The exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting explores Matisse’s practice of producing pairs of paintings, and the ways in which this practice influenced his development as artist. Academically trained, Matisse learned composition and technique by copying older master paintings. This practice was not considered an empty, rote exercise but rather a valuable way of analyzing another work of art. Through the rigorous, painstaking practice of copying another work of art, art students experimented with different techniques, many of which they would later appropriate and modify in the production of original works. For Matisse, however, the practice of copying proved especially important in his development as an artist because it supplied the conceptual and methodological basis for his work with repeated images.
Throughout his 50-year career, Matisse repeated images in order to compare the effects of different techniques and to measure his progress as an artist. This practice is most evident in his pairs of paintings, or “doubles,” that he began while in art school in the late 1890s. Each pair consists of two canvasses of the same dimensions depicting the same subject, but employing different techniques. At first, Matisse would produce one painting in the style of a contemporary artist—his favorites included Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Signac. For example, in a pair of paintings each entitled Madame Matisse in the Olive Garden, Matisse paints one landscape with broad, Expressionist strokes and the other painting with the sharp, defined brushstrokes of Divisionists.
Although lauded by some for his “chameleon-like versatility,” many critics, concerned that this new generation of French artists was merely copying previous generations in superficial and meaningless ways, criticized Matisse for his obvious indebtedness to other artists. Matisse, then and even in his old age, never shied away from acknowledging the influence of others on his own style. In an early interview, the young artist said, “I have never avoided the influence of others…I believe that the personality of the artist develops and asserts itself through the struggle it has to go through when pitted against the personalities. If the fight is fatal and the personality succumbs, it is a matter of destiny.” As Matisse’s own artistic vision developed, his early eclecticism transformed into a new, innovative style of painting.
This progression from young artist—brazenly, if purposefully, borrowing from disparate sources—to mature artist with a coherent and unique style is apparent in his later pairs, in which the styles are never entirely indebted to another artist. We see this, for example, in The Piano, which evinces a harsh geometric abstraction, and The Music Lesson, which evinces gentle and immediate naturalism. Looking back on this period, a mature Matisse spoke of this juxtaposition of geometric abstraction and naturalism as “a will to rhythmic abstraction [that] was battling with my natural innate desire for rich, warm, generous colors and forms.”
Matisse: In Search of True Painting is organized and currently on view by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit runs through March 17, 2013, and is accompanied by a catalogue distributed by Yale University Press.