It’s a great time to be a Matisse junkie. All sorts of exhibitions devoted to the beloved French modernist are being mounted these days. During the past few months along the Eastern seaboard alone, many of the artist’s masterpieces were on view in “Matisse/Diebenkorn” at the Baltimore Museum of Art; paintings and works related to his aesthetic were the focus of “Matisse and American Art,” a more scattershot exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey; and, currently, there’s an enthralling, wide-ranging investigation of “Matisse in the Studio” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. After closing on July 9 at the show’s only venue in the United States, the exhibition’s paintings, sculptures, drawings, cutouts, illustrated books, photographs, and myriad studio objects belonging to the French master will travel to London’s Royal Academy.
Many of the artifacts—textiles, tabletop items, pieces of furniture—were sent to Boston from Nice. That’s a stone’s throw from the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, more familiarly known as the Matisse Chapel, which has been a popular destination site in France ever since it opened in 1951. It’s the sort of place where art mavens and tourists alike ooh and ahh over stained-glass windows, ceramic walls dedicated to the stations of the cross, and colorful, patterned ecclesiastical robes, all of which Matisse began designing in 1948.
Instead of crowds, the Musée Matisse in Nice attracts a smaller group of cognoscenti. Rather than being a repository of important artworks, it houses only a smattering of paintings mixed in among gouaches, drawings, prints, illustrated books, and sculptures as well as all sorts of commonplace and exotic odds and ends collected by the artist, including a Ming Dynasty vase, an embroidered textile from the Kuba kingdom, Andalusian blown glass, a French chocolate pot, and a painted wood octagonal chair probably from Algeria or Morocco. Matisse once described the kind of stuff found in the eponymous museum on the Riviera as “objects which have been of use to me nearly all my life.”
There’s just one problem. The things on view in the Musée Matisse are seen out of context. The vases, jugs, dishes, tables, chairs, and such are not exhibited alongside canvases or other works in which they appear. That’s partly why “Matisse in the Studio” in Boston is such an exceptional survey show. The curators of this captivating exhibition have borrowed—from private collections, foundations, and other museums—works that allow pieces of paraphernalia of the kind in Nice to be seen the way Matisse saw them.
The men, women, and children who modeled for Matisse will never again stand next to the works in which they are portrayed. However, we can still see the chocolate pot that was depicted on a table next to the artist’s daughter Marguerite as she reads a book in a Fauve painting from 1905-06. A reliquary figure from the Fang region of Gabon or Equatorial Guinea that the artist owned can be observed as a template for the portrait of Germaine Raynal sitting on a high stool in an austere painting from 1914. A gueridon with a checkered tabletop made from hardwood and inlaid mother-of-pearl can share space with a coffee cup (and a more attention-grabbing Italian model named Lorette) the way it does in a small canvas from 1917.
In each instance, all of them on view in “Matisse in the Studio,” the artist was inspired to do something different. Though he closely observed his subjects, he generally rendered them with a twist depending on his interests of the moment. Take the reflections on the chocolate pot near Marguerite reading: they are depicted with splotches of green, pink, and white. As for the small statue from Africa, the woman on the high stool echoes its silhouette. Around the gueridon, Lorette’s sensuousness is enhanced by the exotic mother-of-pearl inlay while also contrasting with the assertive geometric edges of the same tabletop.
Has any other show in recent times made us so acutely aware of the importance of whatever accompanies painted portraits and scenes that feature friends, relatives, and models? Matisse “was so deeply attached to the objects he surrounded himself with and used in his paintings,” scholar Jack Flam points out in his essay in the exhibition’s catalogue, “that he spoke of seeking new objects in the same way that he might seek out a new woman for a model.”
Besides offering a wonderful selection of beautifully installed, well-lit artworks, “Matisse in the Studio” lets you feel as if you are getting inside the artist’s head. What did the former Fauve have in mind when he chose one object for a painting rather than another? Like the eternal quandary over the chicken and the egg, you might even wonder what came first: the fetching model or the captivating vase of flowers?
During the late 1930s, Matisse made a number of paintings with willowy women posed near an embossed pewter jug that he used as a vase. He had owned this object since at least 1916 but had not depicted it for almost two decades. Works with the jug celebrate sensuality, from the serpentine curves of their models and their wardrobes to the raised passages of the metal vessels and the colorful flowers with stems that go this way and that. As Flam puts it, “Everything in the painting calls and responds to everything else, and even the inanimate objects radiate an energy that seems to verge on consciousness.”
In a series of canvases from the late 1920s, a Turkish charcoal heater and tray dating from the Ottoman period accompanied a model posed as an odalisque. Matisse matched the circular heater with a full-bodied figure and placed it in front of various wallpapers, some striped and others diamond-patterned. Back in the day, the painter rendered the object with golden tones; today, it is considerably darker.
Textiles and curtains enliven many other paintings. A late work from 1948, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, is particularly noteworthy. Which is more decorative: palm fronds glimpsed outside a window or the appliquéd cotton cloth hanging next to the glass panes? Either way, this canvas is a wonderful mélange of organic shapes that are both man-made and found in nature.
For those who love sculpture, “Matisse in the Studio” also includes a number of bronzes that are less familiar. And, as always, Reclining Nude I (1907), which is much like the painting from the same year Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra), stands out. It’s a tabletop work that Matisse incorporated into many of his canvases. While it is an inanimate object, it answers to two realms—besides alluding to a sensuous woman, it also references Hellenistic statues. With one arm lifted over her head and one leg stretched over the other, this recumbent figure combines the poses of both the Sleeping Ariadne and the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, which Matisse would have known from marble carvings as well as plaster casts.
There was a symmetry to Matisse’s life that is rarely acknowledged. It has been well known that in his later years, the artist was incapacitated and restricted to working in bed. But it’s seldom mentioned—as it isn’t in the chronology of the “Matisse in the Studio” catalogue—that the great visionary only decided to become a painter after his mother brought a paint box, brushes, and canvas to the hospital room of her then 20-year-old son. As he later recalled, “Before I had no interest in anything. I felt a great indifference to everything they tried to make me do. From the moment I held the box of colors in my hand, I knew this was my life.”
Visitors to “Matisse in the Studio” are graced with the opportunity to feel fully present in that life now more than a century in the past.