Women Reading : Notes on Henri Matisse

Dec. 31 is the birthday of an artist who repeatedly painted women captivated by books. It’s a relevant theme for pandemic life, in which reading has been a refuge for many of us.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954) often captured his models as if they were unaware of his presence. Over and over, Matisse painted women who appear to be sunk into the worlds created by the authors of good books.

He did this even before he evolved into the Matisse known so well by many art lovers. Would you have guessed the 1895 painting below was done by Matisse? The same Matisse was a leader in the early 20th experiments with bold colors and exuberant brushwork known as Fauvism?

There is nothing of the fauve (wild beast) in the sedate charming painting seen above. But around 1905, Matisse and fellow painters such as André Derain began to play around with color, using it to evoke emotion, to set the mood. Among the most famous examples of Fauvism are the two Matisse paintings shown below.

In 2020, the Matisse paintings that call most to me are those that show women reading.

Books have been a great solace for us this year. How wonderful to be able to escape from the news about the needless worsening of the pandemic and the heated claims from the White House. Let me know in a comment which books provided you a refuge of some hours from the woes of 2020.

Resistance Fighter

My favorite Matisse painting of a reader is the one shown below of his daughter. Marguerite (1894–1982) led quite an admirable life. She aided the French Resistance during World War II. The Gestapo imprisoned her for this 1944. She escaped during transport to a death camp and returned to her father in southern France. She took care of her father in his later years and worked to preserve his legacy after his death in 1954.

Marguerite was one of many people whose support made Matisse the artist he was. They helped make Matisse a painter whose influences extends into our time. Matisse had the good fortune and skill to maintain productive relations with benefactors during much of his career. We’d say today that Matisse built a strong support network for himself, a good step toward success in any endeavor.

Among Matisse’s benefactors were the Cone sisters whose family had a successful textile business. Claribel and Etta Cone traveled frequently to Europe to buy paintings as major trends in modern art were taking hold. It was a great time to be a person who loved beauty and possessed a nice-sized fortune.

Claribel Cone (1864–1929) had done postgraduate research as a pathologist at Johns Hopkins University in the 1890’s. That’s where she met Gertrude Stein (1874–1946), who then was studying medicine. Stein would later become a writer and an integral part of the artistic scene in early 20th century Paris. Etta Cone (1870–1949) was an amateur musician who managed the family household. (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography that includes works used in research on Matisse and on the Cone sisters.)

Stein and her brother Leo helped the Cone sisters meet artists, musicians, and writers in Paris who would influence their taste as collectors. Among these was Matisse, who would called Etta and Claribel Cone as his “two Baltimore ladies.”

The Cone sister would eventually donate a frankly magnificent collection of paintings to the Baltimore Museum of Art, including about 500 works by Matisse. These included the vibrant example of Fauvism shown below.

Don’t you love the contrast of seeing women buried under heavy skirts, which was proper custom for wealthy American ladies of the early 20th century, with the sensual lively painting they came to own?

“The public is against you, but the future is yours”

Another art collector who had a textile fortune also supported Matisse. Like Cone sisters, Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin (1854–1936) built a substantial collection of modern art, including many works by Matisse.

For many years, Shchukin would allow the public to view his treasures at his home in Moscow. He sought to introduce his countrymen to new trends. Then came the Russian Revolution of 1917. Shchukin eventually fled Russia and died in Paris in 1936. He had to leave behind his collection of modern art, including works by Matisse. Shchukin’s treasures are now scattered among Russian museums.

But in earlier happier times for Shchukin, the collector offered a bit of advice and encouragement to Matisse.

We today know Matisse as a giant among 20th century painters. We may forget how bold and unusual his artistic choices were as a young painter. We may not appreciate how difficult it may have been to break with tradition.

After all, it’s a heck of a leap from the rich earth tones and quiet subject of Matisse’s 1895 painting of a woman reading to his 1905 Fauvist portrait, shown below.

Shchukin saw great promise in the bold directions Matisse explored. It’s a rare biographical sketch or long article about Matisse that fails to include the following quote from a 1910 letter from the collector.

“The public is against you, but the future is yours,” Shchukin told Matisse.

Journalist fascinated by art, food, architecture, justice, politics, history and business. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 60 nations.

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