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