Home » Perspective | Everything changed for Matisse after painting ‘Studio, Quai Saint-Michel’

Perspective | Everything changed for Matisse after painting ‘Studio, Quai Saint-Michel’

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Matisse’s friends were dying in the trenches when he met a new model.

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Sebastian Smee photo

July 11, 2024 at 1:50 p.m.

“Our interest’s on the dangerous edge of things,” wrote the poet Robert Browning. “The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist.” One reason — one of many — to be interested in Henri Matisse is that he was the severest, the most ruthlessly disciplined of sensualists.

In early 1917, when he painted this stunning work in the Phillips Collection, the 10-month German attack on Verdun had only recently ended, as had the battle of the Somme, with combined casualties of around 2 million. Matisse, whose mother was ill behind enemy lines, had tried three times to enlist. He was rejected each time because of his age. (He was 47.)

As if to compensate, in such paintings as “The Piano Lesson” and “Bathers by a River” (completed around the same time), he had pushed his painting closer and closer to abstraction — not for its own sake, but out of a self-imposed drive toward discipline. He wanted (as he wrote to the Italian painter Gino Severini) to “dominate reality, and by extracting its substance, to reveal it to itself.”

Matisse was completely wrapped up in his own head, in other words.

But then he met Laurette, a young Italian artists’ model.

The war, as Hilary Spurling explains in her great Matisse biography, had dried up the Parisian model pool, so Matisse was fortunate to find anyone. Over 12 months, he painted Laurette more than 50 times. In his first effort, “The Italian Model,” he gave her pursed lips and dark, intolerant eyes. He erased one of her shoulders and transformed her long black hair and the shadows under her chin into a single, menacing shape. Matisse at his most severe.

But Laurette was playful. She seems to have felt safe with Matisse, and she knew how to use her sensuality to help him loosen up. She dressed up in costume, now as a Spanish senorita, now as a turban-wearing European in an Arab harem, or she wore nothing at all. “She had a theatrical gift for transformation,” writes Spurling, “switching from ethereal purity to luxuriant abandon. … She could sleep at will like a cat, retaining a regal dignity even when slumped, dozing.”

Slowly, Matisse’s whole approach to art began to change.

“Studio, Quai Saint-Michel” was the last in a series of four canvases depicting Matisse’s studio overlooking the Seine. Within this quartet, it formed a pair with “The Painter in His Studio,” which showed the painter, nude, seated before an easel painting Laurette in a green robe.

In the Phillips Collection work, the painter’s chair is empty and Laurette, on the divan, has shed her clothes. The divan’s red floral cover dominates the composition, setting off the tangle of thick black outlines and shadows defining her recumbent body.

Otherwise, the painting’s austerity is striking. Paris, in all its gray rigidity, is outside. The room itself, gray and brown, has a hardness, reinforced by Matisse’s intentionally visible, scratchy revisions and by the (unintentional) craquelure in the wall above Laurette’s body.

But Matisse is Matisse — the greatest colorist of all time — and his sparing use of localized color (mauve through the window, turquoise inside) lends the painting a sensuality that’s all the more poignant for being provisional, hard-won.

What a strange, self-conscious painting! The two empty chairs, one of them holding an unfinished picture, bookend Laurette, as if her body were a library. A taut, brimming sense of the artist’s proximate presence holds the whole scene in like a meniscus.

Posing and painting, painting and posing … what a thing to be doing! What a sober, heartbreaking affirmation of life, and play, and sensuality, there in Paris, beside the turbid Seine, with the trenches — brimming with mud, death and excrement, not far to the east.

Image credit

Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C./2024 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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