Henri Matisse’s painting of Mlle. Yvonne Landsberg is considered to be one of his most mysterious portraits. Strange curving lines emanate from her figure. Hints of colors peek out from under a cover of grey. Her pupilless eyes are ethereal.
A bit too “alien from another planet”? If someone went to the time and expense to have Matisse paint their portrait, shouldn’t he make her look beautiful?
Evaluating whether or not Mlle Yvonne Landsberg or any other work of art is “beautiful” is often a dead end; too many preconceived judgments get in the way. Toss “beauty” aside.
Works of art are expeditions of line, color, shape, form, value (light and shadow), texture, and space. It’s not just how these elements are seen; it’s how they work together. How the artist has chosen to reveal them is felt as much as seen.
Some works of art are an experience, an invitation from the artist to try a new way of viewing the world. Several portraits by Matisse offer an opportunity to wander through his creative process during one of the most radical phases of his career that led to the portrait of Yvonne.
Before Matisse painted Yvonne’s portrait, he was best known for his use of wild colors and patterns to construct form and meddle with space, depth, and movement. For example, Red Madras Headdress is a portrait of his wife, Amélie, from 1907. The placement of curving orange shapes against the cool blue background of her dress forms a color contrast that enlivens the pattern with energy. The effect advances the illusion that her figure is rounded and three-dimensional. At the same time, Matisse emphasizes that it’s a picture on a flat canvas: her left arm rests on the back of the chair, but where does the arm go? The background has no defined space or objects to suggest depth.
Her big dark eyes look directly at the viewer, that is, until you follow the line of her right eyebrow as it curves down, turns green, and defines the shape of her nose from the side. How can she look straight ahead and to the side at the same time? There’s nothing like conversing with an inanimate object; Amélie has just turned her head in reaction something the viewer has just said.
Shocked? Horrified? Angry? Viewers were. In February 1913, seventeen works of art by Matisse, including Red Madras Headdress, were shown in the International Exhibition of Modern Art at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City. Critics described Matisse’s work as perverse, offensive, monstrous, vulgar, and grotesque. When the exhibition traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago, the students burned Matisse’s paintings in effigy.
In 1913, the changes in art, society and politics were about to become explosive. Some thought that the revolution in modern art on view at the Armory Show was symptomatic of other changes that were threatening western civilization.
On the eve of World War One, as his colleagues headed off to war, forty-four year-old Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) volunteered for military duty but was rejected due to a heart condition. He lodged a complaint with a government minister, who replied with a suggestion, “What you can do is continue to paint well.” With the sound of shells exploding near his studio in Paris, Matisse set aside the techniques for which he was best known to explore what else was possible. He would contribute to the continuum of great French art at the same time that an enemy was trying to destroy France.
Another portrait that Matisse painted of his wife during the summer of 1913 illustrates the new direction he has taken.
The process was meticulously slow and difficult. Amélie posed for her husband at least one-hundred times while he scraped out, repositioned, and repainted her figure and the chair over and over again.
Matisse set the use of bright colorful patterns aside to concentrate his focus on constructing and deconstructing form.
Greys seep into the background and into her neck and right shoulder.
Underlying greens cross the lines and spill into her neck, face, hair, and hat.
The areas between the chair and her shoulders are indefinite.
Her twisted orange scarf curves over her right shoulder, disappears behind her back, and reappears on the other side, flattened, against her left arm.
The outline of her handbag has been cut through the layers of paint and into the surface of the canvas. Its contents and the orange scarf can be seen through and behind it; the handbag is transparent.
Why happened to Amélie’s big dark eyes, rosy cheeks, and warm lips?
In the late 1800s – early 1900s, due to colonization and exploration, thousands of African artifacts were plundered and then exhibited in museums and sold in pawn shops and flea markets throughout Europe. Without understanding the original function or meaning of these works, Matisse and other artists were taken by the directness, sophisticated simplicity, and non-naturalistic qualities of these works. At a time when Europe was descending into war, these artifacts that were free of Western influences offered a mode of presumed pure expression.
Some of the more avant-garde artists began to incorporate similar aesthetics into their works. Instead of creating mask-like faces to hide the sitter’s identity, Matisse used their elements of design as an authentic means to reveal an emerging theory at the time, the concept of The Unconscious. Madame Matisse was consciously unhappy. She cried when she saw this portrait.
Over the next several months, from January to July 1914, Matisse painted over a dozen works, grappling with the artistic challenges and possibilities that arose while painting Portrait of Madame Matisse.
Perhaps Amélie needed a break because his next sitter was the wife of a friend. This time, Matisse structures the figure into a grid of vertical and horizontal planes.
To breathe space and volume into her rectangular, vertical form, Matisse breaks the outline of her shape by extending the grey background into her right hip and thigh. Detached from the stool, they hover and float.
Behind her back, the tabletop’s left edge tilts up slightly and is transparent. To the right, the tabletop is orange and solid enough to hold a piece of white paper and cast a shadow. A painting of a bird hangs on the wall above.
However, the outlines of the tabletop’s right and left edges, which should convey perspective, are at different angles. The baseboard is visible through the table’s only leg. Is there a floor? Are there walls? Was there once a window behind her head?
It’s not that Matisse painted a picture and then covered it with gray, but that he built it up deliberately to become gray. The underlying layers of blue, green, and orange-red not only imply the volumes of her figure, the stool, and the table, the colors tether them to the canvas.
Sometime during early 1914, while Matisse was in the midst of one of the most radically experimental periods of his career, his twenty-year-old daughter, Marguerite, befriended two siblings, Yvonne and Albert Landsberg. The Landsbergs were a wealthy Brazilian family living in Paris just before the outbreak of World War One. Although nineteen-year-old Yvonne was painfully shy, she enjoyed talking with Monsieur Matisse; he was taken by her extraordinary intelligence.
Hoping that the experience of having her portrait painted would increase Yvonne’s confidence, Madame Landsberg initially considered hiring someone like Paul-César Helleu, who was best known for his portraits of beautiful society women.
Helleu; Head of Woman, late 1800s; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 19985-52-25557
Not fully understanding the implications of “radically experimental”, Madame Landsberg was persuaded by her son to instead hire Matisse. Madame Landsberg and Henri Matisse struck a deal: he would be given complete artistic freedom; if she didn’t like it, she didn’t have to buy it.
The sittings began in early June 1914. Matisse made numerous drawings throughout the process. (Clockwise, from left: Philadelphia Museum of Art 2003-53-3, 2003-53-2; 2003-52-1; all July 1914)
Albert, as his sister’s chaperone, attended each session and wrote about the experience. He recounted that with each session, the portrait seemed to resemble her less but it became, as he put it, more spiritual, like his sister.
Despite the many changes made to the oil painting, conservators have identified numerous phases in the portrait’s evolution.*
Matisse began by painting the entire canvas white and then lightly sketched the contours of Yvonne’s figure with black lines.
He then expanded her sketched form and surrounding space with thin washes of tan and light black paint. He added several darker lines over the wash.
Next, Matisse built up her form with thick applications of pale blue-gray paint to approximate major volumes.
Using a wide tool, as a sculptor might use a chisel, Matisse scraped away some areas of black paint to adjust the shape of her shoulders and hips. This left tracks in the lower layer of black paint and exposed the texture of the weave of the canvas.
To emphasize certain contours, he added strokes of steel grey, for example, on the sides of her nose, inside her left arm, and against her torso.
Matisse added a thick layer of black paint over some of the grey areas, especially to enclose her hips and legs.
Then, while the paint was still wet, he used a thin, needle-like tool to quickly sketch long, vertical planes from her hips, scratching right down to the surface. Next, he wiped across the surface to leave a thin black film on the incised lines.
Using the same black, thick inky lines were painted across her figure. These straight lines run down and across her torso, turning parts of her form into geometric shapes. These shapes challenge the appearance of volume that he previously established through painting, scraping, and incising.
While the paint was still wet, Matisse shaped these thick lines by further incising. Her form is partially created by the layers of scraped paint that project from and cut into the canvas.
Matisse then reinforced her scraped and scratched face by adding a thick, black curve that runs around the contour of her jaw and chin. This dense curve stands out among the other blacks on the canvas and creates the effect of a deeper space behind her eyes, chin, and sides of the body. Her neck is thickened by six parallel vertical strokes.
After this paint dried, Matisse returned to certain areas, such as Yvonne’s long hair, to score, scratch, and carve away the edges, which reveals the gray below and produces a secondary shadow effect.
In some areas, for example at the tip of her fingers, the rich black paint resisted adherence to the canvas and pooled in open, lacelike trails of color from the brush.
At this point in the process, the results were already quite dramatic and open to interpretation. Do her shoulders appear to be rounded or is her posture erect? Are her arms and hands relaxed or uncomfortably straight? Does her figure bend at the waist or is it straight like a broomstick? Do the black lines around her figure imply a constricted sexuality or do they create room for a burgeoning sexuality?
Sometime around July 12, during the final moments of the last sitting, Albert and Yvonne watched Matisse reverse his paint brushes and, with their wooden ends, scratch wide arching lines that radiated from her shoulders and hips and echoed the curve of her hair and arms of the chair. A drawing made of Yvonne by Matisse sometime in June shows similar lines around her figure; it’s unlikely they were made spontaneously.
From her neck and collar, three lines from either side curve outwardly in a heart shape and end around the midportion of her figure.
Below her waist, the outermost curves that extend between her elbow and thigh appear to be part of the chair; they frame and enthrone her figure.
Two inner lines curve and widen her figure.
On the other side, two incised lines project from her hands off the edge of the canvas. They suggest movement and also expand her figure.
Asked about the lines, Matisse said they were “lines of construction” that gave the figure “greater amplitude in space.”
Little is known about what the entire experience was like for Yvonne; her brother said she loved the portrait. One wonders how she felt when her mother declined to purchase it. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The Landsbergs returned to Brazil in August.
Matisse sent the painting to an exhibition in New York, where it was purchased in 1915 by Louise and Walter Arensberg. The portrait later became part of their bequest to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Toward the end of the war, when Matisse decided he had gone as far he as wanted toward abstraction, he moved on. New challenges were about to affect his art and life.
Over one-hundred years later, the painting is still a mystery. Do the allusions to expansion and contraction represent parts of Yvonne’s personality, her intelligence and curiosity as well her shy discomfort and self-consciousness?
There is at least one optimistic point of view, that perhaps Matisse built an armature of possibilities for Yvonne that roots her into the base of the picture and grows from the center outward like branches on a tree. Imaginably, the lines don’t rest but rise and expand off of the canvas in rhythm, beating like a heart and breathing like bellows. The vaporous layers of underlying green that slowly become increasingly perceptible break away from the ground of the canvas and through the layers of paint are in evolution. The resolution of the dissolution and reconstruction of her form is complicated, just as it is in life, in interwoven intensities.
Perhaps the portrait is an image of the process of becoming and regenerating woven into a structure of transforming layers revealed by the passage of time.
Perhaps Matisse made a portrait of the person that he wished Yvonne would become, self-awakened and too self-assured to care if others thought she was “beautiful”.
Perhaps the act of creation, for both Yvonne Landsberg and Henri Matisse, is the subject.
It’s not just how they are seen, it’s how they work together. How they reveal one another is felt as much as seen.
When I started to paint, I felt transported into a kind of paradise. . . In everyday life I was usually bored and vexed. . . Starting to paint, I felt gloriously free, quiet, and alone. – Henri Matisse
– Meighan Maley
The photogravures of Henri and Amélie Matisse were taken in May 1913 by Alvin Langdon Coburn; Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-c4a7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
* D’Alessandro, Stephanie and Elderfield, John. “Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917”; Yale University Press. 2011.
Philadelphia Museum of Art resource files, especially notes by Anne Tempkin
Bell, Clare. “Ellsworth Kelly and the Legacy of Linear Drawing.” On Paper, vol. 2, no. 1, 1997, pp. 33–36. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24554665.
Caranfa, Angelo. “Light and Silence in Matisse’s Art: Listening to the Spirit.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education, vol. 48, no. 1, 2014, pp. 76–89. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jaesteduc.48.1.0076
Flam, Jack D. “Matisse’s Backs and the Development of His Painting.” Art Journal, vol. 30, no. 4, 1971, pp. 352–361. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/775375.
Lance Esplund. “The Art of Looking.” ISBN 9780465094660
African Influences in Modern Art; https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aima/hd_aima.htm