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Twice the Matisse

Post #1564 • August 3, 2012, 2:44 PM • 7 Comments

[Image: Henri Matisse, Nasturtiums with the Painting "Dance" I, 1912, oil on canvas, 75.5 x 45 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, © Succession H. Matisse/BilledKunst Copydan 2012]

Henri Matisse, Nasturtiums with the Painting "Dance" I, 1912, oil on canvas, 75.5 x 45 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, © Succession H. Matisse/BilledKunst Copydan 2012

I featured a Matisse exhibition in Copenhagen at The New York Sun, prompting this exchange with my editor:

Ed.: He could paint. What do you think his secret was? The underpainting?

Me: Yes, the underpainting. Specifically, grays. The colorist of the century worked his magic on a template of grays. I remember figuring that out at the MoMA show a couple of years ago and I'm still a little annoyed. After I post, I'm off to the easel to do something about it...

Ed.: You're not going to tell me that grays are under it. Wouldn't that be reds or something?

Me: Grays. I know, right?

[Image: (]


Me: Especially in the later work he used a system of underpainting that wouldn't have been alien to Ingres.

Ed.: Look just to the right of her shoulder. The gray part above the red rug. You think the gray there is under the red or over it?

Me: Both, if I had to guess, and it's the thickest paint on the picture. More telling is the green dress and that weird orange leaf shape enclosed by the right edge of the neck of the vase and that black cloth. I would even argue that there are a couple of gray notes in the left-hand orange on the table. This color sophistication distinguishes Matisse from lesser Fauves. Maybe this one is an even more apt example. It would be natural to start a painting this big in monochrome anyway, but Matisse is doing something rather extraordinary with it. I'm still trying to get my head around it. Let's go see the show when it comes to the Met in December. Grays, I'm telling you.




Chris Rywalt

August 3, 2012, 4:08 PM

I haven't looked closely enough at Matisse to see any gray underpainting. I'd be quite surprised.

I've been looking extremely closely at Van Gogh, though, thanks to Google Art, which has some remarkably close photos of Van Gogh's work in the Met. I mean, they're almost electron micrographs. Even if I could get my nose that close to a Van Gogh surface, my eyes couldn't focus. It's really amazing. Anyway, what I've noticed is, in addition to Van Gogh's famously thick, energetic paint, and the way he activates so much of his brushstroke by not thoroughly mixing different colors but letting them rub shoulders on the brush and therefore on the surface, like an aggie; in addition to all that, he lets a lot of raw and only vaguely primed canvas show through, which really activates the surface.

I've been developing—or was developing, when I was painting—an appreciation for the activated surface, by which I mean a surface which maintains visual interest across a wide area, even if it's sort of featureless. (Obviously nothing completely featureless is likely to be very interesting; I'm trying to suggest an area that's intentionally left blank, or filled with one color, or just generally not considered detailed.) So paper, very nice paper especially, has an intrinsic interest—it's activated. Whereas when I laid a very smooth coat of gesso on a birch panel, it's completely featureless and extremely inactive, which is to say boring as all heck. A lovely ink outline on paper would be lovely, but the same black outline on my gessoed panel drops dead, because the paper is activated.

What I found, looking so closely at Van Gogh, is a very activated surface. Obviously his compositions are wonderful, and then at the level of the brushstroke he's so alive, but even at the level of the canvas, where you can see it, you can see the way the paint skips over the weave, catches on certain threads—it all lends a lot of visual interest which I think leads to at least part of why a Van Gogh looks so damned good.

I don't get that from Matisse, alas.

Check Matisse in Google Art—I can't right now because it's been crashing my browser—not Google's fault, it's the set-up I have at the moment—and see if you can see anything.


Walter Darby Bannard

August 3, 2012, 4:17 PM

Painting is color on a flat surface. One of the basic problems in painting is that when you paint an area and then paint another area and then another you get what I tell students is a "checkerboard", a visually uninteresting surface of opaque areas divided off from one another. If you are Mondrian you go with that and make the best of it. Otherwise you devise ways to make the surface live. This is very basic.

Realist pictures have modeling and an illusion of deep space so you have a "box" and you can fill it up with interesting depicted things. When abstract painting came along it lost deep space and had to invent other ways to circumvent the checkerboard problem, such as shallow illusionist space with centering (Cubism), shallow space with holes in it (Pollock), big-area simplicity (Rothko), atomizing the surface (Olitski), staining and pale coloration (Frankenthaler), "boiling" the surface with hyperactive paint strokes (many artists), and on and on. (This is very oversimplified, of course.)

Matisse used realist devices structurally and often used simplification but his great skill was to never let an area die. He was exquisitely sensitive to surface, to what the brush was doing, much more than he was to the subject matter, which was there to serve the paint rather than the other way around. Even when he painted large, solid areas they were never quite solid and never went dead and boring, and even when he messed up in part of a painting, and he did, a lot, every inch is alive with his hand and eye. Underpainting is part of this—you can even see it in the reproductions here. Keeping the paint thin (to avoid what I call the "evil smudge" of opaque paint), underpainting with grays, and keeping most colors light, is one of the basic and least understood foundations of rich and lively color. Of course it also helps to have an eye like his.


Alan Pocaro

August 3, 2012, 10:09 PM

I may be a bit bleary-eyed from a six-hour round-trip of apartment hunting in Champaign-Urbana, but moreso than grays, I always regarded Matisse's fine sense of color as primarily due to his exceptionally judicious deployment of black. I point here and here as examples. Interior with Violin uses a lot less black comparatively, but without it, the colors wouldn't have the "pop" that Matisse's thin, watery, and (sorry) otherwise dull surfaces are able to deliver over and over again. Matisse may be one of the few painters I truly admire who can make such casual-looking works simultaneously appear to be so solid.


John Link

August 4, 2012, 5:54 PM

I found long ago that staining the canvas black or charcoal before sizing is a very good way to jazz up color, and I do it frequently. Bright yellow worked once too.

I also found that staining it bright red or bright blue before sizing was a good way to kill color.


George Bethea

August 4, 2012, 7:12 PM

I agree about the use of thin, transparent paint, but from what I've seen it's usually on a white ground.



August 5, 2012, 8:04 AM

Blue underpainting is insanely destructive, which is a mystery, because it works so well in watercolor.

The Google Art Project seems to have no Matisse whatsoever.


Walter Darby Bannard

August 5, 2012, 10:56 AM

Blue is a very unfriendly base color. It kills earth colors and warm colors. I have tried blue base layers and it is pure poison.

Alan, Matisse was a wizard with black but usually as a surface color rather than underpainting.



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