Today’s post comes from Angela Brown, class of 2016 and Art Center Student Docent.

Henri Matisse, Roses de Noel et Saxifrage, 1944 Oil on canvas, 20 x 25 in.  Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Pitt (Juliet Thompson, class of 1922)

Henri Matisse, Roses de Noel et Saxifrage, 1944
Oil on canvas, 20 x 25 in.
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm Pitt (Juliet Thompson, class of 1922)

For Henri Matisse, the most true and pure function of the painter was to show the essentials. He bought a small Cézanne painting titled Three Bathers which he kept in his studio, admiring Cézanne’s ability to present animate and inanimate objects as modifying each other equally, in color, treatment, and essence.  This is not a painting of bathers in, yet separate from, the landscape; it is a painting of the essence of the entire experience of bathers in the landscape.

Paul Cézanne, Three Bathers, c. 1882, oil on canvas 52 x 55 cm, The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania, USA

Paul Cézanne, Three Bathers, c. 1882, oil on canvas
52 x 55 cm, The Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania, USA

In his own work, Matisse sought to use his gift for color to create a harmonious picture without dependence on classical representation. A hyper-realistic still life has beauty and charm, like a classical nude; however, choosing which lines, colors, and forms to focus on, change, and rework creates a beauty with charm but with also complex connotations of what it means to visually experience something in the way one would experience music or fragrance.

Everything exists in relation to something else. Pale phthalo green draws the eye from the vase on the left to saxifrage leaves, sloping down a long stem, then to rest on a translucent jar. These are all one and determine—and are determined by—the colors that surround them. We cannot experience this cyclical path of phthalo green in the way that we do without the bright red-orange that grounds the still life, but also pushes it to the very front of the picture plane. The red tabletop seems not to be at rest; the paint is applied around the objects that appear to sit on top of it. However, the loose application and white, aura-like space—or maybe “breathing room” would be a better-fitting phrase—left around the objects assures that this painting is not easy for us to consider in a simple way, it must be absorbed as both forms and color simultaneously. There are elements that are dynamic and refuse to settle down. The pattern applied to the red table does not get smaller where the table, “in reality,” would regress back in a traditional perspectival representation. Pencil lines remain, mapping fields of color, but not fully containing them. The fruits in the bowl, with their pencil outlines, are exactly in the right place for Matisse. One can see his certainty in their placement and rendering, simple and recognizable, but translucent and in a sort of calm flux. Simultaneously, a dark, blue-black paint surrounds the top half of the scene. It does not recede into the background, but exists at the same level as the table, its pattern, and the objects nestled within it. This darkness creates a very specific kind of void that allows the artist to bring the flower petals forward, then back again where they meet the white-blue rectilinear frame in the center.

This picture as a whole is not illusionistic in the sense that it seeks to imitate three-dimensional space with exactitude; instead, it is truer than any such effort at imitation. It allows the viewer to see a complex scene as one, harmonious idea uninhibited by distractions of pinpointing and naming specific objects and conventions like foreground and background.

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