Matisse at Nice
By Kellen Dawson
Henri Matisse, one of the premier artists of the twentieth century, was a leading French figure in modern art whose work spanned over fifty years and who experimented with various artistic mediums and styles. His works evolved from Fauvism, a movement that emphasized the importance of bold brushstrokes and brilliant colors, to one of upholding classical French tradition in painting. Like many artists in the period known as the Return to Order immediately following World War I, Matisse participated in the backlash against the abstract art forms such as Cubism and German Expressionism, which represented the chaos of war, in favor of upholding traditional, coherent styles. During the 1920s, in what is known as his “Nice Period,” Henri Matisse developed a renewed interest in Impressionistic aesthetics, which contrasted with his earlier works and proved to be a time in which the artist created some of his most dynamic and inspiring works.
In 1908, in his first published essay, entitled “Notes of a Painter,” Matisse attempts to distance himself from Impressionist aesthetics when he criticizes Impressionism, and in turn, places more emphasis on personal expression. In this article, he states “the impressionist painters, especially Monet and Sisley, had delicate sensations, quite close to each other: as a result their canvases all look alike.” He clarifies his position that Impressionism was not long lasting when he states, “the word impressionism perfectly characterizes their style, for they register fleeting impressions.” Instead, Matisse suggests that he would prefer a more lasting effect on the viewer in relation to his work. He states, “A rapid rendering of a landscape represents only one moment of its existence. I prefer, by insisting upon its essential character, to risk losing charm in order to obtain greater stability.” He criticizes the Impressionist movement for being too fleeting and transitory and states that his goal is to search for “truer, more essential character, which the artist will seize so that he may give to reality a more lasting interpretation.” As Fauvism ended, Henri Matisse struggled with his imagery and created pieces that were somewhat abstract, only to find himself gravitating toward the less abstract and more concrete, a foreshadowing of his later movement toward impressionistic aesthetics.
Impressionism has been characterized as a depiction of an artist’s impression. The paintings often depict moments of everyday life. The scenes often are of ordinary people at work or at play. It is a departure from the realist style of accuracy of detail, for in Impressionistic works the meanings are often nebulous, and some have no obvious moral lesson. Nature is often included as a dramatic background for the paintings. Colors are often bright and brushstrokes are characterized as lighter than those found in works completed by predecessors of the Impressionists.
Impressionism is a stylistic movement that was started in 1874 by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, and Camille Pissarro, an influential group of artists in Paris. The name itself came from Claude Monet’s painting entitled Impression, Soleil Levant, a term borrowed by an art critic who harshly criticized Monet’s work of art. The critic felt that the works of Monet and his contemporaries were, at best, unfinished sketches. Nevertheless, the movement quickly spread and the artists began to receive public acceptance. A good example of Impressionist art is Monet’s The Boat Studio, completed in 1876, which is a self-portrait of the artist at work inside the cabin of a small boat on the Seine River. This painting is a clear study of the effects of light, shadow, and reflection on water; the image of the artist is ambiguous, and the observer can barely perceive the figure. The setting, of course, is centered on nature with scenes familiar to the observer. Impressionism would remain a source of inspiration Matisse despite his early criticisms, as seen in his later Nice years.
Matisse’s “Nice Years,” as referred to by many art historians, spanned from 1917 until around 1930. His works during this time show a stylistic change that was closer to the Impressionists. As stated by Matisse scholar, Jack Flam, “Instead of sustaining the symbolic, abstract equivalences for light and space that he had explored between 1904 and 1917, he placed renewed emphasis on the description of objects and textures and on rendering the fleeting effects of light and atmosphere.” Thus, Matisse seemed now to embrace the style of painting, one close to that of the Impressionists, that he had so soundly criticized earlier in his essay “Notes of a Painter.”
In a 1919 interview with the Swedish art historian, Ragnar Hoppe, Matisse enlightened the world as to the reason for his change in style from the more abstract to one akin to Impressionism. When asked what precipitated his stylistic change, Matisse implied that he wanted to change course in order to keep his work fresh. Matisse stated, “Yes, you see, when you have achieved what you want in a certain area, when you have exploited the possibilities that lie in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new.” He searched for something new, which added a measure of freshness to his work and thus emulated the ideas of the Impressionists.
The works of Renoir and Monet served as a source of inspiration for Matisse. He regularly corresponded with Monet for a six month period in 1917 and actually visited with Renoir. In “Matisse’s Retour à l’Ordre,” the author, Kenneth Silver, an esteemed professor of art history, states, “In Matisse’s pictures from the ‘20s, Renoir’s influence is everywhere: in the light, the brushstrokes, poses, settings and most pervasively, the languorous mood, which may be bourgeois and proper.” He strengthens his argument for the influence of Renoir on Matisse when he describes the obvious similarities between Renoir’s Madame Charpentier and her Children and Matisse’s Moorish Screen of 1921. These two works were calculated to be pleasing to the eye, through the bourgeois décor in parlor scenes. Matisse revitalizes the tradition of depicting women as doing little but existing, characteristic of his naturalistic approach to a return to order.
Matisse’s move to the south of France with his accompanying stylistic change may have been influenced by the social environment of France at that time. Reeling from the effects of World War I, France entered what was called a ‘call to order.’ Europe became more politically conservative, and Matisse was responding to that call from his public viewers. He felt that the challenges of the status quo seen in his earlier Fauvist works were no longer appreciated in France, so he responded to the desires of society of post-war Europe with stylistic changes in his work. Matisse’s style became more naturalistic and Impressionistic so as to distance the viewing public from the atrocities of war.
Flam opines in his book, Matisse: The Man and His Art, that it was the physical setting of Nice itself that influenced the stylistic change in Matisse. Flam states that while choosing to work in a strange town, in a small hotel room with few personal belongings, “Matisse had assumed the role of a student again.” A fact that strengthens Flam’s argument is that Matisse had left his family to go to Nice, and lived isolated during those years, a time period in which he published no essays and gave few interviews, showing his dedication to creating new art with few distractions.
Comparison of Matisse’s work before his move to Nice and his work after his arrival reveals stark contrast and apparent distinction. Pre-Nice paintings are more abstract, while those post-Nice are like those of the Impressionists. Formal analysis of two works done in 1914, entitled View of Notre Dame and French Window at Collioure, reveal their abstract style. For example, in View of Notre Dame, the two towers of the majestic cathedral are represented as two stark rectangles overlooking the Seine River. One cannot discern the identity of the building without prior knowledge. Similarly, French Window at Collioure is abstract in style. The center of the picture is one large dark rectangle. On one side there is a weathered blue wall and on the other there is a green shutter in an equal state of disrepair. John Russell, in The World of Matisse, wrote that the message in French Window at Collioure symbolizes the despair the French were feeling due to World War I. Soon after these paintings were complete, Matisse changed his style dramatically to one closely mirroring the style of the Impressionists, and this stylistic change corresponded to his move to Nice. After Nice, Matisse never returned to such rigid abstraction in his work.
The French Window at Nice is an outstanding example of Matisse’s move toward Impressionism. It was completed by Matisse in 1919 in the Hotel Mediterranee in Nice. The subject appears to be an ordinary young girl in a hotel room. Nature is depicted in the painting with its apparent contrast between outdoors and indoors. Matisse skillfully uses optical effects such as the transparency of the curtain. The colors are vivid and dynamic with the red clothes in contrast to the blue shutters as the background. The outside view includes people, but the details are not clear. This movement of Matisse closer to Impressionism with the bright colors, ordinary, but clearly discernible scenes and models, is in contrast to the abstract style found in View of Notre Dame and French Window at Collioure. Researchers have shown at least one of his earlier paintings, The Dinner Table (1897) showed the influence of Impressionism, but this style was not evident again in his paintings until his move to Nice.
At Nice, Matisse’s paintings were vastly different than those from his earlier years. In addition to the stylistic changes best seen in The French Window at Nice, other works showed a change in models, one to that of odalisque, or harem girls in languorous curvilinear poses, which appeal to sensorial appreciation. Excellent works using odalisque are seen in Odalisque in Red Trousers (1922), The Artist and His Model (1919), Seated Odalisque (1922), and in Odalisque Seated with Arms Raised, Green Striped Chair (1923). A comparison of Artist and His Model (1919) with The Painter and His Model (1917) illustrates significant differences. The somber mood of Matisse in his Paris studio, as depicted by featureless figures in The Painter and His Model, is replaced with beauty, light, and greater detail in The Artist and His Model created in his studio at Nice two years later.
In 1925, Matisse clarified his position concerning Impressionism in an interview with the writer and critic Jacques Guenne. This interview emphasizes the significance and influence of Cezanne on Matisse’s work. Cezanne was a contemporary whose works spanned from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and also included Classicism and Cubism. When referring to Cezanne, Matisse states ,“If you only knew the moral strength, the encouragement that his remarkable example gave me all my life.” In 1936, Matisse gave Cezanne’s Three Bathers to the Museum of the City of Paris, a painting that he had owned for thirty-seven years. When referring to the Cezanne work, Matisse stated, “It has sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance.” This interview and presentation of the gift of the Cezanne painting, of course, is in conflict with his 1908 “Notes of a Painter” essay, in which he criticizes Impressionism. It appears that Matisse had indeed been influenced by the works of the Impressionists, but, by 1908, he had not yet confided that information to the public. Whether it was an early respect for Cezanne and other Impressionists or a compilation of influences over time, there is no doubt that Matisse’s major stylistic shift toward Impressionism corresponded to his move to and early years in Nice. It was at Nice that Matisse was projected into the public domain. His reputation as a great artist solidified during his time at Nice. With World War I, the world underwent radical changes and transitions, and Matisse’s style changed as well. It was at Nice that Matisse underwent his own personal ‘call to order.’ It was at Nice that Matisse became a master, for it was at Nice that his work developed into decorative, naturalistic paintings that appealed to the masses.
Cézanne, Paul. Three Bathers. Oil on canvas, 1879-82. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, Paris, France.
Flam, Jack. “Introduction.” In Matisse on Art, 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
—. Matisse: The Man and his Art, 1869-1918. Ithaca and London, 1986.
Matisse, Henri. The Artist and His Model. Oil on canvas, 1919. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
—. The Dinner Table. Oil on canvas, 1897. Private collection.
—. French Window at Collioure. Oil on canvas, 1914. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France.
—. The French Window at Nice. Oil on canvas, 1919. The Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.
—. Moorish Screen. Oil on canvas, 1917-21. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
—. Odalisque in Red Trousers. Oil on canvas, 1922. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, France.
—. Odalisque Seated with Arms Raised, Green Striped Chair. Oil on canvas, 1923. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
—. The Painter and His Model. Oil on canvas, 1917. Museum of Modern Art, Paris, France.
—. Seated Odalisque. Oil on canvas, 1922. Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA.
—. View of Notre-Dame. Oil on canvas, 1914. The Museum of Modern Arts, New York, NY.
Matisse, Henri, and Jack D. Flam. Matisse on Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Mezzatesta, Michael P. Henri Matisse, Sculptor/Painter: A Formal Analysis of Selected Works. Fort Worth: Kimbell Art Museum, 1984.
Monet, Claude. The Boat Studio (Le bateau-atelier). Oil on canvas, 1876. Barnes Foundation, Lincoln University, Merion, PA.
—. Impression, Soleil Levant. Oil on canvas, 1873. Musee Marmottan, Paris, France.
Renoir, Pierre-Auguste. Madame Charpentier with Her Children. Oil on canvas, 1878. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY.
Russell, John. The World of Matisse: 1869-1954. Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1979.
Silver, Kenneth. “Matisse’s Retour à l’Ordre.” Art in America 75 (June 1987): 110-123.
Spurling, Hilary, and Henri Matisse. Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Wattenmaker, Richard J., and Anne Distel. Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-impressionist, and Early Modern. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.