Matisse’s oeuvre can be divided into numerous periods, (and not just for curatorial convenience), too many to list here, but each stylistically distinct from the previous (though not so obviously as with Picasso), and with a different set of priorities both formal and expressive, much more so than might appear to the casual observer.
I choose to write about this particular picture, The Baroness Gourgaud, almost certainly a commissioned portrait from the wealthy Baron, partly because it is one of Matisse’s finest portraits, utterly different in character from the great Madame Matisse in Rouge Madras 1907, (Barnes Foundation), or Auguste Pellerin, 1916, or Woman in a Turban, (Laurette) 1917, (Cone Collection, Baltimore), but also because it reveals many of the devices he had learned from Persian and Indian miniatures, by which Matisse ordered his spaces in the more relaxed setting afforded by the early Nice years, after the intensity of his engagement with Picasso’s and Braque’s cubism, to which the Pellerin portrait attests, during the first world war, the so-called “Radical Years”. But Matisse was always “radical” in ways which escaped most commentators then and now, who tend to downgrade the Nice years for reasons which amount to no more than Puritanism and philistinism. Renoir’s sensuality accrues similar opprobrium, quite unjustly.
John Golding writes: ”But basically for him [Matisse] the decorative came to mean an allegiance to the totality of the painted surface and to the overall spiritual and emotional aura that radiated from it… Matisse is one of the very few Western artists who have been able to invest pattern, normally associated with flatness, with spatial properties”. (Matisse and Picasso, Tate Modern 2002). [Braque in the 1930’s is another]. And Matisse himself said: “Persian miniatures… through their accessories… suggest larger spaces, a more truly plastic space. That helped me to go beyond the painting of intimacy”. (Dominique Fourcade ed. Matisse – Ecrits et propos sur l’art. Paris 1972 page 203). The intimacy would return with paintings like that of The Baroness, however.
Matisse had demonstrated (well nigh programmatically) his gains from a study of Islamic art chiefly in his still lives and studio interiors – Still Life with Aubergines 1911, (Grenoble), Pink Studio,1911, (Pushkin Museum, Moscow), and The Painter’s Family 1911, (The Hermitage, Leningrad); or Moorish Screen 1922, (Philadelphia). But by 1924 this preoccupation with patterned surfaces which indicate various distances from the plane of the picture by gradually reducing the size and boldness of the inflected strokes which register these patterns, had begun to be combined with more “Western” norms of plasticity, perspectivally receding planes, bold diagonal lines which tip the planes inward, yet not really, table-tops raking from emphatically delineated foreground to ambiguous “depth”, The Black Table 1919,(p.c. Switzerland), and a greater emphasis on the textural feel of different substances, fabrics etc.
The Baroness Gourgaud 1924, (Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris) is a consummate example of this fusion, manifesting Matisse’s “touch” at its most delicate and sensuous, a “condensation of sensation”, a symphony of blue-tinted light, a well nigh miraculous evocation of a moment in subjective time, bearing little or no relation to the way we actually see the space of rooms and personages in quotidian experience, and a mood which exudes the kind of emotion which poetry aspires to, but which only a great painting such as this can embody.
It is almost futile to try to describe how this is done, dependent as it is on the complete absorption of the artist’s feeling in face of his model, and the direct transmission of this feeling through the quietistic submission to the hard-won achievement of the by now unconscious gift of a mastering of impulse, when “the respectful craft obeys, because it knows the language so well” (Cezanne, according to Emile Bernard). But we are here talking about the formal devices employed, as a stepping stone to an understanding of how the painting “works”. Needless to say, these same devices could be, and have been, employed by lesser artists to numbing effect, nullifying the quality of the original, or trying to.
Our habits of perception tend to situate the subject of the picture, the Baroness, in shallow depth within the fictive space of the picture, although on closer inspection her face, looking straight at us, is as forward as anything else in view, and as we concentrate on it, the rest of the picture falls away. This suggestion of depth is reinforced by a foregrounded figure, with her back to us, whose extended arm, shaded cylindrically (as is her neck) moves “into” the picture from the yellow flattish but very slightly modelled shape of her shoulder ,which marks the most salient plane, the right hand bottom corner of the picture.
The cylindrically foreshortened forearm of this prominent figure reduces in perspective to meet a black wristband (or watchstrap) abruptly turning at the wrist to a fingerless hand, laying on top of one of a number of books, opened and subtly shaded in blue-greys, which rests on an ovoidal table-top covered with a cloth patterned with roses, delicately touched in with Matisse’s characteristically semi-transparent dabs and commas of fluid oil paint. The roughly ‘L’-shaped arm movement is mirrored in recession by the right arm and hand of the Baroness, who is wearing a blue and black blouse with semi-transparent sleeves, rendered with more of the delicate dabs and commas that decorate the table-top. Thus far, if we follow that route designated by the echoing arms, we are some way into the space or spaces of the picture, except that when we meet the gaze of the Baroness, she seems present in a way that negates the logic of this subtle perspective.
“Behind” her right shoulder, we see a mirror reflection of her back, the dabbings of the blouse smaller, reduced in scale (as in the Persian miniatures), the back of her chair and a slightly modelled brown ovoid, smaller and less coiffed than logic would expect, indicating the back of her head, although where the supposed mirror begins or ends is not at all clear unless the reflection of a pale blue window, further “behind” this reflected head is thought to indicate a window situated behind our heads as observers (as in Manet’s Bar).
The cursory, almost flat treatment of the black head or hat of the yellow-clad foreground figure, the largest blob in the picture, and the brown blob of hair in the mirror, act as recessional foils on opposite sides of the picture, against which the Baroness’s features loom out from her dark brown tiara of primly cropped hair. Her features are beautifully modelled in cream and grey shading, with a darker grey centre parting to her forehead, echoing Matisse’s discoveries in The Green Line, 1905, accentuating the fine sharpness of the ridge of her nose and the repressed sensuality of her nostrils and lips. And her darkly lined eyes miraculously indicate a deeply melancholy personality, miraculous because this effect is achieved with a few simple but dramatic arched black lines, the pupil of each eye no more than a black dot.
Immediately to the opposite side of her face from the blob in the mirror, almost at her eye-level, sits a vase of flowers, (more dabs), very much reduced in scale, indicating “further away”, resting on the edge of a table which thus appears to be “in another room” further within the fictive spaces, with a red floor cross-hatched in brown, which does and does not recede to the back wall of this room, and a view through a curve-topped window to the sea beyond with a sail indicating “boat”; and the balustrade of this window reduced in scale accordingly, and less strongly saturated in colour to enhance the supposition of further away.
However, these scalar reductions apart, if we read across the top areas of the picture laterally from left to right, the vertical strokes which indicate mirror(?), doorway, furniture, far wall, window, interior doorway, screen shaded in black, and the sequence of colours which register them, are virtually all on one continuous plane closely identified with the canvas surface itself. It is only the inward curving of the top of the screen, and the perspectival angle at its base, echoed at the corner where the red floor meets the back wall of the inner room, that leads us to see a perspectival recession in these background areas of the picture. It is the larger scale of the yellow clad foreground figure with her dominant black hair (or hat?) and her columnar neck and thrusting inward arm which clinches the sense of a spatial depth receding to the inner window and beyond. Our visual habits are thus confirmed, when so much else in the picture conspires to deny them.
One returns to the almost imperceptible delicacy of the shading of the Baroness’s hands, the deceptively childlike simplicity of the dabbing in of the pearl necklace around her neck, the modelling of her features, the expression of the eyes, the vase of flowers, the subtle transitions from the near-flat yellow shoulder of the first lady to the shading of her upper arm, “flat and not flat”, the paler shading of her elbow as it meets illumination reflecting from the table-top etc., etc. (qualities admired by Milton Avery for one).
It is this inimitable “touch” of Matisse that is so often highlighted by connoisseurs, and rightly so. Compare it to, say, Bonnard’s “inspired timidity” (P. Heron), or Renoir’s, which influences these Nice years. Without it there would be no Matisse, and no great painting, even when all other aspects of the style are taken into account. Not that it remained unchanged throughout his development. But these early Nice years conspired to produce pictures which in their quiet plenitude, richly ornamented detail, and sheer subtlety and brilliance of colour orchestration, rival, and no doubt are intended to rival, some of the masters of painting in this mode: Vermeer’s late small portraits, Girl with a Red Hat 1666-67,(Washington Nat. Gall.), Delacroix’s Femmes D’Alger crossed with Ingres’ Madame Marcotte de Sainte-Marie, 1826 (Louvre), Corot’s Jewish/Algerian Woman,1870 (p.c.) or something of Renoir’s nacreous glazes in La Loge, (Courtauld), Madame Heriot,1882, Odalisque,1870, and Madame Clementine Stora in Algerian Dress.
[Compare Renoir’s Sailor Boy (Robert Nunes) and Girl with a Parasol (Alice Nunes) 1883 with Matisse’s Boy with Butterfly Net, and Girl with Parasol and Shawl, and Rose in Ear].
Matisse’s long standing rivalry with Renoir is often oblique or covert, but in the Nice years becomes more obvious. It influenced both his Moroccan period and his Odalisques of the 1930’s. The range of Matisse’s powers of assimilation from his predominantly French forebears, synthesising apparently opposing streams of influence, from both Delacroix and Ingres for instance, is a constant source of surprise as new affinities emerge. Nor was he the first to fall under the spell of Orientalist themes, which preceded even Delacroix’s visits to Morocco and Algeria in 1832-34.
In particular the remarkable English painter and watercolourist John Frederick Lewis anticipated the spatial organisation of interiors by incorporating devices from Islamic, Persian and Indian miniatures as early as the 1850’s, of whom John Sweetman writes: ”This psychological separation of figures by background horizontals and verticals parallel to the picture plane has notable counterparts in Persian painting… in the end Lewis avoids pastiche and marries his jewel-like dabs of colour to European methods of space-presentation”. And: “…returning from Egypt in 1850. But by then, with ten years study of Egyptian light and the two-dimensional expanses of Islamic screens and tile-work behind him, he was committed to the experiment of opening closely meditated classical compositions to the invasion of that light and pattern… Space is seen in terms of adjoining sectors rather than as a continuum defined by perspective… to set these patterns against the corporeality of figures and render both as a totally integrated surface.” And: “he castigated Millais in the street for ‘unseemly loading’ of his canvas with paint”. (The Orientalist Obsession – Pages 134-139.)
I mention all this just to indicate that the more one enters into a pursuit of any pictorial or poetic theme, the more resonances with its past are revealed. It becomes harder and harder to identify its originating impulse in an eternal regress to the earliest of recorded pictorial time. There truly is “nothing new under the sun”, although in the foreshortened vision of the up-to-date it may be difficult to recognise this.
Conversely there are connotations in the “scented languor” of the Odalisque theme that clearly belong to the 19th century, and Matisse, by adopting it, is rescuing it from a by then corrupted and decadent recent history of Salon kitsch (but that’s a story for another day).
How far Matisse had come since the perfervid nervous agitation of the height of his “fauvism”! In Madame Matisse, Woman with a Hat of 1906 he had risked disintegration of the whole image in pursuit of an intense frisson of light-creating oppositions (as he had learnt it from divisionist practices); a troubled and in many ways incoherent picture, a hybrid, marking the coming together of incompatible styles of representation, but at the birthpoint of a major discovery. It, and the “Radical Years” of cubist assimilation which followed, test conventions of “realist” representation, and the representation of spatial depth to the limits. Their relationship to observable reality as commonly and lazily understood is thus fractious and confrontational.
The result is a discordant three-tiered (at least) series of disjunctions. Madame Matisse does not “wear” the hat. It is perched on top of her features like a gigantic paper mache construct seen front on, and tipped up to meet the picture plane, while her head, seen from an oblique angle, is colouristically modelled as described, with an abrupt transition at the flat neck to the contraposto of her chest, which is obscured by a reflecting bib designed to light up her face. Meanwhile her foregrounded right arm and shapelessly wooden hand jut out awkwardly.
Interest in the division of tones originally came from outside painting, from the budding science of optics and of the phenomenology of perception. Matisse realised that it was not an objective science to be applied systematically by all and sundry, or even by gifted painters. It needed to be sensed intuitively in the Crocean manner, by an active attention of the spirit, and that the anti-naturalistic effect of the side-by-side placing of complementary colours was so marked, that it required a conceptual element taking it far from a humble recording of observable fact.
Just as in Picasso’s proto-cubist drawings, indeed in all drawing, cubist or otherwise, there is a conceptual element – you have to think it before you can draw it (as in jazz, what you can’t sing you can’t play) – so in Matisse’s fauvism there is a search for a Cezannian form-creating purpose for the pulses of light generated by these oppositions of pure, though often not so pure, colour, and one which would spread to involve the entire painted image, not dissipate itself in isolated nervously agitated incidents, (a lesson lost on some of the other fauves).
Thus by the time of The Moroccans 1916, Matisse has combined the rendering of light-bathed figures and objects with a larger pictorial schema (following his wrestling with cubism) which overcame the centripetal bias, the tendency to centralise which a preoccupation with volumetric depiction had compelled on the analytical phase of cubism.
In contrast, the Baroness’s portrait seemingly embodies a more relaxed relationship to the dilemmas of pictorial architecture, and to the everyday gaze with which we intake our domestic surroundings. But this is only seeming, since the lessons of these radical years are all there, inbuilt, implicit; they have attained the level of the semi-involuntary, though not merely of habit. Matisse reconfigures his rooms in accordance with innovations in pictorial priority as before. In Woman with a Hat, 1906, the colour oppositions are in a certain sense “arbitrary”, but there is a supererogatory logic at work; light generated by colour contrast is made to turn corners in the service of the double function of the placing of the volume of the head in space, whilst adjusting it to the plane of the picture. The planes of the face, neck, and shoulders are not delineated as material bodily surfaces, flesh-coloured, as in the Baroness’s portrait, but as opportunities to reflect light, almost as if the features of Madame Matisse exist independently of their fleshly protuberances, as merely prismatic effusions, to be captured by a concatenation of light-creating nodes of colour. This is an anti-naturalism put in the service of a higher form of naturalistic depiction. I do not think for an instant that Matisse was fully conscious of what he was doing – that is the magic of it. He was in trance-like thrall to the compelling dislogic of the demands of his art at this point in its evolution.
To place Woman with a Hat 1906 side-by-side with the Baroness Gourgaud 1924 would be to witness extraordinary gains, and precious few losses in the enfolding grandeur of Matisse’s art. And these gains, in rendering the space and its ambient atmosphere (subjectively held together in consciousness) in which a human subject, a living person is present to us, are coupled with an emotional depth conveyed by intangible though evident means, centred on the Baroness’s facial expression, but resonating to involve the whole of the spaces depicted.
What we are presented with, in the end, is the painter’s feeling, a unique moment of identification with the full tragic presence of another person’s life, which we are customarily too impatient or too callous to notice: a quality all too rare amongst even the most celebrated of painters. This is Golding’s (or Benjamin’s) “aura”. And it is there despite the efforts of cynics to deny or undermine it.
ALAN GOUK December 3rd 2015.
Footnote: See Orientalism by P.A. Renoir 1841-1919 and his Algerian Quest. Barbara Wells Sarudy July 23 2014 It’s About Time.
See also The Orientalist Obsession by John Sweetman , Cambridge University Press 1988.