Henri Matisse, May 13, 1913

Every decision visible in a work of art bears witness to the rejection of something else. What we see is not only the result of determined assertions—“I will do this or “I will allow this to remain”—but also the result of equally determined refusals—“I will not do that” or “I will obliterate that.” Yet there are artists who are unwilling to deny themselves anything, whose fertile minds and potent intuition present them with apparently endless alternatives, all of which demand to be explored. Pablo Picasso, Hans Hofmann, David Smith, and Anthony Caro exemplify this kind of artist. None of them ever settled for the familiar, the known, or the comfortable. Instead, throughout their lives as artists, they have all insisted on following the implications of each of their works as they evolved, no matter how far that might take them in an unforeseen and perhaps unwanted direction. It’s as if they constantly posed the question “What if, instead of what I have done already, I do that?” All of them have adopted, at different times, a great range of materials and embraced, at different times, various degrees of abstractness and allusion. Yet in their work, in contrast to other artists’ histories, such changes do not signify the transformation of the maker’s conviction that art is a more or less faithful reflection or interpretation of what can be seen into the belief that art is a revelation of the unseen. Instead, these artists have often shifted their relationship to actuality in unpredictable, erratic ways, moving from referential imagery to non-referential and back again, in response to other, more personal imperatives. It’s an attitude diametrically opposed to modernism’s desire to cultivate a “signature image,” the readily recognizable set of characteristics, as closely identified with a particular artist as handwriting, so valued by the Abstract Expressionist generation, among others, as a sign of “authenticity.” (It could be argued, of course, that the sheer multivalence of the work of artists of this type is itself a kind of signature, while, for anyone who pays attention, the evidence of such powerful personalities is clear no matter how varied the approaches.)

Henri Matisse turns out to be one these protean, experimental artists. Like his colleague, friend, and rival Picasso, Matisse was a restless investigator of multiple possibilities, a painter who insisted on testing the limits of particular directions, subjects, and compositions, at the same time that he was eying the terrain on the opposite side of those boundaries, and sometimes the zone along the adjacent side roads, with equal interest, without compromising the sense of individuality typical of his most potent efforts. The proof? Matisse’s life-long habit of working in pairs, trios, and series, a method that produced intimately related but divergent works that offer testimony to his restless probing of implications and his unstoppable investigation of alternatives, as he repeatedly asked himself the question “What if?” That fascinating process of self-interrogation is the subject of “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, and the Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.1 It’s a provocative, nicely shaped show that is never less than deeply engaging and, in its best moments, offers us an extraordinarily intimate, enlightening view of Matisse at work. We watch him weighing possibilities and examining untried solutions, pursuing and altering ideas as they slowly emerge on his canvases. We follow him, beginning with when he was an eager young artist seeking his own voice, to the exciting period when he was a daring adventurer taking painting in unprecedented directions, and then ending when he was a mature master, sure of himself, but still adventurous and curious about the suggestions that arose in the course of working. In his late seventies, Matisse apparently was no less determined than he had been four decades earlier to keep venturing to the outer borders of what color, line, and shape could do to evoke the complexity and volumetric richness of the world around us in two dimensions on a flat surface—pushing, he said, “further and deeper into true painting.”

Le Luxe I, 1907, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, Purchase, 1945; Drawing for “Le Luxe,” 1907, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, Gift of Marguerite Duthuit, 1976; Le Luxe II, 1907-08, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, J. Rump Collection; images © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Matisse had copied paintings in the Louvre, when he first began to paint seriously, so the concept of translating an existing picture into a slightly different, new image was familiar to him. But the pairs and trios in “In Search of True Painting” are not about replication or about making minor variations. Rather, they encapsulate rethinking, reprising, and reinventing. The exhibition makes the point succinctly by bringing together the large, celebrated “twin” images of female nudes, Le Luxe I (1907, Centre Pompidou) and Le Luxe II (1907–08, Statens Museum for Kunst), placing them beside the full-size, squared-up charcoal drawing that Matisse made in preparation. At first, the similarities among the three almost equally sized compositions seem overwhelming, but it is soon evident that while the drawing was directly transferred, it was only a starting point. The drawing is taller than either of the canvases, so the first change is general: the relation of the figures to their support. Matisse retained the essential structure of the composition: three women—one standing, one crouching, and one striding from the distance, with a bunch of flowers—the whole derived from Cézanne’s large bathers. But he moved the striding figure, changed the head and neck of the standing woman, and, most importantly, dramatically simplified the second version, making eloquent contours and sinuous lines describe volume and mass, in place of the warm and cool modeling of Le Luxe I. Even here, where he mainly adhered to his original concept, Matisse never copied himself. He simply extracted the unexhausted possibilities from a composition that engaged him, transforming it through what he had learned or left unexamined the first time around.

Still Life with Compote and Fruit, 1899, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sydney M. Shoenberg, Jr., 1962; Still Life with Compote, Apples, and Oranges, 1899, The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland; images © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

At the Met, the exhibition begins with a pair of intense still lifes of similarly deployed objects—a compote with fruit, a cup and saucer, a tall, cylindrical jug—arranged on a cabinet top in a schematically suggested interior. The two canvases share a super-heated palette of saturated pinks and oranges with notes of deep blue, set off by a subdued patch of green in the upper right that hints at a leafy outdoor world elsewhere. The closely related compositions were both painted in 1899, when Matisse, age thirty and a late starter, was looking to artists as different as Paul Cézanne and Paul Signac—and to Paul Gauguin, as well—for clues about to how to proceed. It’s not known which painting came first, but it’s plain that Matisse was equally interested in two different ways of making a picture: one, suggesting form with large, broken patches of warm and cool chroma, with color divided into discreet strokes of contrasting hues; the other, evoking light and location in space by reducing each element to a clearly bounded, relatively uninflected shape. The former results in a more overtly spatially complex painting that depends more on varied touch and modeling through tone, while the latter, reduced to essentials, implies weight and mass through placement and color relationships. Cézanne, Signac, and Gauguin seem to wrestle for dominance in each picture, with Cézanne prevailing—just—in one, Signac in the other, and Gauguin waiting to take on the winner in both. The influences are plain, but so is Matisse’s burgeoning originality. The two paintings are palpably the work of a daring young man, someone alert to the multiple, possibly contradictory suggestions offered by the most adventurous artists of his day, striving to assimilate them by separating them out and combining them in fresh ways.

There’s no ambiguity, no “either/or” quality of the next pair, a Cézanne-inflected still life from 1904 and a smaller Signac-inspired version painted in 1904–05. The former is a handsome exercise in patchy modeling and interpenetrating blues and ochres, sparked with red. In the latter, a smaller, spotted and dotted version, the forms of the still-life objects all but dissolve into staccato touches of full throttle primaries; forms melt into a pulsing web of hot yellows, reds, and pinks, with smaller amounts of blue and green creeping in for emphasis.

Yet another kind of multiplicity is announced by the third pair, also painted in 1904, a small, luminous study of the gulf of Saint Tropez, with Madame Matisse and one of the couple’s sons seated on a rosy beach, beside a towering pine; everything shimmers in a tapestry of broad, short strokes of glowing hues. Matisse rethought this direct record of his “sensations” of the south of France as a stylized, much larger studio painting that points to Le Bonheur de vivre, (1905–06, Barnes Foundation). Anecdote turns into a vision of Arcadia—announcing the theme that would preoccupy Matisse, one way or another, for the rest of his life—with the addition of nude bathers and the expansion of the informal little vertical study into a sober horizontal rectangle; the responsive, overlapping touches of the smaller picture are codified into rhythmic, repetitive stabs, with color separated out into clearly individualized zones.

Young Sailor I, 1906, Collection of Sheldon H. Solow; Young Sailor II, 1906, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection (1999.363.41); images © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

As we move through the exhibition, we are given the full spectrum of how Matisse used repetition and reconsideration throughout his long life as a painter. In the two versions of Young Sailor, we see him further “radicalizing” an already fairly radical seated figure, loosely brushed and clearly indebted to Cézanne. In Young Sailor II (1906, Metropolitan Museum of Art), Matisse clarifies the shapes and empties them of incident, sharpening contours and solidifying color. The first version, while fresh and free, is still a report on something seen; the second—which made Matisse so nervous that he told the first people he showed it to that it was a copy made by a postman in Collioure—is about the relationship of edges to the confines of the canvas and the way colored shapes create space and emphatic lines, in short, form. In other words, it pushes “further and deeper into true painting.”

Elsewhere, we see Matisse change his focus in two 1914 interiors of his Quai Saint-Michel studio. One is a firmly constructed “long shot,” a marvelous orchestration of saturated blues that itemizes the furnishings of the narrow room—table, chair, daybed—and a fat, cylindrical bowl of orange goldfish, against the view out the window across the Seine. The other, more fragmented in structure with the dominant blue tempered by black and white, is a “close up” of the goldfish bowl. We seem to be looking over Matisse’s shoulder, pressed close behind him in the confined space; the sense of intimacy and proximity to the artist is asserted by the thumb that thrusts through the schematically rendered palette and—even more so—by the literal evidence of Matisse’s hand: the insistent scratching out that simultaneously reinforces form, announces the flatness of the surface, and reminds us of the artifice of painting.

Interior with Goldfish, 1914, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, Bequest of Baronne Eva Gourgaud, 1965; Goldfish and Palette, 1914, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift and bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn and Samuel A. Marx, 1964; images © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The opposite view from the Quai Saint-Michel studio, towards Nôtre-Dame, is documented in a series of paintings made in ca. 1900, 1902, and 1914, respectively. The earliest, in the collection of the Tate, London, is a small, tightly packed view, with the boxy façade of the cathedral anchoring a complex structure of river, barges, bridge, traffic, distant buildings, and the railing of the studio’s narrow balcony. Everything is pulled up to the surface by densely stroked paint, saturated color, and firmly interlocked forms. Two years later, Matisse stepped back into the room a bit, simplified both composition and color, and generally emphasized order and clarity over luminosity and liveliness. In 1914, Matisse addressed the same view on a much larger canvas, almost five feet high, suggesting the animation of the scene—traffic, passers-by, boats, shifting light—and by extension, the passage of time itself, with thin, radiant color. This Nôtre-Dame (Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller-Stiftung, Switzerland) seems as spontaneous and loose as a watercolor. It threatens to dissolve if we look away. The last work of the Nôtre-Dame series, as installed at the Met, is the Museum of Modern Art’s miraculous version, also painted in 1914. Nearly identical in size to the light-struck painting from Switzerland, MOMA’s picture is at the opposite end of the emotional, formal, and chromatic scales. Implacable rather than playful, abstracted rather than referential, the painting is an apparently casual, scumbled, monochrome expanse of crepuscular blue, very different from the sunlit salmon, rose, mauve, blue, and green of its mate. Initially, everything seems provisional, sketchy. A few rapid black lines hint at the banks of the river, the bridge, the window. Only a patch of green and a patch of pink on the façade interrupt the blue, with strategic passages of white, black, and scratching conjuring up the rectangle of the church and its blunt towers. A soft-edged blush of something warmer, like the memory of a previous state, emerges toward the bottom of the canvas, pulling against the severe geometry of the church and subtly shifting the space. Yet for all its transparency and apparent spontaneity, the more time we spend with this astonishing picture, the more we sense its long evolution, Matisse’s rigorous campaign of eliminating all but the essence, to produce one of the most potent, mysterious, prescient, and transgressive paintings in the entire history of modernism.

Notre-Dame, ca. 1900, Tate: Purchased 1949; Notre-Dame, 1914, Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller-Stiftung, Switzerland; Notre-Dame, 1914, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest, and the Henry Ittleson, A. Conger Goodyear, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Sinclair Funds, and the Anna Erickson Levene Bequest given in memory of her husband, Dr. Phoebus Aaron Theodor Levene, 1975; images © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Another way of revisiting motifs is offered by three paintings of a favorite model from the Teens, the dark-haired Laurette, with her pointed chin. We see her at different scales, from different points of view, and different distances, in pictures united by their common investigation of the play of long black hair against a green Moroccan robe and a swelling chair upholstered in purple. A trio of still lifes, made between 1912 and 1916–17, expands the conversation by suggesting Matisse’s recurring fascination with a tripartite composition anchored by his 1907 sculpture of a reclining nude, Aurora. Repeated views of his hotel rooms in Nice, painted in 1917–18 and 1918, with crucial alterations in color or orientation of the canvas, are proof not only of the cerebral abstractness of even the most anecdotal and sensuous of Matisse’s paintings, but also of how he was able, through sheer pictorial intelligence, to transform even the most banal, bourgeois subject matter. Witness his room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage, Nice, complete with lace curtains, coat hooks, decorated ceiling, wallpaper, patterned carpet, and antimacassar on the armchair; somehow the paintings of the Beau-Rivage room manage to be about shape, interval, color, and light. The largest painting in this group, from the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, brings us close to the shuttered window facing the sea. We recognize the table to the right from other views of the room, so we are oriented. Otherwise we are almost blinded by the blazing light, the sensation of being dazzled by a southern sun reflecting off the sea, powerfully conjured up by expanses of black. A violin in an open case, like a surrogate self-portrait, reminds us of the presence of the artist, a serious amateur musician, additionally transforming the subject matter.

Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), 1918, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, J. Rump Collection; image © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In 1945, Matisse definitively revealed his continuous posing of the question “What if?” and the multiple answers to that question that he considered and jettisoned as he strove to move “further and deeper into true painting.” In the early 1940s, as he worked on a group of pared-down, apparently spontaneous, and direct images, such as The Dream (1940, Private Collection), he had photographs taken when they reached stages he felt were significant or satisfying, for the moment, in order to capture the complexities that fed his arduous process of distillation. When he exhibited the paintings in 1945 at Galerie Maeght, Paris, he included large prints of the photographs with the canvases. (Three of these installations are recreated at the Met.) The photos were intended to refute criticism of Matisse as a facile painter, proof of how hard-won his finished works were, but it’s tempting to think that they served the same function as the first versions of the earlier pairs—saved as moments in the development of a picture, important enough to keep but also something to build on. In one of her essays in the exhibition’s richly illustrated catalogue, Rebecca Rabinow, the Met’s Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art and an organizer of the exhibition, points out that it was unlikely that Matisse saw many of the photographs while he was at work; there wasn’t time to develop them, according to the dates at which they were taken and the evolution they record. But, she suspects, the fact that they existed may have freed Matisse to wipe out the previous day’s work and move on to the next “What if?” It’s fascinating to follow the development of The Dream, as Matisse transformed a fairly naturalistic drawing of a sleeping woman in an embroidered peasant blouse, head on her arm, bending forward over a table, into an emblem of self-containment. Gradually she is moved parallel to the picture plane and expanded to demand more of the space. The finished painting is so thinly painted and improvisational that it’s almost impossible to credit the photographs’ evidence of Matisse’s long aesthetic journey—which was the point.

Large Red Interior, 1948, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, State purchase, 1950; image © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The last gallery reunites five of the spectacular interiors Matisse painted in Vence between 1944 and 1948, affirmations of the power of color to move us deeply. (The earliest here is the Pompidou’s Interior in Yellow and Blue [1946], with its bold geometry and exuberant drawing.) Matisse considered them a series, choosing to publish a group in an issue of the magazine Verve, devoted to him, interspersed with vigorous line drawings of plants. At the Met, we watch him tossing motifs from painting to painting, rearranging and repeating furniture and props, playing with light, patterns, and fabrics—the Phillips Collection’s dazzling Interior with African Curtain (1948)—and taking stock of what he had achieved, as he had almost four decades earlier, in MOMA’s 1911 Red Studio. (He did so in the Pompidou’s delectable Large Red Interior [1948], with its bold black-and-white drawing and a painting of a spindly-legged table installed in a room full of potted plants, vases of flowers, and animal-skin rugs.) When they were first exhibited in New York, Rabinow reminds us, the critic Clement Greenberg wrote that “Matisse is at the present moment painting as well as he ever has painted before, and, in some respects perhaps, even better.”

These wonderful paintings appear effortless, unexpected, and inevitable. Thanks to “Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” we can delight in their mastery, rejoice in their achievement, and also grasp some of the uncompromising scrutiny of possibilities, the life-long testing of alternatives that underlies that effortlessness, unexpectedness, and inevitability.

1 “Matisse: In Search of True Painting” opened at the Metropolitan Musum of Art, New York, on December 4, 2012 and remains on view through March 17, 2013.