6 Things I Learned About Painting From the Met's Blockbuster Matisse Show

A detail of Henri Matisse's "Still Life with Purro II," 1904-5, oil on canvas
(© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Last week, I finally visited the Met’s stellar exhibition, “Matisse: In Search of True Painting.” The show was, as I hoped, a refreshingly engaging experience that breaks down Henri Matisse’s meticulous and academic painting process into sections, addressing recurring themes that are applicable to both modern painters and art students today.

In a recent article, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith aptly called the show “one of the most thrillingly instructive exhibitions about this painter, or painting in general, that you may ever see.” She’s not wrong. Concepts like how to paint light, when to use the color black, or how long to spend on the details of a model you have limited time with are best learned from a painter who spent his lifetime asking these questions, and who was willing to share the fruits of his labor.

“Matisse: In Search of True Painting,” is ordered chronologically, and each gallery is separated into at least two critical stages of Matisse’s ever-evolving studio process, explained through the succinct and careful wall text that corresponds with each set of works.

Here are six things that every art student will learn if they go see this show, which I can guarantee will make you a better painter. 

When to Use True Black

Black is the most taboo color on an artist’s palette, and traditionally painters are trained to avoid using it. Instead, mixing other colors to a close-to-black shade that compliments or contrasts with the picture’s other hues is preferred. Matisse’s use of pure black to paint the effects of light defies tradition. While the impressionists saturated their canvasses with color, trying to capture the nuances of changing luminosity, he realized that adding sections of pure black pigment could amplify the feeling of light in a painting.

This brazen technique is best seen in “Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage)” (1918), where he paints a horizontal black bar over the window in the picture, making the rest of the colors in the canvas appear sharper and brighter, as if the room were filled with palpably warm sunlight. Also, in “Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage)” (1918), he painted bold black over pink undercoat, better highlighting the light shining through the window.

Though it is not always appropriate to use black, as it can easily overpower a composition, Matisse used it as an aid to strengthen colors already present.

The Background is Part of the Composition

Matisse used black not just as a means of producing the effects of light on canvas, but also as an organizational convention that made the background field connect to his subject. He is quoted in a section of the wall text describing black as “a ballast to simplify construction.” It was not uncommon for him to reach a point in painting where he would stop and paint the rest in black.

In the composition “Apples” (1916), almost half of the painting is a loose interpretation of six apples in a bowl, while the rest is a flowing sweep of black paint that pulls the eye clockwise around the canvas. Even though the apples are the subject, the way the background asserts itself is just as important.

Additionally, his long-term series of Notre Dame Cathedral, painted from the window of his Paris apartment facing the building, further exemplify the artist’s exploration of the notion that a finished painting can include exposed canvas as part of the background and overall composition. “Notre-Dame” (1914) is a lightly painted oil on canvas in which Matisse loosely sketched the shapes and bold colors of a daytime view of the cathedral amidst a bright blue sky – one so bright that he doesn’t even finish it, allowing the white of the canvas to suggest the intensity of light in the square that morning, as well as trick the viewer into feeling as if the painting were really complete.

Do Multiple Studies

There are many ways to approach a single subject. Doing multiple studies at once, rather than laboring over a single rendition, can be a good way to explore all of that subject’s possibilities. The wall text for a section displaying the versions he painted of the three-figure composition, “Le Luxe,” says “he included the word ‘esquisse’ (‘sketch’) in the title, implying that he did not consider it to be definitive.” Though the three works were completed between 1907 –1908, they vary wildly. Matisse changed the figures’ hair colors and body positions, as well as the palette of the entire painting, from one canvas to another, determined to create something entirely new every time.

In considering each piece a work in progress, Matisse opened himself to the possibility of evolving as an artist – in process and style. In his paintings “Seated Nude” (1909) and “Nude With a White Scarf” (1909), the same pose led to two completely different paintings; both are arguably the same model’s positioning, but he repeatedly reworked the latter, adding props, shading and definition to the body, and covering the canvas from edge to edge in paint while the first painting remains largely exposed.

Simplicity vs. Detail

Details are not always the most important to master. Matisse’s paintings of a young sailor focus on simplifying a subject in order to understand it. While many painters fear losing what makes a subject unique or recognizable by omitting minute details, Matisse’s paintings of the young sailor debunk this myth by demonstrating that capturing the most essential elements, however few they may be, provide the necessary detail to define the subject.

He was unafraid to carefully plan his compositions in several stages, which is helpful if you have limited time with a subject – just one day, for example, as he had with the sailor. Between the first and second versions he stripped the composition of its layered and loose brushstrokes, and any bias they may have had towards realistic interpretation. “Young Sailor I” (1906) includes carefully considered proportions, a delicate treatment of the subject’s face, and much time spent on the highlights and lowlights of the body.

Meanwhile, in “Young Sailor II,” (1906) which is considered the more successful version, he rounds the features of the body, flattens the color planes, and puts most of the detail in the boy’s face into his enlarged and exaggerated eyes and narrowed chin. The second version manages to capture the presence of its subject, but more so than the first with its attention to just a few details.

Document Your Process

In the 1930s the artist hired photographer Matossian to document each stage of his painting process to help him determine how to progress forward with a work, and as evidence that his paintings were a highly strategic studio process rather than spontaneously derived –as was much the speculation of his critics. The result is a set of documents that provide the best existing inside look at his studio practice, of benefit both to historians and experienced painters.

For the painting “The Large Blue Dress” (1937), having photos allowed him pause and consider the work more objectively while painting over a long period. The series of 10 black-and-white images chart the work from loose sketches to reconsidered ruffles, and shades of deep blue to the angle of his model’s shoulders. When he exhibited the photographs alongside the painting in a 1945 exhibition at Galerie Maeght in Paris, he opened the public to his avant-garde works as well as his progressive studio practice, marking himself as an artist whose work was not just about a finished product, but also about the journey to get there.

Matisse’s Lasting Legacy

While the term “derivative” is viewed as a scarlet letter in the art world, the artist didn’t shy away from imitating his contemporaries. The exhibition is full of derivative works that were integral to his evolution as a painter. He borrowed and painted in both the styles of Cézanne and Signac early on, trying his hand at Impressionist brushwork and pointillist precision – in one instance with the same still life. The experimentation provided him range and expanded his knowledge of current trends, which he eventually used as an excuse to avoid them.

Though he was criticized more than once for not having his own style, he used his dabbling as a way to understand and master all techniques in practice. Ultimately, Matisse’s greatest gift to painting was his championing of an academic practice wherein he believed there was always a next step, and another angle to explore.  

As an art school student, there were so many things I spent weeks muddling through in the studio that this exhibit now allowed me to finally see in perfect clarity, all in one place, by observing the exposed pencil marks and confident brushstrokes in Matisse’s canvasses. 

To see paintings from the exhibition, click the slideshow here.