It’s easy to fall in love with a painting by Henri Matisse. It’s more difficult to explain what makes a Matisse great. The best and brightest have tried. Scores of scholars, curators, and critics have published copiously illustrated books and exhibition catalogues devoted to retrospective looks at the French artist’s five-decade-long career, as well as his use of color, textiles, and ornament, his portraits and still lifes, his penchant for making two versions of the same subject from time to time, his visits to Morocco, the Nice period of the 1920s, his late cutouts, the chapel in Vence, France, and even his collectors.
Now the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia has entered the fray with what may be one of the most gorgeous coffee-table books you will ever own. Matisse in the Barnes Foundation is an 18½-pound, 3-volume set with more than 600 sumptuous color reproductions. The hardcovers and their slipcase are each a color (lemon, tangerine, mint, and robin’s egg blue) found in Le Bonheur de vivre (1905–6), the pivotal Fauve painting that is among the museum’s treasures. Each cover also reproduces a photograph of Matisse standing on a low bench with an outstretched arm wielding a bamboo pole with charcoal on its end as he draws an outline on an early stage of The Dance (1932–33), another masterpiece in the Barnes. This image doesn’t just set the tone for this protean study, featuring 54 easel paintings, four works on paper, The Dance, and conservation reports. It served as the last illustration in the book on Matisse that Dr. Albert C. Barnes published in 1933.
As it happens, Matisse in the Barnes Foundation is much more than a pretty face. Once you’ve read the 90,000-word essay in volume one by Yve-Alain Bois, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton who has published a number of illuminating texts on Matisse, as well as the insightful commentaries on all the paintings by independent art historians Claudine Grammont and Karen K. Butler in volumes two and three, you may never see the former Fauve’s art the same way again. At least, that’s what happened to me. The day after I finished reading this massive enterprise, I went to Philadelphia to see whether I would respond differently to paintings I’d known since I was a child. I did. Several works that formerly had left me cold now floored me.
Bois’s lengthy—and compelling—account of Matisse’s working methods examines how Barnes’s commissioning of The Dance in 1930 for the three large lunettes opposite the entrance to the collector’s recently opened museum revitalized the painter’s career. At that juncture, the 59-year-old artist—he was born on December 31, 1869—was suffering from a case of artist’s block. With jargon-free prose, Bois explains how the Frenchman’s trip to Tahiti via the United States, as well as his chance to see Le Bonheur de vivre for the first time in years, impacted the art he subsequently executed. Once he completed The Dance, Bois points out, “there is definitely a before and an after” evident in the artist’s career.
When Matisse stopped in New York en route to Tahiti, he took the train to Philadelphia to visit Barnes and to look again at paintings he had not seen for years. When the collector offered him the chance to paint a large decoration for the new museum in Merion, Pennsylvania, he was delighted, as he put it, to be able “to express myself on a grand scale.” But there were drawbacks. For starters, Matisse realized his “architectural painting” was “not [for] a favorable space.” Among other things, there were wide, intrusive pendentives; natural light streamed into the gallery from three 20-foot-tall glass-paneled doors; and his figures were to be viewed from a considerable distance, both from the ground floor as well as the passageway on the second floor.
As it turned out, Matisse failed to take into account the problems with executing his site-specific work an ocean away, in Nice. He thought he was finished almost two years later. Then, he discovered he’d erred taking the measurements for the wall area destined for his painting. He had to start all over again.
But first, Bois notes, Matisse spent the next eight months completing another commission, which had been tendered while he was in Tahiti. For Bois, the two projects became “intertwined.” Although he had been invited to illustrate La Fontaine’s fables, Matisse, in the end, made etchings for a book of poems by Stéphane Mallarmé. The large-scale images he executed practically burst off the page in this new deluxe edition. According to Bois, “For Matisse the difficulty was maintaining the balance between two very distinct halves, the ‘relatively black’ page of text and the etching (the ‘white’ item of the pair). He compared this task to that of a juggler with a white and a black ball. He obtained the delicate equilibrium he was striving for, he wrote, ‘by modifying [his] arabesque in such a way that the spectator should be interested as much by the white page as by the promise of reading the text.’ ”
At the Barnes, Matisse’s revised cast of full-bodied dancers obviously did not have to be contained within the confines of a page—or a picture frame, for that matter. Instead, they had to read from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. When Bois discusses this aspect of the project, you feel as if you are overhearing the artist thinking out loud in his studio.
Bois’s discussion of the way Matisse achieved a “decentering of the beholder’s gaze” is revelatory. When you first see The Dance at the Barnes, everything is so well integrated that you barely notice there are broad bands of pink, blue, and black behind the athletic figures. This is all-over painting before that term was coined.
Prior to situating himself in Nice, Matisse had constantly recalibrated the quantity and quality of color he applied to his canvases. This entailed his repainting whole passages when he introduced, say, a new blue or green. Though it involved a lot of time and patience, it wasn’t difficult to do this with a work that’s even as large as Le Bonheur. The Dance, however, covered too much wall space to make this practical. Consequently, Matisse devised a system involving large, colored-paper cutouts that he could move and pin anew whenever necessary. He also began photographing different states of a work in progress. With practices such as these, the French artist achieved a balance between drawing and color, figure and ground.
There’s also much to learn from the superb commentaries written by Butler and Grammont. They were fortunate to have wonderful material with which to work. Writing about Matisse’s early Fauve paintings, Grammont tells us, “Matisse proceeded by comings and goings rather than by successive advancements.” She further suggests, “Matisse had only partly renounced Signac’s [Neo-Impressionism] when he started working on [Le Bonheur de vivre], and a sense of the way in which he gradually abandoned it is essential for understanding the foundation of his aesthetic system at the time.” About Red Madras Headdress (1907), Grammont points out how the artist “sacrifices anatomical reality to linear rhythms: the neck is short, the head slightly enlarged in relation to the body, and the right arm is shortened while the left is elongated in order to follow the movement of the arabesque.” As for The Music Lesson (1917), Butler notes Matisse’s “tendency to rework earlier paintings.” She explains, “To see The Music Lesson as simply inaugurating a descent into a more conservative period is to miss the picture’s complex transitional role.”
And, in this three-volume set, there’s a welter of information that animates Barnes the man, as well as his collection. Did you know the first group of works by Matisse that the doctor purchased came from the collection of Leo and Gertrude Stein? His relationship with the Steins is one reason the Barnes owns so many stellar Fauve paintings. About Barnes’s intellectual makeup, we’re told that his philosophy is indebted to William James and John Dewey; his aesthetics to George Santayana; his notions about psychology to Sigmund Freud; and other reflections about art to his friend Leo Stein.
Have you ever wondered why there are so few examples of Cubism in this collection? It turns out Barnes thought this critical modernist style was merely concerned with design and pattern. Unlike John Quinn, another important art collector of the period, who saw Matisse as an avant-garde artist, Barnes felt the Fauve painter was part of a “classic” French tradition.
The reproductions—both the artworks and the photographs of the painter himself—in Matisse in the Barnes Foundation could not be more exquisite. An unusual bonus is a sequence of pages that show the walls in the rooms where Matisse’s paintings are installed, which allows readers to study the various ensembles that Barnes devised. You’ll find correspondence regarding The Dance exchanged between Matisse and Barnes; notes on all the works, including provenance, technical history, and references; and a select bibliography.
And, may I suggest that the next time you visit the Barnes, you bring along a pair of binoculars? I used mine to look at The Dance from the second floor of the Philadelphia campus. Some colors were painted to mimic a wall and the drawn outlines come vividly alive. If you can’t make it to Philadelphia, you couldn’t ask for a better guide to Matisse’s work than Bois’s essay and this three-volume set devoted to one of the modern period’s greats.