At the Met—Matisse: In Search of True Painting

From the outset, this exhibition promises—and then eloquently delivers—an explication of Matisse's creative process. This it does with great clarity through a relatively concise but compelling selection of 49 paintings that juxtaposes—in groups of 2 or 3—various renditions of identical or similar subjects. The ensuing comparisons effectively demonstrate—both visually and through accompanying text—how Matisse explored compositional and spatial relationships, light and pattern, and the use of color as an expressive force.


Certain pieces especially manifest Matisse's influences, both those of contemporary art and the locations in which he worked. Above: Still Life with Purro I (1904) and Still Life with Purro II (1904–5), reminiscent of works by Paul Cézanne and Paul Signac respectively.

I have long admired Matisse's work, but until seeing this show had no idea of the particulars of his practice. The series of juxtapositions presented here are so well-suited to this type of exposition that one wonders why this method has not before been used to show Matisse's work. However it soon becomes apparent that, in fact, it has: one gallery of the Met's exhibition recreates three walls of the 1945 inaugural exhibition of Paris's Galerie Maeght. This installation showcased six Matisse paintings, each accompanied by photographs taken at intervals to document the evolution of that particular work. The display demonstrated Matisse's desire to reveal his paintings' development to his audience and, consequently, showed the intrinsic value he afforded to each piece's evolution.

The Large Blue Dress, 1937 (and photograph of its earlier state). Oil on canvas. 36 1/2 x 29 in. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. John Wintersteen, 1956. © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

A timeline of photographs in the previous gallery similarly evidences the progression of the painting "The Large Blue Dress" (above), and the presence of the dress itself makes this example all the more illuminating. The materiality of the skirt permits the viewer to note the creative license Matisse exercised in its portrayal, an observation also encouraged by the wall text; it highlights "the many ways that Matisse represented [the] ruffle," and further emphasizes Matisse's process by pointing out that he ultimately chose to delineate this feature by scratching into the paint. The physicality of this described action conjures a mental image of the artist at work, thereby further bringing to life Matisse's practice.

Interior with an Egyptian Curtain, 1948. Oil on canvas. 45 3/4 x 35 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. © 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Fully engaging but not overwhelming, this comprehensible show doles out a range of subjects and styles enticing in color and texture. In my opinion one can never have enough Matisse, and this exhibition strikes the perfect balance of elements—enlivening the senses and whetting the appetite, satisfying but leaving viewers eager for more.

NB: Fortunately for all, the exhibition lives in online form on the Met's website, along with the complete wall text, and a selection of images and videos.

Matisse: In Search of True Painting runs from Dec 4, 2012-Mar. 17, 2013. The Met is located at 1000 Fifth Avenue, entrance at 82nd. Hours are: Tue.-Thu. 9:30am-5:30pm, Fri.-Sat. 9:30am-9pm, Sun. 9:30am-5:30pm. Galleries are cleared 15 minutes prior to official closing. Closed Monday (except Met Holiday Mondays). Recommended admission: $25 for adults, $17 for seniors (65 and over), $12 for students. Admission is free for members and children under 12 (accompanied by an adult).

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