Because Matisse’s work (his late work, anyway) seldom involves any alienating display of skill or aggressive degree of difficulty, he persuades us that our ordinary visual pleasures could, were they to be extraordinarily intensified, be the same as his. He is thus vulnerable to the admirer’s revenge: to an intrusive assumption of intimacy on our part. His life was not a public one but even the simplest suppositions about it – that it must have been very pleasant to sit painting the girls, the fruit, the flowers and the bay beyond the balcony, for example, or to cut out shapes in coloured paper and then arrange them – are often wrong.
The works by Matisse which now appear on café walls and greetings cards come, on the whole, from the second half of his long life. The earlier Fauve portraits or simplified, geometrical pictures like The Moroccans or Bathers by a River are much harder on the eye. Critics have used the young Matisse – the hard man, the artistic radical – to berate the old, but if (like me) you grew up while he was still alive, it’s with the old Matisses that you almost inevitably start when you try to make sense of the life and the work. And because we felt we knew him, the images he sanctioned showing him at work were like personal letters. A set of photographs which he invited Brassaï to take in 1939 show him in a well-lit studio wearing what looks like a doctor’s white coat, sitting close to Wilma Javor, the young woman he is drawing.
Clothed old men drawing naked young women are one of Picasso’s subjects, even though Picasso didn’t spend much time working that way; Matisse did. You could guess this – and also deduce that he sat close to the model – from those drawings which include his own reflection in a mirror, or a corner of his sketch-book at the bottom of the sheet. Even (indeed, particularly) when they are done in only a few lines, these drawings tell us a great deal about the way flesh folds and creases in response to a pose – and to keep hold of this kind of information is difficult unless you’re looking as you draw. Combine what you see in the photographs of Matisse drawing with what you see in the kinds of drawing he was doing while they were being taken, and you come to understand the remarks he made thirty years earlier which suggested that although what he painted was radically transformed, his work was, nonetheless, a condensation of specific sensations. He didn’t want to be a decorator. Dufy made things pretty on purpose, but for Matisse prettiness came later on and was usually, even then, incidental to a quite severe interrogation of physical appearance.
The clinical connotations of the white coat and the large, well-lit room in the Brassaï photographs are not inappropriate: Matisse’s drawings of women are analyses, rather than expressions, of appetite. Picasso’s pictures showing artist and model read as memories or prefigurations of sex, whence their extraordinary energy. Matisse’s pursuit of the sources of visual pleasure seems, despite the simple subject-matter, to be monitored (if not exactly driven) by thoughts about shapes and colours, as well as feelings for them. Later photographs, showing him at work on the decorations for the chapel at Vence – cutting coloured paper and making drawings with a piece of charcoal tied to a long stick – make the same case. His look of calm concentration suggests that patterns whose strong impact on us is immediate were the result not of sudden inspiration, but of adjustment and contrivance.
As evidence of the difficulty of art, this may seem oblique, yet the general effect of the photographs of the old Matisse at work and of the old Picasso at play (the ageing satyr with his young children; still drawing, painting, making sculpture and decorating pots) is to suggest that, for them, things had become easy, that modern art had been generously and happily fulfilled, not just in its aims, but in the lives of those who made it. Photographs of successful painters of the 19th century record rooms of princely, if bohemian, lavishness. Those of Matisse and Picasso imply that their art was a kind of magic growing out of everyday life, experienced in rooms and among objects which (their own pictures on the walls apart) are not so different from those that any one of us might aspire to own.
All this easily distracted us from Matisse’s hard beginnings, and in particular from the moment when he found himself out on his own, only tenuously linked to the tradition which had nurtured him. Now that we have the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s biography, however, it is much easier to look back beyond the white-bearded maker of images of luxuriousness to the wild-man-of-art shown in the self-portrait of 1906 and to be reminded that – as one soon learns from the letters he wrote to his son Pierre in the 1930s and 1940s (quoted in John Russell’s Matisse: Father and Son) – even the old Matisse was far from the calm, masterful presence one might have imagined, anxious as he was as a father and misunderstood, so he thought, as a husband. For the evidence of his art and his life to add up, we need to reconcile the wild man of the Fauve paintings, the hedonist of the later Nice pictures, the bourgeois family man and the experimentalist who could overpaint what was merely agreeable in his search for something which penetrated appearances more deeply.
Spurling writes as a biographer, not as an art historian, but the contrasts that she draws – between the mutilated landscape of the industrial towns Matisse grew up in and the extravagant refinement of the fabrics which came from their mills; between the meanness of the places where he lived and the voluptuousness of the scraps of fabric he, even then, collected; between his toughness in sticking to the direction his instinct as a painter took him in and his embrace of subject-matter which flatters bourgeois notions of what is agreeable; and above all between the anxious insomniac who agonised over what he was doing and the calm authority of many of his paintings – do more to explain how it is that his work can seem both serious and decorative, both intense and relaxed, than any analysis which begins and ends with the pictures themselves. Biography is the ideal means by which to explore the relationship between Matisse and the tradition of French painting as he found it.
He was born in 1869 in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, in north-eastern France. His father ran a successful hardware and seed merchant’s business; his mother, who came from a family of furriers, tanners and glove-makers, had once worked in a hat-shop. Spurling describes very well the hardworking northern culture in which Henri grew up and suggests that his own combination of toughness and anxiety ran in the family and that his lifelong love of the local product – textiles – was cultural as much as personal.
By 1891, when Matisse – having abandoned the law (a profession that seems to have acted as a decompression chamber for aspiring artists with sceptical fathers) – briefly entered Bouguereau’s classes at the Académie Julian, Van Gogh was already dead and Gauguin heading off to Tahiti. The last of the eight Impressionist exhibitions had taken place five years before. And what was Matisse painting? Brown still lifes. He said that the first time he really saw Impressionist paintings was when the Caille-botte legacy was exhibited in 1897. Remarking on the similarity between Matisse’s description in old age of his early struggles and those of other painters, ‘major and minor, fashionable or the reverse, accustomed by the Beaux-Arts system to a common framework of conformity and revolt, acceptance and rejection, liberation and despotism’, Spurling suggests that the ‘rigid academic tyranny fostered, in any individual strong enough to withstand it, a correspondingly powerful urge towards freedom and individuality,’ but it also ‘laid down ways of thinking and talking about their role shared by the entire spectrum of French artists in the 19th century, from the grand pontiff of the academic establishment to a long line of innovators who were initially reviled and eventually consecrated by the system, like Corot, Delacroix, Cézanne and Matisse himself.’
So although Matisse came quite quickly to make pictures which seemed decisively to break the academic mould, he never ceased to be a painter working in a French tradition – of rebellion as well as of style and subject-matter. His early career could not have taken the course it did outside the academic education which, even when he was thrown out of classes and denied prizes, provided him with models to paint, friends to argue with, and object lessons in how one became the kind of painter he did not want to be. However extreme his departures from the norm might seem, when he painted what he had in front of him he was often following predecessors whom he admired, notably Chardin and Cézanne. When he painted from imagination – in the pictures of dancers, for example – it is Puvis de Chavannes, more even than Cézanne, who comes to mind. He wanted to be taught – to have his advance along the road of representation monitored – even when he was virtually unteachable. In 1900, he attended the classes of Eugène Carrière. An Englishman in the same class, Vernon Blake, described an encounter between pupil and teacher:
‘Pardon me, M. Carrière,’ interposed Matisse, ‘but you have not corrected my study!’ ‘Haven’t I? I beg your pardon’ ... He placed himself before the astonishing medley of immense feet and generally distorted representation of the pose in strong and, at that time, sombre strife of purple and carmine fleshtones set off by viridian greens. ‘Eh bien, mon ami, n’est-ce pas?’ – Carrière was a nervous speaker and made great use of the palliative n’est-ce pas – ‘each of us has his own way of seeing Nature, n’est-ce pas? Your way of seeing Nature is not precisely the same as mine. Under the circumstances I really don’t see how any remarks that I might have to make could be of any particular service to you, n’est-ce pas?’ and with that he moved towards the door, took down his hat, and went out.
The aggressiveness of the study Carrière was presented with was not a denial of the academic process, as a direct imitation of tribal art or pure abstraction would have been: Matisse was breaking rules, but he was still playing the game. It was only later, when he felt able to indulge his taste for making things pretty, borrowing from appearances rather than struggling with them, that there is a falling-off in tension. The untroubled surface of the late work, the economical style of drawing and frankly decorative colour, allow the eye an easy path to delight. The troublesome oddities of his early work – they troubled him, too; he said, late on, that he had been ‘haunted all his life by the misery of not painting like others’ – by this time lie deep, like an ingredient in a dish that you know is there but cannot taste.
Spurling documents the anxiety Matisse felt as his instinct drove him on from transgression to transgression. His freedom was won painfully, in an environment where judgment was constant: in the form of examinations, exhibition juries and the state as patron or buyer. Each step could bring rejection. Matisse’s first rejection came in 1892 when he failed the entrance examination to the Beaux-Arts (he passed later, in 1895). But although he didn’t manage to get in the orthodox way, he found Gustave Moreau (by then in his sixties but newly appointed to the school) willing to take on unqualified pupils. This was a piece of luck in more ways than one. The atmosphere was liberal and he made life-long friends there, including Simon Bussy and Albert Marquet.
Matisse the art student was rowdier and unrulier than his later respectability would suggest (‘Oh do tell the American people that I am a normal man; that I am a devoted husband and father, that I have three fine children, that I go to the theatre,’ he said to an interviewer in 1913, when the Armory show was scandalising the US). He was a joker and singer of rude songs, a Northerner who found many of his friends from the North also. He had a small allowance from his father, but he was poor and had to live from hand to mouth. He was not celibate. For five years he lived with Camille Job-laud, a young woman who worked in a hat shop – Spurling points out that many of the women in his life had connections in the rag trade. That relationship broke down and in 1898 he married Amélie Parayre; Marguerite, the daughter that Camille had borne him in 1894, became a member of the new household, on Amélie’s initiative – an early example of her willingness to do the generous thing, and to support him. For many years the couple depended on her earnings, but she encouraged him to take risks. To help pay for Cézanne’s Three Bathers, which he bought from Vollard in 1899, she pawned a ring she had had as a wedding present; the case of butterflies he bought because one of them was so wonderfully blue became a family legend. Lydia Delectorskya, who was Matisse’s model and secretary for the last two decades of his life, and whose presence, deeply resented by Amélie, in the end triggered the breakdown of his marriage, said that ‘Matisse knew how to elicit ... a passion for his work. He knew how to take possession of people and make them believe they were indispensable. It was like that for me, and it was like that for Mme Matisse.’
The family’s roughest times followed on from the uncovering of the extraordinary Humbert swindle, with which his parents-in-law had been innocently but intimately connected. In 1903 he told Simon Bussy that he was picking over his output of the previous six years in order to present ‘a calm, smiling face to the crowd of collectors, who don’t care for anyone anxious or tormented’. At this time he was supporting (with some help from his sister-in-law) his wife’s parents as well as his wife and three children; and what, to judge from the paintings alone, looks like an odd retreat – he even hired models to pose for costume pictures like Lucien Guitry (as Cyrano) – was part of a determined effort to stave off ruin. The ‘dark period’ which Matisse scholars have put down to ‘native prudence, failure of nerve, an innately bourgeois instinct to retrench’, was, as Spurling is able to point out, a time when ‘Matisse was in no position to paint at all. His energies were absorbed in efforts to repair and limit the damage done to his own and his wife’s families, which disintegrated around him.’
Spurling makes it clear that Matisse’s early pictures represent successive sorties against orthodoxy, not a single campaign. What he called his first picture, a still life with books and a candlestick from 1890 – bright and neat, painted following the instructions in Goupil’s General and Complete Manual of Painting in Oils – looks, as Spurling says, like a standard Flemish still life. ‘It remained,’ she goes on, ‘a mirror that reflected the first passionate, almost animal uprush of feeling’ released by the paint-box his mother had given him when he had a stint in hospital. It suggests that mastery was going to come more easily than it proved. The Atelier of Gustave Moreau, painted five years later, begins to show why. It is murkier and more dramatic, but less certain. You feel that he’s beginning to get a sense of the vertiginous abundance of choice a blank canvas offers. Interior with Top Hat, painted in the winter of 1896, is a picture in browns accented with sharp white highlights and set off by red-brown walls and a green lampshade. It is confident – the slightly wonky perspective suggests that freedom with the brush is already more important to him than the constrictions of accurate representation.
At this point, his friends were hopeful; he is going to be a lively painter, but not offensive or strange. In the summer of 1896 he was in Brittany; a picture of the harbour at Belle-Ile, broadly painted in bright colours, marks the influence of John Peter Russell, the Australian artist, who’d been a friend of Van Gogh. At the end of that year Matisse painted The Dinner Table – quite big, more than three feet by four – a late Impressionist interior, innocuous enough one might think, yet the first in a long line of his works to outrage the public at the annual Paris salons. A year later, he was in Corsica. In The Courtyard of the Old Mill, thick highlights are contrasted with mottled shadows: the attention has somehow shifted from how things look to how the look of things can be reconstituted. By 1899 this innovation is being carried further, in still lifes in which light is suggested by contrast of blues and blue greens, or hot browns and oranges. There are also paintings from life classes in which the model is painted in slabs of colour, like the female nude of 1901. From 1903 to 1904, years when he was trying to toe the line, comes Carmelina, a seated nude in bright light, with the red-shirted painter seen in a mirror – it looks oddly like one of William Orpen’s sunlight-in-the-studio pictures.
In 1904 there was an exhibition at Vollard’s. Vollard and Matisse were about the same age and, as Spurling puts it, ‘both great gamblers’, although ‘neither could give the other the secure base each had to have at this stage for the gamble to come off.’ Apart from some of the Corsican ones, the pictures in the show were mostly, in Vollard’s words, in ‘his greys that appealed so strongly to the customers’. Matisse was now beginning to make a living from his work; he had an offer from another dealer for academic still lifes – as many as he could produce – at 400 francs each. There was a snag, however: ‘I had just finished one of these still-life pictures. It was as good as the previous one, and very much like it.’ Too much like: he destroyed it. ‘Looking back, I realise that it required courage ... the hands of the butcher and the baker were outstretched waiting for the money. But I did destroy it. I count my emancipation from that day.’ Emancipated or not, he was still, as Spurling puts it, describing his psychological state when he was in St-Tropez in the summer of 1904 (working with Paul Signac), ‘a man driven daily to the brink of desperation by inner tension, insomnia and the paralysing demons of frustration and self-doubt’. The certainties of neo-Impressionism, of Signac’s systematic development of Seurat’s ‘Divisionist’ principles, held him for a while, but a year later, again in the South, at Collioure, he was moving towards a way of using colour which now looks like the absolute end of the road so far as any links with the French academic tradition go.
Making the escape from Divisionism together that summer, he and André Derain were as men possessed. Matisse declared that colour released an energy in him which seemed to come from witchcraft: ‘we were at that point like children before nature, and we let our temperaments speak ... I spoiled everything on principle, and worked as I felt, only by colour.’ The Collioure pictures were produced in an atmosphere of unbearable tension, marked by sleepless nights of ‘desperation and panic’ (the description is Georges Duthuit’s, writing forty years later). A tension that now seems almost unnecessary: as Spurling says, ‘it is not easy to understand today how paintings of light and colour, mediated through scenes of simple seaside domesticity ... could have seemed at the time, both to their perpetrator and to his public, an assault that threatened to undermine civilisation as they knew it. But Matisse was ... attempting to overturn a way of seeing evolved and accepted by the Western world for centuries ... He was substituting for their illusion of objectivity a conscious subjectivity, a 20th-century art that would draw its validity essentially from the painter’s own visual and emotional responses.’
To see just what was happening one has only to look at the Portrait of Madame Matisse, painted on his return to Paris later that year. Mme Matisse is shown full face. At first glance the face might seem arbitrarily coloured in. A green line runs down the middle, from brow to nose and chin. The hair is blue-black, the side of the face to the left of the green line is pale yellow; that to the right, flesh pink. The background is viridian to the right, pink-mauve top left, orange bottom left. Yet this image, which apparently overturns an ‘accepted way of seeing’, still acknowledges, as you realise if you squint at it through half-closed eyes, a light source (from the right), still indicates volumes by shadows – under the mouth, under the eyes and chin – and even modulates the line round the face from red to blue to green, to show a receding plane rather than a hard contour. Unlike the radically simplified portraits of a few years later, in which the conventions of tonal painting have been abandoned, the portrait of Mme Matisse stretches them to the limit – or rather, transposes them into a barbaric key. Information about shapes and colours is conveyed by way of information about the fall of light on an object, but the colours and brush marks with which the conveying is done are so far from the retinal facts that the result is also readable simply as flat pattern. The green line is on one reading a shadow, on another a highlight, and on yet another a streak of (say) green greasepaint. The alternative readings disturb one just as optical illusions do.
By comparison, Matisse’s bathers and dancers of 1907-10 are unworrying: the anatomical distortions are now a mannerism, little more extreme than those in Romanesque painting and sculpture. Decoration has its own conventions and the eye accepts them more easily. The assaults on convention of pictures like the portrait of Mme Matisse came from within the system; nothing so strong followed – from Matisse or anyone else. He had probably stretched the old language as far as was possible. The portrait had caused shock, and been received with derision. New moves in art, even when they seem to be purely technical – the Impressionists’ ideas about light, for example – need followers (artists, theorists, curators, collectors, critics) if novelty is to fructify. Spurling’s account of the dense web of personal connections and influences which tie Matisse’s early work to that of his contemporaries and predecessors makes one look not so much for influences as for permissions; it’s as though you can hear Matisse say: ‘Oh, so you’re allowed to do that,’ or ‘That is what I’ll do, whether I’m allowed to or not.’
Le Bonheur de vivre of 1905-6 asks for permission to commit many transgressions. It is a big picture, a little under five foot by eight. Because it finished up in the Barnes Collection, whose conditions forbade colour reproduction even as late as 1992, seen now in colour it has the kick of a work newly revealed: it tests your reactions. Indeed, it’s hard not to be embarrassed by it, not to share (shamefacedly, of course) some of the feelings expressed at its first public exhibition. Spurling quotes Janet Flanner: ‘Parisians who can still remember the event say that from the doorway, as they arrived at the salon, they heard shouts and were guided by them to an uproar of jeers, angry babble and screaming laughter, rising from the crowd that was milling in derision around the painter’s passionate view of joy.’ Groups of nude figures – all pale, some pink, some mauve, one yellow, two blue – are scattered in a forest glade. Most of the drawn and coloured-in figures are in classic poses which you (rightly) feel you could trace back to Titian or Ingres. There are a couple of piping shepherds and in the distance a ring of dancers who will appear in one form or another in later works. The ground is yellow, the grass mauve as well as green. Many of the figures are set off by strong background colours, the two central women with a kind of halo, orange below and green above. The right-hand figure has something of the rubbery smugness of one of James Thurber’s femmes fatales. The trees – orange, green, pink, yellow – are a little like those in Gauguin’s Tahitian landscapes.
Matisse had become a law unto himself. He had learnt to follow his own responses to his ‘crude’ colour, to his ‘misdrawing’. He called the picture ‘my Arcadia’, and said that he’d tried to ‘replace the vibrato’ – presumably the shimmering dots of the Divisionist paintings of the year before – ‘with a more responsive, more direct harmony, simple and frank enough to provide me with a restful surface’. Spurling describes it as a breakthrough to a ‘realm of sensuous and luxuriant calm’. I guess that’s the case, but I think we owe it to ourselves to go on feeling a bit awkward. When the passage of time makes things easy it’s partly because we have stopped seeing; it was heroic of Matisse to make this picture his sole submission to the Salon des Indépendents of 1906, but to consider it at all at that time was heroic as well. People were being asked to contemplate the death of the old tradition of nymphs and shepherds and welcome a new and shapeless crew who seemed to mock the whole pastoral tradition. Posters of the exhibition were defaced, and the critics at best hedged their bets, suggesting that Matisse was misusing his talents, that aesthetic dogma and theory had misled him. Among those who understood what the painting was about, however, was a future patron who would, along with members of the Stein family, help to turn Matisse from a respected leader of the avant-garde into a prosperous one. Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, a Russian merchant, bought so many of his important paintings that, up until the 1990s, all Matisse retrospectives had to confess to a major gap – none of the pictures held in St Petersburg could be included.
Spurling’s volume ends in 1908, with Matisse nearly 40 and working on the large ‘decorations’ – the bathers and dancers. If one then picks up the story in the 1920s with John Russell, via Matisse’s relations with his son, one misses out the work which gives weight to the idea that the Nice pictures, and even the late cut-paper works, show a lack of force, a falling-off of imagination. Consider some of the paintings that went to Russia: Dance (II) and Music, the Pink Studio of 1911 and the pictures inspired by his trips to North Africa – the Casbah Gate of 1912 and the Standing Riffian of 1912. Add to these the French Window at Collioure of 1914, the Piano Lesson of 1916, and The Morrocans and Bathers by a River, and one’s appetite for Spurling’s second volume becomes intense.
By the time Pierre Matisse set up his gallery in New York in 1924 his father was no longer tied to a single dealer; nor did he necessarily give his son first pick of what he was doing. The letters he wrote, particularly during the war when he was living in the South, separated from his wife and daughter, and suffering illness – he was operated on for bowel cancer – show him anxious and increasingly dependent on the comfort of letters from New York. The filial relationship was sound – and a contrast to the stresses inherent in the dealing relationship. While Pierre seems to have been a considerable diplomat who did well by his father with curators and collectors and kept the painters who were contracted to him or who showed with him happy, the interests of dealer and painter were not always the same and the feeling that a relationship that was supposed to be symbiotic had become parasitic might suddenly strike either party. In particular, under what the Americans called the French System, where a dealer agreed to buy a given proportion of a painter’s output at set prices, the dealer’s greatest profits might come from selling work which had been bought cheaply and held onto – the inventory of the Pierre Matisse Gallery was sold after his death for $142.8 million. The painter had security, the dealer made his money from a margin which, if he had judged well, and particularly if he held onto the work for a long time, could dwarf the price he paid the artist. But dealers had their problems. Not all bets were good ones. There were gallery overheads, and catalogues to be paid for. Collectors could be slow payers. Markets could fluctuate, and reputations fall.
John O’Brian’s Ruthless Hedonism: The American Reception of Matisse casts a great deal of light on the way in which a picture becomes valuable: as an object which offers prestige to the wealthy buyer, grounds for argument to the critic, and to the public at large an experience that validates the investment of all those who have by some tacit process agreed on its worth. Patronage is as much a romance as a business transaction. Collectors take a risk by putting their money where their taste is; dealers, museum curators and critics offer them security by building the reputations which keep prices stable or rising. O’Brian’s account of how the scandalous Matisse of the Armory show became America’s favourite French painter involves all these elements. Alfred H. Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, was both a scholar and a populariser. With Matisse his taste was severe: for the grey paintings from the 1910s. Although these were not necessarily the favourites of those on whom the Museum depended for bequests and donations (its acquisition budget was minuscule), Barr seems to have seen the education of collectors as being as much part of the job as the education of the public. O’Brian also tells how Matisse himself cultivated collectors. When Etta Cone visited him in Nice in 1933 – she was the biggest buyer of his rather small output of paintings from 1931 to 1936 – he had prepared a surprise for her. He had no new work to show her, but had installed in his bedroom a model in a yellow dress – just as she appeared in the picture he had painted a couple of years before which was already in the Cone collection. His father, at one time a frock salesman, would perhaps have recognised the spirit in which this customer was flattered.
The ‘Museum-Going Millionaires with a Taste for France’, as one of O’Brian’s chapter headings describes them, did not just buy ‘easy’ Matisses, but his account of how Matisses were sold raises the question of how far the painter could encourage his American market without being influenced by it. If the answer seems to be ‘to a very high degree’, one reason may be Picasso. It’s natural to see the two of them as complementary, as Modern Art’s Apollonian and Dionysian faces, but the relationship was real. Yve-Alain Bois, who describes and analyses their influence on one another in Matisse and Picasso (published to accompany an exhibition early last year in Fort Worth), compares them to chess players whose game advanced as a move by one was answered – sometimes decades later – by a move from the other. As one comparison follows another you wonder why you hadn’t noticed them before; the reason no doubt being those differences in personality which make it easy to think of the two as opposites. One conclusion you could draw is that, having cut himself adrift from the traditions in which he’d been brought up, Matisse still had the habit of emulation which marked it, and among his contemporaries there was only one artist worth emulating.
Not that emulation meant imitation. In his last years, Matisse was greatly upset by forgeries of his work. How could the individuality of his touch be real if even his son had to ask whether paintings were genuine or not? The Matisse brand was in danger. The value of a Matisse, like that of a Rolex or a bottle of scent, derives only partly from what it is; its history, too, matters. This isn’t the same argument as the one about the authenticity of paintings by Rembrandt. Rembrandt had pupils who, at their best, did wonderful things in his manner; the picture may be worth less, but its virtue as an image is intact. The competitive ‘imitate me if you can’ which painters could once throw out as a challenge is today no longer possible. The news is: if you can’t be original, hang up your palette – and unplug your video camera, too. For with Matisse and his contemporaries the emphasis in painting shifts from the object to the performance. Those photographs of the old man at work, although they might seem untrustworthy as part of the publicity campaign which, as O’Brian demonstrates, did much to create America’s Matisse – and ours – were signals that a particular kind of intimacy was being proffered. Imagining Matisse would now be part of looking at Matisse.
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