By early 1930, the announcement of Henri Matisse’s appointment as a juror for the Carnegie International was headline news. “Matisse is Coming,”

Matisse, Color, and His Critics

Large Reclining Nude, 1935

By early 1930, the announcement of Henri Matisse’s appointment as a juror for the Carnegie International was headline news. “Matisse is Coming,” rings the title of an article in The Art Digest – predecessor to Arts Magazine – describing him as “without a doubt, the world’s leading ‘modernist.’” It was on this trip that the 60-year old artist met with Dr. Alfred Barnes for the first time. The collector, who already owned many of Matisse’s works, immediately commissioned him to create a large-scale mural for the main hall of his home in the Philadelphia suburbs. He gave Matisse full reign in terms of subject and design – and The Dance was installed during the summer of 1933.

While creating the mural, the artist began using cutout shapes from colored paper to build up compositions, a technique which he favored through the end of his life. The expansive traveling exhibition, Matisse in the 1930s, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, presents this commission as the catalyst that drove Matisse to rejuvenate his approach to art.

Self-Portrait, 1937

Even as one of the most famous artists of the last century, Matisse’s reception by critics was often uneven. While he was celebrated as a masterful colorist, some disparaged his work — especially later in his career — as decorative. His intense focus on color only strengthened this impression. However, as early as 1908, when he was associated with the Fauves, Matisse embraced his decorative instincts, writing in Notes of a Painter, “Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.” 

Matisse Working on “The Dance” with Raudi, his schnauzer, filmed by Agnes Mitchell  

Matisse is frequently discussed in the pages of The Art Digest, which collected and published clips from articles around the world. Here, many critics laud his innovations with color. In February 1933, an extensive article for students does a deep dive explaining: 

What pigments constitute the palette from which this modern French master has formed his magnificent color harmonies and established his sincerest claim to lasting fame among his contemporaries, is a question which has long interested art students.

But, Matisse also draws criticism in these pages, including an excerpt in the very next issue  from a scathing review by Thomas Craven, for the New York Herald Tribune.

The higher values of art being almost absent in Matisse, it is almost impossible to discuss him in other than technical language. He is a pattern maker, whole motifs lend themselves to endless repetition; he is less a pictorial artist than a designer for stuffs to be sold by the yard.

Yellow Dress, 1929-1931

The current PMA exhibition, which presents more than 100 works by Matisse, including fascinating preparatory sketches and documentation of The Dance, demonstrates both of these tendencies: his facility with unexpected, vibrant color comes through, but so does the ornamentation, exaggerated in his later work by the almost garish color, flatness, and repetition in the paintings.

Matisse in the 1930s is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2600 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia, PA) through January 29, 2023.

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