Out of the improbable relationship between an obsessive painter, Henri Matisse, and his daydreaming models came one of the most celebrated bodies of early 20th-century art, a selection of which opens Sunday at the
"Matisse: Masterworks From the
A tightly focused ensemble that spans his whole career, from the first still lifes of his student days up to his death in 1954, the show concentrates on a time between the world wars when Matisse was known internationally but still wrangling with color, design and composition.
"When you see all the work together, you see the motifs -- the seated women, the odalisques, the still lifes -- that concerned him throughout his entire career," said MIA assistant curator
All of the
Claribel (1864-1929) was trained as a doctor and worked as a pathologist; Etta (1870-1949) was a serious amateur musician who managed the family home and their 11 siblings. Strikingly independent, they began collecting art when an older brother gave Etta
Soon the sisters were making annual trips to
"I was really taken with these ladies," said Holmquist-Wall. "Even into the 1920s they had a Victorian sensibility and wore floor-length dresses with high collars. But they traveled to
There's also a choice display of paintings by Americans who studied with Matisse between 1907 and 1911, when he ran a small art school in
A life in art
Arranged in loosely chronological order, the exhibit from the Cone collection opens with Matisse's surprisingly interesting student work.
Born in 1869 and trained as a lawyer, he came to art late and by accident, when his mother gave him a box of paints as a diversion while he recovered from an appendicitis attack. He was hooked. Quitting his law-office job, he plunged into art, studying briefly and improbably with William Bouguereau, a purveyor of coy allegories, and
While known chiefly as a painter, Matisse sculpted throughout his career, using clay to model torsos, figure out musculature and refine poses. Cast later in bronze, his sculptures read as rough, sensual sketches in 3-D. The MIA has nicely paired one of his bronzes with the Antoine-Louis Barye sculpture "Jaguar Eating a Hare," which inspired it. Throughout the show, the many sculptures stand almost as diary entries for Matisse's efforts to artfully distort the female anatomy, likening it to blossoming flowers, sturdy tree trunks and writhing, serpentine creatures.
In 1917 he began spending months at a time in
Next come pictures that really illustrate his compositional struggles. The most fascinating is "Large Reclining Nude," a 1935 painting whose many changes he documented in 22 engrossing photos. During the six months he worked on it, everything was in flux -- the model's torso stretched and thinned, grew melon breasts and lost them, switched heads with eye-popping speed. The bed on which she lay finally disappeared entirely beneath a flat, blue-tile ground against which she floats like an Amazon, a big, audacious essence of Eternal Woman with an amusingly small and very modern head.
A dream of serenity
By the 1940s, family troubles, world events and ill health forced changes in Matisse's life and art.
He and his wife, Amelie, separated in 1939, after 41 years of marriage in which they had two sons, Jean and Pierre, and had raised Marguerite, his daughter from a previous liaison. When
Two operations for colon cancer in the early 1940s left Matisse confined to bed or a wheelchair. No longer able to paint, he began to make abstract designs from colorful bits of paper. Twenty of them were published in "Jazz," a 1947 portfolio with which the
The Cone sisters met Matisse in the early 1900s, but they didn't begin collecting his works seriously until after he'd lost some of the 1905 sizzle that earned him and his friends the epithet Fauves, or "wild beasts." So, while the Cones' collection is colorful, there are no audacious green-faced women or dramatically un-naturalistic scenes. Instead, their collection celebrates the kind of art he apparently loved best.
"What I dream of," he once wrote, "is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject-matter ... something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue."
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