 1913, and completed it in 1916–17.

Matisse worked on Bathers by a River in 1909–10, returned to it in 1913, and completed it in 1916–17.


“Austerity” is not a word we commonly associate with Henri Matisse, who is known for his radiant palette and linear arabesques. Yet when he returned to Paris in the spring of 1913, after his second trip to Morocco, Matisse began to subdue color in favor of geometric form and composition in a burst of experimentation that lasted until his move to Nice, in late 1917.

During this wartime period, Matisse completed a number of rigorous monumental paintings, including The Moroccans and Bathers by a River, which the artist described as two of the most pivotal works of his career. “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917” is the first sustained study of the 1913–17 period, with more than 120 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints primarily from these years. It was organized by Stephanie D’Alessandro, curator of modern art at the Art Institute of Chicago, and John Elderfield, chief curator emeritus of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. It is the outgrowth of collaborative detective work, which drew on cutting-edge technology as well as old-fashioned connoisseurship.

“This period was like a black hole in his career,” says Elderfield, noting that most of the 40-some paintings included in the show weren’t even exhibited until a decade after the war, and some not until 1966. “This contributed, particularly in France, to a true misunderstanding of Matisse as an artist of hedonism and luxury, because nobody had seen these pictures.” Until Art Institute conservators cleaned Bathers by a River, the curators themselves were unaware of the extent to which Matisse’s “methods of modern construction”—as the artist later called them—were embedded in the work’s surface.

The curators knew that Bathers had gone through extreme changes, but they had only glimpsed some of the stages of its evolution. The original conception appears in a fairly naturalistic 1909 watercolor of five naked women relaxing in a verdant landscape, two of them bathing in a waterfall. The final canvas was intended for Matisse’s Russian patron Sergei Shchukin, along with the panels Dance and Music, but Shchukin accepted just the latter two.

The next documented state of Bathersappears in a black-and-white photograph from November 1913 that shows a large canvas in progress featuring four highly geometric figures in a somber, dark environment. It looks quite different from both the earlier version and the final painting, in which totemic figures are segmented in vertical bands of dark green, black, and gray.

Evidence that the painting underwent yet another reworking emerged from photographs taken of Matisse in his studio earlier in 1913, with Bathers visible behind him from oblique angles in at least a dozen shots. Using software created to realign the disparate views onto the same plane and merge them together, the curators were able to compose a complete view of this state of the painting.

After Bathers was cleaned and dirty varnish and old inpainting removed, some areas thought to have been damaged were revealed to be spots where Matisse had experimented. He had dug into the canvas to expose bright reds and blues—from earlier, pastoral versions—buried under the dark greens and blacks. “The surface is scraped and scratched and incised and repainted,” says D’Alessandro, who points out that Matisse bought a handpress to make his own prints during this period, the only time he ever made monotypes. “I think the freedom to experiment on his own with these prints—the process of making an image by removing—became a really important catalyst for doing some of the things he did in painting.”

A visitor to Matisse’s studio during this time reported seeing five unfinished canvases there, including Bathers. Another was MoMA’s Goldfish and Palette (1914), which also has a striking black vertical strip. For the show, the curators located a number of previously undocumented monotypes related to these five paintings.

The effect of removing the varnish from Bathers was so dramatic that the curators initiated the cleaning of MoMA’s pictures The Moroccans and The Piano Lesson (1916), and persuaded many of the lending institutions to clean their Matisses as well. “There’s a real sculptural depth to these paintings that wasn’t apparent previously,” says D’Alessandro.

In spots where Bathers was actually damaged, conservators took microscopic cross sections of the paint layers. The curators spent six months painstakingly matching these color samples with a new digital X-ray made on a computer system devised at the University of Arizona especially for the project. The previous X-ray analysis dated from 1972, and because of the painting’s size (103 by 154 inches), required 122 plates of film. These had to be manually cut and pasted together, which resulted in loss of information at the seams and varying exposures between plates. The new technology afforded the curators a seamless digital file of the painting, with the ability to virtually remove different layers of paint and look down through the surface at the forms on the lower layers. Such digital X-rays were subsequently made to study The Moroccans and The Piano Lesson as well.

Correlating these compositional traces and the 1913 photographs with the paint specimens, the curators were able to distinguish 17 different color states of Bathers between 1913 and 1916. “In the finished picture you can see green and blue from the very earliest version of Bathers,” says D’Alessandro, adding that the last thing Matisse did to the painting was rescrape the area on the upper left edge to expose those colors. “That evolution was part of the subject of the picture as much as the bathers were.”

Elderfield says that in all the artist’s canvases from this period, “He finishes paintings not by resolving everything but actually doing the opposite, allowing all these early states to be there. He wanted for all the labor that was in the painting to give a sense of freshness, of discovery, to it. The whole theme of time is represented not through a depiction but by the way these things are painted.”

Why did Matisse begin to work in this severe manner when he returned to Paris in 1913? Certainly he deeply admired Cézanne’s approach to structure, and he owned that artist’s Three Bathers (1879–82), which he kept until 1936, when he donated it to the city of Paris. He was also influenced by developments in Analytic Cubism, though he never entirely deconstructed the image as Picasso and Braque did. But the curators emphasize that the effect of the war on how Matisse thought about himself and his work cannot be underestimated.

“In 1914 there was a very strong patriotic impulse that people who were able to fight should be there,” says Elderfield, noting that Matisse’s hometown, in northern France, was occupied by the Germans and that for a long time he had no news of his mother or brother. At 44, Matisse was eligible to enlist in the army, but he was rejected because of a weak
heart. “He was ready to go, and we know from his letters that it was very hard for him to accept that he couldn’t fight,” says D’Alessandro.

When he appealed the decision to a friend in the government, Matisse was advised to do what he knew how-paint-the best he could. “For him, that also meant doing it in the most extreme way that he could,” says Elderfield, who doesn’t consider Matisse’s paintings from these years as direct allegories of war but rather as a response to the intensity and constraints of the time.

D’Alessandro says, “It’s amazing to think of him painting Bathers by a River, The Moroccans, and The Piano Lesson in 1916, alone in his studio while he could hear the bombs, taking everything he had learned up until that point, thinking of his obligation to be a good painter, and setting a new challenge for himself. None of those pictures are small. He had to stand on a ladder and get down, reworking and revising.” For the paintings with extended gestation periods, the exhibition maps out as many states as the curators were able to document.

In 1917, Matisse moved to Nice. “A will to rhythmic abstraction was battling with my natural, innate desire for rich, warm, generous colors and forms,” the artist said later of his shift away from his daunting studio practice.

“You can understand why there was a point at which he just couldn’t do it anymore,” says Elderfield. “But in the end, these were the greatest pictures he painted.”

“Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917” is at the Art Institute of Chicago from March 20 through June 20. The show will be at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from July 18 through October 11.

Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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