Matisse and How He Gets to America


There is little doubt as to the greatness of Henri Matisse as a Fauvist painter. He did indeed paint like a “wild beast” for many years. But when did this start and how was the message carried around the world?

Born on December 31, 1869 in the village of Le Cateau, Nord-Pas-de-Calais in France’s north east, he first went to Paris to study Law. But a bout of appendicitis brought him home to rest and it was then that he started to paint. His father was disappointed.

Regardless, a few years later when Matisse returned to Paris it was to study painting at the Academie Julian under Bouguereau and Gustave Moreau, two talented artists. Soon he learned about Cezanne and the impressionists and began selling paintings through art dealer, Amboise Vollard… without much success. He was married now and found himself without a sufficient income. Still, he continued to paint.

But things were about to change, even after critics described his work as Fauvist. The wild colors made them think of ‘wild beasts.’ And so, the Fauvist label stuck but things were not going well.

At the Salon d’Automme, he showed the picture “woman with a hat.” It was disturbing to most people but there is evidence that Gertrude Stein, her brother Leo, and older brother Michael and wife Sally were quite appalled that people, as Gertrude said, “tried to scratch the paint off the canvas.” She was not amused.

According to Gertrude, she made an offer for the painting at a fairly low price. The Matisses were very poor but they did enjoy their exciting view from the apartment at 27, quai St Michel near the Notre Dame Cathedral. Mme. Matisse operated a millinery shop on Rue de Chateaudun. Even though Matisse was poor and needed the sale, his wife talked him into sticking to his price of 500 francs or $100. The Stein family finally paid the price and Matisse could now by a view at one or the other’s salon. At that time, this was the way to certain success.

Matisse began visiting Gertrude on Saturday nights. In return, she introduced him to Picasso who was nine years younger. The two artists were not taken with each other. However, they were cordial and even exchanged paintings. There is a theory that each selected a weak painting to give the other as a sign of their questionable feelings. Yet, one can still see a Matisse in the first room of the Paris Picasso Museum where Picasso’s private collection (in part) hangs today. Soon, the two artists went their separate ways with Picasso turning to Cubism and Matisse continuing to impress with his Fauvist work.

A good example of Matisse’s work is a woman with a green line on her nose. I wonder if Matisse knew that the line on a nose would make it look wider; something well known by theatrical makeup artists.

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Little by little, Gertrude’s brother Michael and Sally began buying Matisse’s work. It was the Stein family that first brought Mattise’s work to North America.

Gertrude continued buying Picasso’s but the name Stein has always been associated with Matisse’s financial success. The family also talked Matisse into opening a non-profit art school where Sally Stein attended. But it didn’t last. By 1917, the Matisse family moved south to Cimiez, a suburb of Nice. There is a museum there dedicated to his work.

But taking the story one step farther. The creation of Matisse and Picasso as iconic artists whose sale prices soared, was not only contributed to by the Stein clan but also their friends from Baltimore, Dr. Clarabel and Etta Cone.

While the Steins were collecting so too were the Cones. Dr. Clarabel even picked up the partly finished or rejects from the floor of Picasso’s studio in Montmartre which they paid pennies for. The Cones were serious Matisse fans and many of his works joined Picasso’s at the Cone collection in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Matisse also had a daughter (Marguerite) who posed for him. During WWII she was a member of the French resistance, was captured and suffered torture in Ravensbruck.

As for Matisse’s wife Amelie — a sometimes model herself and the woman that suffered through his poor period where they had too little money to take dare and feed their own children – they eventually split up. It was over the working conditions in the house where Matisse’s housekeeper and sometimes model, known as Mme. Lydia came between the couple. Amelie moved out. Lydia stayed at his side from the time he became incapacitated to his death in Venice in 1954 at 84.

His last drawing was a ball point sketch of Lydia, done just before he died.

Picasso and Matisse had remained on speaking terms over the years but nothing more. Though did have a certain respect for each other, we cannot minimize the fact that the two painters would probably have been successful without the help of the Stein’s and the Cone sisters. Having said that, we cannot minimize the power of the Stein’s to see talent before others. That is not to say that Matisse or Picasso had no other patrons. Both men were lucky to have been discovered by the Stein’s but the Vollard connection helped and both artists prospered; partly because they both attended some of Gertrude’s “Saturday Nights.” The exposure sprouted interest.

To see the museums of Picasso and Matisse go to Hotel Sale in the Marais district of Paris or The Matisse Museum at Cimiez.

Finally: There is a question as to who actually bought the Lady with a Hat. History shows that it might not have been Gertrude, who originally did not like the painting, but rather Michael’s wife Sally. After all, the painting did hang at the senior Stein’s house on rue Madame and not his sister’s house on rue de Fleurus. It was also the center of attention in the Sr. Stein’s home years later in Palo Alto, California.

Recommended reading: Francoise Gilot,

Matisse & Picasso:A Friendship in Art. Talese/Doubleday New York 1990.

Also: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (her opinion).

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