Art Moment: Matisse in Old Age

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) is a giant in modern art. Along with Pablo Picasso, Matisse has achieved immortality as one of the founding fathers of 20th century visual art. The French artist is known for his use of color as well as fluid and original drawings. Although primarily remembered as a painter, Matisse was also an accomplished draughtsman, printmaker and sculptor.

The most intense period of Matisse’s career was between 1900 and 1905 when the colorism of the works he painted brought him notoriety as one of the Fauves (“wild beasts”). After 1906, he developed a rigorous style that emphasized flattened forms and decorative patterns, and achieved critical acclaim as an upholder of the French classical tradition. Despite being afflicted with ill health in the last twenty years of his life, he persisted in inventing new forms of expression, most notably cut-outs, an important body of work in the medium of cut paper collage. One person who had an intimate recollection of seeing Matisse in person working on his cut-outs while bedridden was the British art historian, John Richardson (1924 – 2019):

For me, the rapturous impact of MoMA’s Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, which opens October 12 and closes February 8, is surpassed only by a 1951 visit I paid to the artist when he was actually doing them. I was a 26-year-old art critic. A friend who was a collector had got me in. Matisse was 82 and would die three years later. For most of the last 10 years, he had seldom left his bed, the consequence of a series of nearly fatal intestinal problems.

Matisse received us regally in his bed, which could be wheeled around his three lofty studios, whose walls were covered floor to ceiling with the cutouts that constitute this amazing exhibition. They had been inspired by a commission to design the windows, walls, and chasubles for a nearby chapel. Later, the cutout technique would become an end in itself, as significant in the last years of his career as Fauvism had been in his earlier years. Matisse’s rooms were in the Hotel Excelsior Regina Palace, at Cimiez, located on a hill above Nice and built to house the ailing Queen Victoria, who needed to quit cold, wet England for a sunny climate. The bedridden Matisse’s secret weapon was a bamboo cane twelve feet long. With this strapped to his hand, he was able to direct his numerous assistants—not least his Russian mistress, Lydia Delektorskaya—to make infinite adjustments to the colored-paper compositions high on his walls, much as a conductor would lead an orchestra with his baton.

It was art to the last breath for Henri Matisse. Here, he wields a long bamboo stick to make adjustments to his colourful compositions.

Picasso was a frequent visitor. According to his mistress Françoise Gilot, their three-year-old son, Claude, was the only child allowed to romp on Matisse’s bed. When his father asked why he loved Matisse so much, Claude said, “Because he’s a real painter. Going to see him is like being in one of his paintings. Whereas with you, Papa, you steal my toys and make apes out of them!”

Henri Matisse, Blue Nude IV , coloured cut-out, lithograph, 1952

Matisse’s Blue Nudes (pictured) is a series of four lithographs of nude female figures made using his cut-out technique in blue painted paper. The four nude female figures are portrayed in different poses and exemplify the collage technique that Matisse developed in his later life. In deep blue against a white background, the Blue Nudes appear deceptively simple but took numerous studies and weeks of laborious cutting and arranging to create the perfect form. With his Blue Nudes, Matisse achieved the culmination of his lifelong quest, “to draw in paper.”

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