from Poems 4
(Boston: Little, Brown, 1974)

by Alan Dugan

God, I need a job because I need money.
Here the world is, enjoyable with whiskey,
women, ultimate weapons, and class!
But if I have no money, then my wife
gets mad at me, I can’t drink well,
the armed oppress me, and no boss
pays me money. But when I work,
Oh I get paid!, the police are courteous,
and I can have a drink and breathe air.
I feel classy. I am where the arms are.
The wife is wife in deed. The world
is interesting!, except I have to be
indoors all day and take shit, and make
weapons to kill outsiders with. I miss
the air and smell that paid work stinks
when done for someone else’s profit, so I quit,
enjoy a few flush days in air, drunk, then
I need a job agian. I’m caught in a steel cycle.


Truth is … a breath

Our current misbegotten Lords of Misrule, like all ignorant, absolutist omphalopsychites, hold the view that empirical facts are evanescent but Truth, as it occurs to them, is immutable, such that all values, ideals, ethics and laws can be derived from it. The Father character in Six Characters in Search of an Author (whose lust for his daughter-in-law makes him uncomfortably topical), agrees with this point of view: “But a fact is like a sack which won’t stand up when it is empty. In order that it may stand up, one has to put into it the reason and sentiment which have caused it to exist.” And that is what our current Truth-Handlers are managing for us by contextualizing “facts” and even inventing alternate ones..

By contrast, our greatest Realist, Stephen Crane, one who could see the grim details of objective reality despite official Gilded Age wishful thinking, believed the converse.

“Truth,” said a traveller

from The Black Riders and Other Lines (No. XXVIII)
(Boston: Copeland & Day, 1895)

“Truth,” said a traveller,
“Is a rock, a mighty fortress;
Often have I been to it,
Even to its highest tower,
From whence the world looks black.”

“Truth,” said a traveller,
“Is a breath, a wind,
A shadow, a phantom;
Long have I pursued it,
But never have I touched
The hem of its garment.”

And I believed the second traveller;
For truth was to me
A breath, a wind,
A shadow, a phantom,
And never had I touched
The hem of its garment.

The Champions of Absolute Truth, as we are seeing, connive at conformity, intellectual apathy, benightedness and intolerance—all of which, sooner or later, have to be enforced by an iron grip and eventually violence of one sort or another. (I suspect the brutal deportation regime we are seeing is merely a foreshadowing of wider and more frequent resort to brutality. But perhaps it is just the instinct of this sort of people.) The view that Truth is not the providence of one person or sect, however, is conducive to tolerance, mutual respect, social justice, and, ultimately, democracy in its truest essence. None of these attributes can live in the former described regime, and that is why they are being systematically swept from our public life.

Most of us  probably deep down knew all of this before these perilous times. What I have learned over the last year is darker than this: It is, that those who supported the Absolutists knew what they were destroying. Indeed, the destruction of tolerance, mutual respect, social justice and democracy was probably why they supported the Absolutists and their vision, not the other way around. They seek the certain social cohesion in enforced conformity, not the bonds of liberal give-and-take.

Watching this band follow their leader reminds me of the lines of Whitman from the poem called “Thought” when it first became part of The Leaves of Grass in the 1867 edition.

Of obedience, faith, adhesiveness;
As I stand aloof and look there is to me something profoundly
affecting in large masses of men following the lead of those
who do not believe in men.

Apolitical optimist that he was, Whitman chose the ambiguous “affecting” to describe his “thoughts” on this view. We who have seen in History’s panorama the post-Reconstruction South, the anti-union violence of the North, the Red-Baiting which not only broke people’s careers and others’ hope but also led us into countless wars where we killed and were killed can be less equivocal. The right reaction should be “profoundly disturbing,” as it is right now.

R.I.P. Joe Frank

For access to all of Joe Frank’s work, visit the Official Joe Frank site. Many monologues and radio plays are available free, the rest can be purchased. The site also0 has a link to a SoundCloud page where other performances can be heard.


Periodic Poetry: Oliver, “When Death Comes”

When Death Comes 

from New and Selected Poems
Volume 1
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)

by Mary Oliver

When death comes
like the Hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Haydn and Brendel

The Objects of Matisse

“Matisse in the Studio”
at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
and Royal Academy of Arts, London

1. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table by Henri Matisse. 1947. Oil on canvas. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf. All illustrations are of items currently exhibited by the MFA, unless otherwise stated. Click on any picture to enlarge.

One floor down from the Botticelli Exhibition, the Museum of Fine Arts is presenting a large exhibition of Matisse paintings and sculpture, Matisse in the Studio, through July 9. (The exhibition will continue, with slightly different objects, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, from August 9, 2007 to July 9, 2018.) Taking in these two MFA shows on the same visit forces one to contemplate how vastly different the place art occupies today (or at least 75–100 years ago) from what it did half a millennium before that. From questions of who viewed it and where, to who prescribed the content and style, to how tradition and experimentation interacted and the space for each, to the importance of our understanding the artist’s intention, the social position and the aesthetic principles of art are nearly antipodal. There are certainly similarities. For example, over time both progressively dropped conventions that designed to make the canvas (or panel) simulate a window on a visibly “real” world. (Matisse, of course, began with fewer conventions and dropped more of them.) But I think in one respect the artists shared a point of departure—the relationship between the thing seen and the thing imagined. Botticelli imagined a scene and assembled the elements from memories. Matisse, by contrast, assembled things he could see in order the create a work of imagination. This was the result of a consequence of the conditions that prevented Botticelli from escaping the control of his patron, while Matisse, living in altogether different conditions, requires his viewer to see his art by first understanding the aesthetic rules of his own devising.

This may seem a fairly mundane (and perhaps forced) observation, but at least the second half of that dichotomy is the principal lesson drawn from the Boston Matisse show; namely, how grounded in a view of material reality Matisse’s paintings are. Or at least that’s how how he conceptualized his work. This seems to have been true throughout his career. This may be a surprising lesson for those of us who believe that Matisse’s approach was highly imaginative and fanciful, more like design than representation. The conclusion that he was a designer (or illustrator)  might be said not only of the late work (such as the cut-outs) but also such earlier work as Dance (I) (1909), and it would gain support by considering his side projects, such as his stage designs and his book illustrations. But, on the other hand, it is notable that Matisse never went in for pure abstraction; all of his work are based on things from the visible world, however refracted by Matisse’s imagination. This includes the late cut-outs, which are simply highly styled representations; even those so abstracted that we can see no likeness to their purported subjects, such as The Snail (1953), can be traced back though successive stages to a “seen” object.

The primacy of visual rather than cerebral stimulus for inspiration was noted early in Matisse’s career, and French cubist and art theorist André Lhote saw this as the main difference between Matisse on the one hand and Picasso, Braque (after abandoning Fauvism) and their followers on the other: “Matisse proceeds from sensation to idea, the cubists proceed from idea to sensation.” (Quoted in Flam (1986), p. 21).

Turquoise vase

2. Turquoise vase. (Bohemian? Turkish?) 19th century. Opaque glass. Musée Matisse, Nice. (Used in #1.)

Matisse himself agreed with this assessment. In fact, he went further. His intent was to copy nature as it exists. In a 1925 interview, long after his Fauvist period and after the period of his extreme abstractions (1913–17), both of which were disapproved of by traditionalists and academic art instructors and therefore ridiculed by newspaper reviewers, he asserted: “I copy nature, and I make myself even put the time  of day in the painting” (Flam (1995(, p. 81). Notwithstanding adding a seemingly “realistic” detail, the question of course lies in what it means to “copy nature.” Even the 19th century French Realists, however much they wished to present verisimilitude, had the problem of translating the view of a three dimensional object onto a two dimensional canvas. Even so, Matisse held that it was the painter’s duty to “copy nature” on to the arbitrary substrate: “An artist must recognize, when he gets reasoning, that his picture is an artifice, but when he is painting, he should feel that he has copied nature. And even when he departs from nature, he must do it with the conviction that it is only to interpret her more fully” (Flam (1995), p. 42).

It is in this last part where the rub is. For so long as critics and reporters from the popular press felt the line to be drawn at “representational art,” Matisse consistently held that he was copying nature. But to him “copy” and “interpret” was different from “document” and “represent.” In response to George Besson in 1908 Matisse said that the role of photography to be “objective” and “give us documents.” Three years later in an interview with a Russian correspondent he said: “In my view the artist should not represent nature as it is in reality. We have photography for that” (Flam (1995), p. 44).  The distinction between “copying” nature (which he claimed he did) and “documenting” it depended on Matisse’s metaphysics which starkly differed from the almost all those involved in the modernist enterprise especially the predominant avant-garde in painting (but also in poetry, novels and music). Examinong how he treated “objective reality” allows the viewer to understand that metaphysical bias and see why the most advanced of his rivals always considered him a dottering conservative at best and a reactionary at worst.

The MFA show attempts a close study of what Matisse was looking at and how he translated it into art by placing against his works the very objects he was looking at or which inspired his apporoach to that work.  It begins with a selection of his early still lifes.

Embroidered textile

3. Embroidered textile. Kuba Kingdom, Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th century. Raffia plainweave embroidered with raffia. Musée Matisse du Cateau-Cambrésis. (Cf. red surface in 1.)

Actors in the Studio

It was not until 1890, when he was 20, that Matisse first began painting. Till then he was a clerk in a law office in Saint-Quentin, in North France, placed there at the urging of his respectable bourgeois father. His dreamed of escape from that life had been music (he was a violinist), but during a long hospital stay following a collapse in 1889, he became interested in the hobby of his neighbor in the next bed, painting an oil reproduction of a chromo-lithograph illustration. His mother bought him a paint box with his own chromo illustration to copy and he found his career. His training, first part time in St. Quentin, then at the Académie Julian to prepare for the entrance to the École des Beaux-Arts, was stultifying, requiring him to  undergo the traditional approach of copying then-approved academic painters and cast models. Although he failed his entrance examination to the Beaux-Arts school (he would pass on his second attempt three years later), Matisse was able (through a plan devised by a friend) to attract the attention of its one forward-looking professors, Gustave Moreau, who invited Matisse to join his studio, which then included, among others, Georges Rouault and Albert Marquet, who would become Matisse’s life-long friend. From Moreau Matisse received not only solid grounding in technique (particularly metière—brushwork and touch), but also personal and professional encouragement. From his studio would come a group that would early exhibit with Matisse and also those who would form the nucleus of the fauves.

Moreau also firmly grounded Matisse in the masters.  This was no small favor, for the Beaux-Arts instructors preferred conservative mannerists to profoundly important figures no matter from how long ago. Matisse told Jacques Guenne in 1925: “Moreau knew how to distinguish and how to show us who were the greatest painters, whereas [Adolphe-William] Bouguereaux [France’s most successful academic painter and a teacher at the Académie Julian] invited us to admire Julio Romano” (Flam (1995), p. 80).

Chocolate Pot

4. Chocolate pot. French. 19th–early 20th century. Silver and wood. Private collection.

When Matisse began painting independently he was deeply steeped in the Dutch tradition. As Schneider points out, in both their vocabulary (books, oysters, lemons, crockery) and their syntax (perspective, modeling) the works of Matisse were oriented towards the Netherlands. And the first works we see in the Boston exhibition are his early still lifes together with one of the earliest items from his studio collection, a silver chocolate pot (#4).

It was not unusual for a 19th-century artist to collect objects for his studio. In fact, the very galleries of the MFA which are housing the current Matisse exhibit last year showed the works of William Merritt Chase (reviewed here). Chase himself was an extravagant collector, and his studio was a flamboyant showcase for his art as well as the subject of it. By contrast, Matisse, whose father tried to invest him with petite bourgeois values and who experienced privation in his early art career in Paris, resented collectors and avoided collecting studio objects; instead he used the Louvre as his studio (McBreen & Burnham, p. 16). When he finally began painting objects in his own studio, he used relatively inexpensive items. His collection was made up of tableware, vases, bowls, pots, jugs, small figurines and the like. Making a virtue of necessity, he employed the same object in numerous paintings. He later began collecting African, Islamic and Asian arts, ornaments and fabrics. Later in life he filled his studio with large plants as well as cages with numerous live birds. By the end he had become the ostentatious collector that he had not deigned becoming at the beginning.

When his collection was small and mostly domestic items, he developed a somewhat mystical relation with it. He took it with him wherever he went, even temporarily. He often wrote home requesting that additional items be sent. He explained this behavior (in a 1941 interview) as based on the need for his feelings to be “hooked” by the object. “To express that feeling you really do have to render the object” (Courthion, p. 145). In the middle of the 1890s he had become aware of modernist movements in painting, and he was beginning to respond to it in his own work. Evidently, the lesson he drew from his early encounters with Impressionists and Post-Impressionists was that the artist was to capture some inner truth of the objects (nature) he represented. Matisse seemed to believe that that truth communicated itself to the artist (or perhaps the artist was able to tease it out of the object) by some sort of non-visual relationship with the object which he described as “emotion” or “feeling.” In 1913 when his works were gaining slow acceptance (or perhaps, more accurately, a foothold) in American opinion through the Armory Show on Lexington Avenue in New York, this “[m]uch ridiculed man” explained to a patently dubious art reporter for the New York Times Magazine what he was doing in his work. He gave the example that if he painted a table he would “not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produced on me” (MacChesen, p. 12).

Matisse, Still Life with a Chocolate Pot

5. Still Life with a Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. ca. 1900. Oil on Canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“Emotion” is probably not the right term for what Matisse was trying to express. “Affect” or “non-conscious response” might have been better choices. But he used the term regularly with his students. Gertrude’s sister-in-law Sarah Stein recorded him as telling his students in 1908: “To copy the objects in a still-life is nothing, one must render the emotion they awaken in him” (Flam (1995), p. 51), and “he showed them how tenderly he himself felt towards the taut compact volumes of an African wood carving, the generous roundness of a copper pot, the swelling tear-shaped body of a slender vase” (Spurling (2005), p. 21). It reminds me of the physical reactions of mid-century existentialists towards objects, best expressed by the Nausea of Antoine Roquentin: “Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.” The realization produced physical revulsion. The underlying metaphysics of that emotion is entirely unlike Matisse’s; the existentialist believes that what-you-see-is-what-you get. That essential materialism undergirded almost all of Modernism from the Imagist poets, to the reaction against Pre-Raphaelites, to the Cubists and Futurists, to the Naturalist novelists and even their successors.

Joyce examined much the same problem Matisse was dealing with. What do we know exists based on what can be learned from the portals of our eyes? Joyce, through Dedalus, tenatively answered that there is nothing but the “ineluctable modality of the visible.” What-you-see-is-all-there-is. This sets Dedalus off on the theory of light of Aristotle, maestro di color che sanno, not Plato the the Idealist, who says what we see is merely shadows on a cave wall of things that exit outside. Dedalus says that what we see is real, not an illusion of our visual sense: “Then he was aware of them bodies before of them coloured. How? By knocking his sconce against them, sure.” This is not Matisse’s view, or at least not the view he wants his own viewers to understand.

(Years later Matisse would literally imprint his own very different metaphysics on that very novel. In 1935 publisher George Macy obtained Joyce’s permission to have a limited edition of Ulysses illustrated with line drawings by Matisse. Joyce sent Matisse details so that he could capture the “Irishness” of the episodes. Matisse, however, illustrated nothing in the novel, instead drawing scenes from the Odyssey, the Ideal for which Ulysses was only the image (Aragon, I:191). Two of his drawings concerned scenes of the Odyseey not even recapitulated in Ulysees. And the book was sold with Matisse’s autograph, not Joyce’s. The Idealist, at least in this one case, prevailed over the Materialist.)

Matisse, Still Life with Chocolate Pot (ink)

6. Still Life with Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. 1900. Ink on paper. Musée Matisse du Cateau-Cambrésis.

Matisse’s early still lifes show none of the contradictions among reality—visual impression—artistic expression that he was grappling to explain in 1908. In the 1890s he was assimilating the influence of the artists promoted by Moreau. His first still lifes was strongly influenced by Chardin, who was in turn himself influenced by the Dutch masters of the previous century (compare Matisse’s Still Life with Peaches (#9) with Chardin’s Still Life with Glass Flask and Fruit (ca. 1728)). Matisse had made four copies of Chardin’s work at the Louvre and never lost his admiration for his work. All of the early still lifes are studies of various textures and reflective surfaces using much of the visual language of Chardin.

During the years 1895–1902 Matisse began absorbing, and tentatively expressing, lessons from various advanced and modernist approaches. He travelled to Brittany where he experimented with seascapes that remind one of late Turner (seee.g.Seascape at Goulphar (1896) and Large Gray Seascape (1896)), but Matisse had yet to see any of Turner’s works. When he did in 1898 (but not the late Turner works which had not yet been exhibited), the response was an explosive use of color as in Sunset at Corsica (1898). His Notre Dame in the Late Afternoon (1902) seems to comment on the approach of Monet in the early 1890s in his series of paintings on the Rouen Cathedral, in that it ignores the church’s details in order to see it in relation to the light around and that it reflects. Instead of detailing the intricacies of light on the building’s surface, however, Matisse substituted flat planes of color. Moreover, he experimented with Neo-Impressionism (seee.g.Small Door of the Old Mill (1898)). But the most important figure he would confront was Cézanne.

At first Matisse explored the more obvious discoveries of Cézanne: how he deformed objects, violated norms of color harmony and changed approaches to facture and representation of volume. These can be seen in the 1900–04 sculpture The Serf and the 1900 oil Male Model, which plainly reveal how Matisse understood Cézanne and also that his engagement with him was deeper and years the Cubists would take up his influence. But, according to Flam, the most important breakthrough of Cézanne, the one on which would eventually influence Matisse’s approach to his work most deeply and for the rest of his career, was the creation of “non-denominative space” (Flam (1986), p. 20). With this discovery, the canvas (or whatever substrate) was no longer solely a window to a “real” scene. It was a place where pictured objects interact with each other and the viewer.

According to Flam, Cézanne reconsidered what painting was “about”:

In Cézanne’s paintings, especially after 1885, plastic elements begin to take precedence not only over description but also over denomination. Form is given to that which cannot be named. The spaces between entities are given weight and substance, yet the precise nature of the spaces remains ambiguous. They are not entities but forces. In order to permit these forces to function freely, Cézanne keeps the space in which they act open and “breathing.” The amorphous whiteness of blank canvas is used as the field of force in which the drawn and colored forces set down by the painter will act (Flam (1986), p. 20).

It would take many years for the implications of this to unspool in Matisse’s work, but once it gained a grip on his imagination, it would allow Matisse to attain new breakthroughs at an increasingly rapid rate. But none of this is apparent in the early still lifes selected for the Boston exhibition.

Matisse, Still Life and Heron Studies

7. Still Life and Heron Studies by Henri Matisse. ca. 1900. Watercolor and ink on paper. Private collection.

The premise of the show, as I understand it, is that by pairing objects from the studio with the works they appear in or influence we can understand what Matisse “saw” and compare it with how he “expressed” it. And the first of the experiments the curators propose is with the handful of still lifes Matisse painted (just as he was absorbing lessons of divergent modernists), all of them involving a silver chocolate pot. That pot, which was a gift at his wedding to Amélie Parayre in January 1898 is part of the exhibition. (#4).

It is difficult to understand what the actual item adds to our appreciation of the works. An ordinary item painted by Matisse in a quite straightforward manner in the works shown, it differs not at all from what one would have imagined it looked like just from the paintings themselves. The two most frequently heard questions from hostile museum goers in the modern art section are: What is this? And why is it made that way? (A question more polite viewers ask themselves quietly.) But when what is painted is obvious, seeing it really does not add anything. And with Matisse, unlike the Cubists or the Futurists or the Symbolists, except for the periods of extreme abstraction, say, the year 1916 or during his period of “plastic writing” or at the very end of his life when his paper cut-outs became mere symbols, it was usually obvious what he was painting. From 1905 onward the question usually was why he as painting it that way.

Matisse, Still Life with Chocolate Pot

8. Still Life with Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. 1900–02. Oil on canvas. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris.

The still lifes selected for the exhibit, however, do not even present a question about the manner of expression. Matisse was probably the first and still most important painter who requires a viewer to understand him, not on the basis of some prescribed aesthetic, but rather by intuition informed solely by our knowledge of his own development. But these paintings require no such knowledge. And perhaps that is what the curators intend for us to learn. In these paintings he is not using a language he developed, but rather borrowing from an existing grammar—the accepted “rules” commonly set out by the academy and used by the most successful painters of a time going back decades. Indeed, the paintings are so impersonal that the curators show us a painting by Matisse’s friend Albert Marquet (who would join him in the Fauvist wars and world remain a life-long friend), The Coffee Pot (1902), remarkably like Matisse’s early chocolate pot still lifes, not only in subject matter, but also in setting, lighting and color. It is not unlikely that they intentionally painted similar scenes to compare notes, especially if, as Grammont supposes, Marquet was the one who made the Matisses a present of the chocolate pot in 1898 (Grammont, p. 48). Or perhaps Marquet’s 1902 painting was an homage to or study of an earlier painting by Matisse also shown at the MFA exhibition, Still Life with Peaces, painted in 1895 (#9), using another pot. (Matisse did yet not have the chocolate pot.)

Whatever the circumstances of the creation of these early works, it’s hard to see how they differ from traditional still lifes of the 19th century. Nor do they show much of Cézanne’s innovations, except perhaps the still life owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art (#5), which has the “unfinished” background that some Cézanne still lifes have, although this is is not a major part of Cézanne’s legacy.

Still Life with Chocolate Pot (#5) also shows how Matisse was expanding his palette at the time and using a wider range and brighter colors. But it is not representative of Matisse’s growth, even in still lifes, for others, not exhibited at the MFA, for example, First Orange Still Life (1899) (which, incidentally, also includes the chocolate pot), document his evolution more completely. It is true that his experiments at the time are most clearly seen in his landscapes and other outdoor scenes (even scenes outside the studio window). This seems true of each one of Matisse’s major breakthroughs, including his Fauvism of 1905, the extreme abstractions of 1913–17, and the beginning of the Early Nice period and the portrayal of luxury starting in 1918. Only his gradual return to the avant-garde, around 1930, began primarily with studio works. This means that the premise of the exhibition by definition deprives us of seeing his more revolutionary and influential works.

Matisse, Still Life with Peaches

9. Still Life with Peaches by Henri Matisse. 1895. Oil on canvas. Baltimore Museum of Art. (Not shown at MFA exhibition.)

What other still lifes of the time that are not exhibited here show more clearly than the ones that are is how he used objects in his collection to produce little dramas (in which he called the objects “actors”) by their arrangement. This can be seen in those works like  First Orange Still Life, Sideboard and Table (1899) and Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1902–04). All of these use a larger number of objects to produce an interplay among themselves, the thing one first observes about the works. Whether this is owing to Matisse’s beginning to internalize of Cézanne’s  “non-denominative space” or simply another attribute of Matisse’s study of Chardin, who often used numerous objects in his still lifes to create a set of rhythmic lines as part of the composition is debatable But the question probably should be considered in light of Matisse’s comments about how his objects were “actors.” Matisse had first explored the interplay of table objects in his grandly conceived student piece, The Dinner Table (1897), which Moreau praised for the realism of the objects. That painting showed the influence of Monet and the academics who ran the school’s show deemed it Impressionist so gave it no prominence in their student exhibition (Gowing, p. 18). The later still lifes would show the waning influence of Monet, the growing elements of Cézanne and Matisse’s own approach to his breakthrough—Fauvism.

So while it seems an unprofitable line of inquiry to examine his still lifes separately from his other work at the time, and especially to isolate the chocolate pot works from the other still lifes to see how it “spoke” to him, for sake of completeness I will mention one thing that is noticeable in these works: the odd placement of objects in the early still lifes. In both ## 5 and 8 the pot is placed on top of a book which sits on a chair or stool. The handle is in a different position in the two paintings as is the book. Both have a lemon on top of the book next to the pot. The 1895 still life (#9) also seems to have a lemon, although the predominant fruit are peaches. The setting of the pot in this the earliest of these three paintings is on a table, rather than a book, and the table has a glass of water with a spoon (to make lemon juice?). The objects in the two later paintings (##5 & 8) are arranged to draw attention to themselves. To what end is unclear. Is there some point to the stool and book rather than a table? Is this a private symbol? Is this what Matisse meant when he said the objects were “actors” as in a play? If so, it is a play whose narrative is known only to the author. The two drawings, Still Life with Chocolate Pot (#6) and Still Life and Heron Studies (#7), both have the pot among a trio of objects closely set. In the latter Matisse sketched a scene of the chocolate pot, a bowl and a cup and saucer repeatedly so that he could experiment with daubs of color on the page. The sketches seem as though mechanically produced in their regularity. Interspersed are two large sketches of wading birds. It is of course unfair to draw any kind of conclusions from a study beyond noting what elements the artist was working on. The most I can infer is that he was trying to brighten his palette on these conventional still lifes, a goal that he seems working towards in his Still Life with Chocolate Pot of 1900–02 (#8) and which seems to have finally achieved (at least within the conventional framework he set for himself in this period) in Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot (#10), when he repurposed the pot into a vase for flowers.

This last painting was evidently “advanced” enough to have attracted the attention of Picasso, sufficiently that he purchased it. While the pot’s use has been changed and its orientation different from the earlier ones (its handle points outward toward the viewer) it is not the use of the pot that makes this painting a departure but rather a re-imagining of how to present it. That one object dominates the canvas but the flowers pour forth a profusion of colors that accent the swirling wall and the solid reddish-brown table top. It is the development of his sense of how to use color is what makes this still life notable. By 1905 Matisse would take compositional approach one step further in Parrot Tulips (II). There we view a similar reflective container from a higher vantage. (The container is cylindrical, not jug-like as is the chocolate pot.) Orange and yellow impatiens bend outward around erect daisies. The shape and posture of the impatiens give the impression of motion, as though they are animals craning their necks to see out from the vessel. The feeling of motion is intensified by the surrounding ambiance: blue and green short brushstrokes encircle the object and flowers (the container reflecting them). It is not the disturbing swirls of impasto van Gogh used in the years after 1885. Rather it gives the sensation of excited euphoria. But we can’t be sure, although it is fairly certain that Matisse’s mode of expression here is a way of explaining how the things are as mediated by Matisse’s own intuition on one hand and his developing personal iconography on the other. We see in that painting (of which Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot is only the forerunner) the origins of the artist who, more than any other, turned painting and sculpture from media of communication where artist and viewer shared the basics of a common language and means of understanding, to a solipsistic endeavor to convey the unique inner life of the artist, using symbols and emblems and signs, which can be interpreted, if only vaguely, by tracing the artist’s use of them over his career and then engaging in amateur psychoanalysis or uncertain semiotics. Matisse would usher in the wave of self-referential painters the way Stéphane Mallarmé ushered in the wave of self-referential poets.

Matisse, Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot

10. Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot by Henri Matisse. 1902. Oil on canvas. Musée Picasso, Paris.

While the still lifes in the first part of the exhibit seem to reach a dead end, in fact they continue to participate in Matisse’s experimentations in the Proto-Fauvist period. It is the purro and not the chocolate pot that seems the preferred “actor,” however. Between 1904 and 1905 Matisse executed two still lifes with purro  that document his growing confidence and the giant steps he was taking. The first, Still Life with Purro (I) (1904), was painted in Saint-Tropez and while it is made up of slightly more varied colors, the real direction it is point is towards reducing the three dimensional objects on the table to a flattened design, almost as though they were a pattern on the wall. They are in fact lined in a row, rather than as “actors” on a table. It is only a brightly colored cloth partly hanging from the edge of the table that reminds the viewer that the objects are in three dimensions. The second painting, Still Life with a Purro (II) (1904–05), painted from that same summer to sometime the following spring, shows the same objects in the same ordered arrangement, but the effect is completely different, for Matisse sprays the entire picture with splotches of wild colors which are reflected in the silvery objects (but not the cloth or the fruit). Matisse was on the verge of Fauvism, but the objects are still outlined and somewhat modeled.

Matisse’s migration to brighter and warmer colors is noticeable in all his paintings in the years leading up to 1905. But the breakthrough would come in landscapes and figure paintings at Collioure during his summer with André Derain. When he returned to Paris that autumn he refined the approach with a series of seminal portraits. These (and paintings of his fellow experimenters Maurice Vlamink and Henri Manguin) were exhibited in October at the Salon d’Automne and caused a sensation. (It has always surprised me how the first reaction of Parisians, during the time that Paris was the undisputed cultural capital of the world, to any new artistic innovation was to become unhinged and yet proto-Fascist and antisemitic innovations like the Action Française seem to have met with no significant public outrage and only grew in strength.) A critic wrote that the works must have been made by fauves—wild beasts—and a movement, complete with name, was born.

For Matisse, who unlike Picasso was unwilling to head up an organized artistic programme complete with followers and disciples, his formal participation in the movement was short lived. What he discovered in the summer of 1905, however, would guide him for the rest of his career; namely, that color could serve not just an element of composition; it could provide

the basis for it. It was no longer necessary to outline an object, fill it in with color and model the object by use of tonality. The object itself could be built by color, and the color could be pure and bright. Moreover, the brushwork need not be designed to smooth out the colors. It could be made up of short strokes or arabesque lines. And colors need not be mixed. That process can be left to the viewer if the painter uses short strokes or event points of pure different colors properly interspersed.

Matisse, Interior with Young Girl Reading

11. Interior with Young Girl Reading by Henri Matisse. 1905–06. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Because the genres that made up Matisse’s Fauvism period are mostly outside the scope of the MFA’s show, we see almost none of them. But there is the canvas Interior with Young Girl Reading (#11), which escaped exclusion by the presence in it of the same chocolate pot that we know from the early still lifes. The girl at the heart of the work is Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, who sits at a table with a fruit bowl and individual pieces of fruit on the table. The table is covered with a patterned cloth with dots or blotches of red that look something like rose petals. Behind the fruit bowl is the chocolate pot, and behind it is an unrecognizable pink-red object (perhaps a cup?) lying on the table.The girl is intently reading a book lying on top of a larger book on the table. Behind the table are what look like fences: on the right side of the canvas it looks like a metal fence, while on the right, behind the girl there appears to be a wooden fence. But we can see that there is a wall behind those objects with paintings hung on it and to the left there is what appears to be a table with vases and flowers. By resolving the left side of the canvas, what appeared to be a wood fence seems to be the side of the table, perhaps covered with a fluted cloth. The picture is thus divided into two spaces. In the front there is a relatively recognizable scene, one of domestic tranquility (to which the chocolate pot, and all its extra-visual connotations, adds a touch of winsomeness), and the other an ill defined space with partially recognizable objects in the midst of what looks like a pyrotechnical display of colors which renders it all indeterminate.  In all the previous fauvist paintings, Matisse used color (however unconventionally applied) to define form. Here the outburst of color is used to obscure space.

Matisse, The Large Woodcut

12. The Large Woodcut by Henri Matisse. Woodcut. 1906. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The obscuring of space around objects (or possibly the charging of it with energy in an analogous way to Cézanne’s treatment of space as the mediator of the force exerted between objects) that Matisse introduced at this time did not depend entirely on color, although color was the most dramatic way to accomplish it. The Large Woodcut (#12) was one of three sets of prints he made the year following his Fauvist innovations. (Although Matisse engaged in various forms of printmaking from 1900 through the rest of his career, his largest outputs were during the years when his outlook was radically changing—1906, 1914 and 1929. He made his prints by himself in his studio. He turned to printmaking, he said, for relaxation.) The figure in the print appears at first crumbled, and although after resolving the figure closely we see she is in fact sitting on a chair, perhaps a porch chair or beach chair with padding or a cloth over it, the impression of a woman cringing in something like a fetal position remains in the back our mind. The chair covering is indicated by dots (like the tablecloth in Young Girl Reading). The woman’s body and the chair divide the space into three zones behind her. What is below the chair is marked off with widely spaced radiating lines. Behind her head and above the chair is a small space filled with closely spaced horizontal lines. Above her body is a space that is marked by lines that outline her body until they reach the upper left corner where they converge into something like a starburst. The marking out of a surface by dots and the converging of lines in an area just behind the focal point of the subject place  the work in term of Matisse’s  progression squarely with in his immediate post-Fauvist period. Curator Helen Burnham selected this work from the museum’s holdings to show Matisse’s African influences (discussed in the next section). Her case is unconvincing:

The dots tighten and converge along the back, buttocks, and thigh of the model … while the staccato lines above her chest and stomach reverberate in waves of distilled force into the space around her. The use of a graphic vocabulary in this way, to provide meaning through innovative combinations rather than mimesis, was one of the things that Matisse and his contemporaries most admired in African art (Burnham, p. 78).

She offers no example for such graphic language in the African art in Matisse’s collection or elsewhere. Gauguin would have been a better example. But in fact this work seems to draw inspiration from the logic of Matisse’s current work with colors, the elimination of outline and the consequences they produce (or allow) for the treatment of space.

Matisse, Still Life with Plastic Figure

13. Still Life with Plaster Figure by Henri Matisse. 1906. Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

The Boston show has one more piece from this Fauvism stage (aside from the famous self portrait (#18) which we’ll look at in the next section.) This is another still life placed within an interior with several objects, one dominating them all—Still Life with Plaster Figure (#13). On the table which joins the bottom of the canvas is a patterned tablecloth on which are set a variety of fruits and bowls as well as a white figure. Behind the figure is a version of Matisse’s own Flowers of the same year. The painting within the painting takes up all of the background except for a small strip of pale paint on the right side above the table. That strip is similar to the pale strip on the right side of the painting Flowers itself. It is at this stage that Matisse begins the development of his self-referential universe. To be fully equipped to decode work the viewer must be familiar with the evolving body of Matisse’s work. For example, if a viewer were unfamiliar with Flowers it would be difficult to make heads or tails of the backdrop of the still life. There are no overt signals that the background is another picture. even the strip of brown on the left side, which might indicate either a frame or at least a separation of the painting from what lay behind does not completely form a border with the picture but rather tapers out before it reaches the table and then disappears behind a bowl. Without the knowledge of what is behind the still life the entire picture is indecipherable, especially since Flowers itself is somewhat abstracted and the most representational part of the painting within a painting is obscured by the plaster figure in the later work. For those unfamiliar with the painting the background to the still life is undefined space with colors and streaks of light appearing without meaning. By contrast, the still life itself is visually straightforward. The fruits are not unusual, but the plaster figure is out of place. It is starkly white in a field of vibrant colors. It is looking away from the viewer as though out of modesty. (The figure is a rendering for The Standing Nude (#20) modeled by Matisse’s own 13-year-old daughter Marguerite (Flam (1986), p. 179; Burnham, p. 81). Its placement among the fruit and representation of flowers is the second aspect of Matisse’s beginning self-referential universe—his private iconography. Earlier in 1906 Matisse painted Still Life with Geranium Plant, a deceptively naturalistic looking still life with Cézanne-like brushwork and passage more advanced than what Picasso and Braque would be doing for two years (Flam (1986), p. 178). But what is important for the Plaster Figure painting is that the still life has two items that are unusual for a still life. In addition to the potted plant, jug, ceramic (?) object (the figure of a cat? this is where seeing the object painted would help) and four pink onions, the painting shows a terra cotta copy of Matisse’s own statue, the 1905 Woman Leaning on her Hands. The symbolism of the arrangement is layered: the female figure, though inanimate, is introduced to show the source of fertility of the living things in this nature morte. The life-giving figure is one that was created by Matisse as is also the composition he is expressing. The naturalism of the conception is no more or less real than Matisse’s expression of the female or his representation of the female he created within this composition he created. In the same way the plaster figure in the later painting animates the fruit and flowers that surround it, even though the flowers were a creation of Matisse. After all, the female figure that animates them was an artistic creation of Matisse, just as the model was a biological one. We are closer now to understanding the “emotion” that Matisse had with the objects he “copied.”

Matisse, Still Life with Lemons

14. Still Life with Lemons by Henri Matisse. 1914. Oil on canvas. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island.

Let us jump ahead for a moment to close out the role of the chocolate pot (and a similar looking container that takes its place) in Matisse’s still lifes. Plaster Figure and Geranium Plant show Matisse’s interest in clay modeling at the time. Matisse told Courthion many decades later that he generally took up modeling only when he ran out his thinking in painting along a certain line:

“I did sculpture because what interested me in painting was to bring some order to my brain. It was a change of means. I took to clay as a break from painting at the time I’d done absolutely everything I could in panting. Which means it was still about organizing. It was to put my sensations in order and look for a message that really suited me. When I found it in sculpture, I used it for painting. To come into possession of my own brain that was always the goal, a sort of hierarchy of all my sensations, so that I could reach a conclusion” (Matisse & Courthion, pp. 85–85).

The sculpture he was doing in 1906 was a sign that he was interested in leaving strict Fauvism for a new direction. When he painted the sculpted figures, he saw that painting was nearly the opposite of rendering in three dimensions because not only were painted figures and portraits flattened, space itself was rendered entirely ambiguous. This progress toward collapsing space into a flattened view coincided with a trip Matisse and his wife made in July and August 1907, where he saw the works of Giotto and the early Renaissance painters in Florence, Sienna, Arezzo, Ravena, Padua and Venice. The stylized treatment of perspective by the Italian painters of this period reinforced Matisse’s determination to proceed with his new experimentally acquired knowledge. A still life with the chocolate pot, one not on exhibit at the MFA, Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1909), was one of the first results of the new thinking. Matisse covers almost all of that work with a blue patterned fabric. Except for two features it would have been impossible to know that it was a fabric rather a simple design or to see on what shapes the fabric was lying. The three items on the fabric (chocolate pot, fruit bowl and vase) show the fabric must be lying flat. But since it covers the background higher those items, it must also fold upwards somewhere. That can only be seen in the outline of the chair on the right side showing that the fabric in fact covers a surface nearly at a right angle. Nothing else in the painting (shadow, creases, clear distortions in the patterning) exists to give us that information. Space has become entirely amorphous.

Matisse, Woman on a High Stool

15. Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal) by Henri Matisse. 1914. Oil on canvass. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Matisse’s Still Life with Lemons (#14), completed five years later, carries this innovation much farther. Our brain automatically turns these images into a three dimensional space when we first see the painting. But when we consider the relatios of the object to each other we find either that it is an impossible space or we are reconstructing the objects inaccurately. The drawing must be hanging on a wall, we assume. The lemons and the bowl of lemons must be resting on a table of sorts. But what is the significance of the red triangle and the blue background to the bowl? Is “tapis” (carpet) a joke or is it really set on the ground? If so, how does the ground become the wall holding the drawing? There are no cues for us to determine how the space is organized. The solid panels and geometric shapes of colors obliterate perspective and three-dimensional space itself. One is tempted to think of “tapis” as a multi-lingual pun. (In England, “on the tapis” meant “under construction”), but that is probably unlikely the intent. But there is another sort of visual pun—the picture itself is a picture of, among other things, a table container, but also of a picture of a table container. The picture of the vase is based on a drawing by Matisse’s 14 year-old son, Pierre (Flam (1986), p. 376). The same drawing shows up again in Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal) (#15) done around the same time. By including the representation of the drawing, is Matisse commenting on how his own composition employs childlike techniques for representation? Or was he commenting on the approach of the Cubists with their geometrical impositions on visually perceived space? Indeed the word “tapis,” though written in a childlike hand, corresponds to the Cubists’ penchant for including printed words in their works. Matisse even showed his Still Life with Lemons to cubists Juan Gris and Jean Metzinger and asked for their evaluation. This was at a time when the war waged by the Cubists against him (urged on by Gertrude Stein who felt she could not champion Picasso without denigrating Matisse) would only get more heated (although Picasso and Matisse had met each other in 1906 with as cordial a detente as two opposite, and competing, personalities could muster). So Gris and Metzinger did not give their opinion until years later when they remarked on a feature that only cubists would notice—the “extraordinary concordance between shapes of the vase and of the fruit” (Barr, p. 187).

Woman on a High Stool again appears in The Piano Lesson (1916) (not in the show), again showing the way in which Matisse’s work comments on itself and his life. In the later painting Woman on a High Stool becomes the pcture hanging on the wall to the right, but it does not have Pierre’s drawing of the vase. Instead, Pierre himself is seen practicing, dwarfed by the piano and the two works of Matisse and gated off from the garden his father would not let him play in for fear that he would hurt his hand and be unable to play the violin. Matisse made his son practice for two hours every morning starting at 6 a.m. Pierre’s expression conveys his fixed attention to this ordeal that he dreaded. This grim routine, sternly enforced by his father, took place (and was painted) while French troops were being sacrificed in the stalemate at Verdun 160 miles away (Spurling, pp. 183–85).And yet Matisse was making pictures containing pictures the original of which contained pictures, in an endless regression back into Matisse’s art and life. It is now easier to see what Matisse meant when he said he was expressing his emotions towards the objects he painted. Those emotions would not be revealed by looking at those objects so much as by studying the things that Matisse was mostly emotional about—his own work.

Seated figure

16. Seated figure. Loanga, Vili Kingdom, Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

Returning now to the end of the Fauvism period: There are several other works in the exhibit which compare an object from Matisse’s collection and his still lifes, but of the most interest are the “exotic” pieces he collected beginning in the early 1900s. Painters of Matisse’s generation, beginning shortly after the turn of the century, began seeking inspiration and spiritual energy for their art in non-Western traditions. The general Western European malaise of the time, the lack of belief in liberal self-government, contempt for bourgeois values and the hope that something new would grow up where something was torn down, common in all fields of art (and also frequently pronounced by both radical and reactionary demagogues as well) lead to a search for examples in places where these traditional Western values were not held. Many believed that African, Islamic and Asian cultures, “uncontaminated” by the enervated principles of the asthenic West, were where guidance and inspiration could be found. These cultures were thought “pure” in the “primitiveness.” This belief was the seemingly benign side of the West’s dealings with these cultures, which had spent nearly a century intervening and disrupting them in all respects that did not directly lead to their own self-interest. (As Tayeb Salih pithily put it in Season of Migration to the North: “They taught us English so we could say ‘yes’ in their language.’) And instead of representing “purity” or “primitiveness” the arts of the colonies were influenced by their contacts with the West just as their economies were. And dealers did their part to create a false primitiveness. Selecting only items that would appeal to Westerners, they often also changed them to more comply with Western prejudices. For example, they took the fabric dresses from the female figurines to sell them naked, because Westerners were sure of the “immorality” of the “primitive.”

Matisse, always attuned to the “new,” also became interested in the exotic. He began his collection of non-European art in 1906. He was considerably ahead of Picasso at this time in facing East and South. In fact, it was Matisse who drew Picasso’s attention to it. Gertrude Stein opined that when they first began to incorporate elements of African art into their works, they did so for opposite reasons:

Matisse, Still Life with African Statuette

17. Still Life with African Statuette by Henri Matisse. 1907. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

The effect of this african art upon Matisse and Picasso was entirely different. Matisse through it was affected more in his imagination than in his vision. Picasso more in his vision than in his imagination. Strangely enough it is only very much later in his life that this influence has affected his imagination and that may be through its having been re-enforced by the Orientalism of the russians when he came in contact with that through Diaghilev and the russian ballet (Stein, Chapter 3).

(Matisse anticipated Picasso in being influenced by “the Orientalism of the russians” through his first major patron, Sergei Shchukin, and his visit to Moscow in 1911. Picasso would not collaborate with Sergei Diaghilev until the 1917 production of Parade in Paris.)

The effect on his art was from African works at first, then Russian, Islamic and Asian art would help produce another breakthrough in Matisse’s development. But it did not happen right away. In fact, African was used at first, as the objects we have seen so far, simply as an element to form a grouping of things as traditional European painters had done for years. In Still Life with African Statuette (#17) Matisse used a seated figure he had bought (#16) and dropped it into a group of more familiar tabletop objects without much concern for its meaning, the art tradition it came from or any other consideration of what made the work a piece of art in its own historical and aesthetic context. It was used merely as a gadget, taken, as it so happens, from Africa, like any number of products taken by Europeans and repurposed for their own use.

We could speculate about the iconographical meanings the grouping held for Matisse; perhaps it was simply a notice that his art was about to go in a new direction, less concerned with traditional Western aesthetics. But there is something more interesting in the painting: the group is entirely suspended in space. Matisse fully achieved the “non-denominative” space of Cézanne. So long as it was used to frame  a comforting (because traditional) still life, it was not a particular threat, even if an African figure were dropped in the midst. Matisse had no intention to use this technique without integrating it into  changes heralded by the African figure. (As for the “non-denominative” space itself, years later Matisse met the widow Cézanne at a gathering in Nice. He asked about the works she still held, but she told him they could not be worth much because they were “unfinished.” Matisse allowed  that she was a bit dimwitted.)

Objects as Refractors

The time before his Fauvism breakthrough on the Mediterranean in the summer of 1905 was one of limited experiments and cautious deviations from the very tradition for which Matisse had a fundamental ambivalence. That summer he finally found a solution to what had troubled him for a long time—how to avoid making works by brushwork alone. The solution he decided on, however, unleashed a greater freedom and a more fundamental principle for him: that color was the principle element of composition. But even that discovery was minor compared to the inference to be drawn from all this; namely, that he could make fundamental departures from accepted practice solely guided by his own instinct and considered aesthetic choice. From then on each painting could be considered as a new departure, and Matisse threw himself into each one with a kind of emotional and sometimes physical abandon that left him emotionally depleted.

Matisse, Self-Portrait (1906)

18. Self Portrait by Henri Matisse. 1906. Oil on canvas. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.

During the period from the summer of 1905 until he published his Notes of a Painter (Flam (1995), pp.  30–43, & (French at pp. 237–41)) in December 1908 Matisse sorted through his thoughts until he was able to confidently announce a manifesto stating how he personally viewed his approach to art. He was uninterested in presenting the fleeting moment, as the Impressionists aimed for. He aimed, rather, at the Essence of his subject (something that could not be expressed in words, only in his work). Essence was neither the passions displayed by a subject nor its movements; it was something deeper and more permanent. To express this Essence, he had to eliminate everything that was superfluous, for, as he said, an unnecessary detail distracted the viewer from a necessary one. So he was looking to achieve a work with the most economic of means to achieve a distillation of impressions (“condensation des sensations qui fait le tableau“). And we can see during this period and beyond how Matisse radically reduced every detail in his works. This process reached its logical end about 1916 with paintings such as The Moroccans, painted in his suburban Paris studio during the war, based on memories he had of his trips to North Africa in 1912 and 1913. Details, not only objects but also features of the objects that remain, have been so ruthlessly eliminated that the final work is nearly impossible to understand without guidance.

Head of Apostle

19. Head of Apostle (James?). French? ca. 13th–14th century. Limestone. Musée Matisse, Nice.

While Matisse explained why he eliminated details, he never fully explained how he saw what was the Essence he was trying to reveal, probably because he saw that process as outside verbal description. When Matisse began this process of radical economizing, he started with the human figure and portraits. And here can be seen what elements he emphasized and how he selected them by comparing these works with objects from his collection, Without knowing when Matisse acquired particular objects, it is impossible to say whether he “based” a particular work on a particular object (rather than selecting an object which illustrated a pre-conceived approach). But Matisse freely admitted that he studied and incorporated the influences of others. (“One would have to be very foolish not to notice the direction in which others work. … I have accepted influences but I think I have always known how to dominate them” (Guenne interview 1925 in Flam (1995), p. 81).) There is thus no reason to suppose that he was not influenced by the objects he owned, particularly when the object and a corresponding work shows such striking parallels as the Medieval head of an apostle (#19) and his famous self-portrait of 1906 (#18). The two works share similar poses and expressions. The deep wells in which their eyes were sunk, the resulting contrast provided by the cheek bones and the downward slope of the faces from the nose down caused by the frowning mouth are nearly identical in each. Matisse even surrounds the top of his own head with a blue background which corresponds, and provides similar effect, as the cap on the apostle’s head.

Matisse wrote that his work on figures and portraits had two stages. The first was the careful observation of the physical features of the subject. The second allowing  the “subtleties of observation” to take expressive form subconsciously—as he put it, such subtleties “rise up from fermentation within, like bubbles in a pond” (Flam (1995), p. 223). Matisse’s instructions to his students in 1908, before he wrote Notes of a Painter, show that he thought in terms of visual analogy, breaking the body down into forms like other physical objects. Sarah Steins notes have him saying:

This pelvis fits into the thighs and suggests an amphora. Fit your parts into one another and build up your figure as a carpenter does a house. Everything must be constructed—built up of parts that make a unit: a tree like a human body, a human body like a cathedral (Flam (1995), p. 47).

Matisse, Standing Nude

20. Standing Nude by Henri Matisse. 1906–07. Oil on canvas. Tate Gallery, London.

He sometimes sounded mystical or like an esoteric engineer: “The mechanics of construction is the establishment of oppositions which create the equilibrium of the directions” (id.) What comes through is that what he can visualize in a subject (himself as in #18) is

visually analogous to aspects of another object (as in #19).

With the introduction of African art into his repertoire of objects, he was able to conceive other visual analogies for aspects of a model or sitter. An early and famous example of this is the controversial Standing Nude (#20). There was no model for this work. Rather, Matisse based it on a photograph of a European (French woman), “evoking the idea of surprise or modesty,” published in the October 10, 1906 issue of Mes Modéles (shown as Fig. 50 of McBreen & Burnham, p. 70). Matisse used the pose, the general dimensions of the model in the photo and the towel. But another aesthetic was used in close modeling. Indeed, there is no hint of the modesty that the magazine claimed the photo embodied.

Although no figurine in Matisse’s collection directly corresponds to the treatment of Standing Nude, curator Helen Burnham says that the painting reflects the overall lessons of African art:

Divination figure

21. Divination figure. Senufo region, Côte d’Ivoire. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

Elements derived from African sculpture combine to lend her a more complex presence. These include the exaggerated treatment of the body, with dark black outlines reminiscent of cavings in the world, conical breasts, the huge jutting head, and the sharp transitions between forms—shoulder to upper arm, shoulder blade, and buttocks—which emphasize her sexuality as well as her powerful physique and lend her an impressive monumental solidity (Burnham, p. 70).

This seems to me unconvincing; the rather banal (and Eurocentric) generalization of African sculpture seems a case of special pleading—an attempt to force (nonexistent) evidence to support a conclusion about what must have influenced Matisse. But there is a figurine from the Ivory Coast (#21), once in Matisse’s possession, that might support the claim. The emphasized features, the treatment of the body in blocks and “the establishment of oppositions which create the equilibrium of the directions” as Matisse put it, all seem to match Standing Nude, except the features are much more exaggerated in the African figure. But it is likely that Matisse did not acquire the figure until several years after he painted Standing Nude, given the existence of a drawing he made of it (possibly at the time he purchased it?), dated ca. 1909–10. But if Matisse did draw inspiration from this figure, it shows that he only borrowed the superficial aspects of the work, ignoring its indigenous cultural significance. Among the Senufo people, such figures, known as tyles, are used by a secret society, the Sando, to intervene in the spirit world. They are said to be inhabited by ancestral spirits (madabeles) of the tribe, including the sacred primordial couple who generated them. Without any attention to the different principles behind non-Western art Matisse appropriated it simply for decorative purposes. But that is not surprising for a man who modeled his own portrait on a saint’s head.

Female ancestral figurine

22. Reliquary guardian figure. Gabon or Equatorial Guinea. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

It is with another ancestral figure, this one of the Fang people of the rain forests of central west Africa (#22), that the limits of inferring the influence of objects in Matisse’s collection on specific works, especially with only visual similarities to go on, is reached (and exceeded). The object is part of the rituals of Fang (and related peoples in the region) to maintain contact with a family’s ancestors and other esteemed among the dead. Families of these migratory people keep bark cylindrical containers to carry remains of their ancestors (usually a part of the skull). Atop the box is placed the guardian figure (eyema bieri). The figure itself is carved to resemble the ancestor whose goodwill the votaries seek. They usually have crests and holes where hair plugs or metallic adornments could be anchored (both seen on Matisse’s figurine). The figure is squatting with hands clasped showing both reverence for the ancestral remains and readiness to spring to their defense.

The curators see this figure as something of a model for two paintings Matisse completed in 1914 before war broke out. The first of these is of a prostitute, Seated figure in Violet Stockings (#23). Burnham rightly notes that artists of the time believed that “primitive art,” that is, the art of the places Europeans had colonized, revealed a primal simplicity because of their failure to develop as European societies had. (The rationale for viewing the art as “simple” and “primitive,” of course, was the same that Europeans used to colonize the same people.) She implies that Matisse viewed the African art he collected in a similar way (although he seems to have made no such statement). She quotes a statement by Apollinare, the apostle of “primitivism,” during an interview he had with Matisse: “African negro statuettes [were] proportioned in accord with the passions that inspired them” (Burnham, p. 74, quoting an article by Apollinaire in La Phalange, December 15, 1907). Europeans understood the “passions” of the “African negro” in purely hypersexual terms. Burnham thus sees it natural for Matisse to use such an object to visualize a model posing as a modern sexual being.

Matisse, Seated Figure with Violet Stockings

23. Seated figure in Violet Stockings by Henri Matisse. 1914. Oil on canvas. Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation Collection.

Burnham describes the visual similarities betweeen the Fang figure and the painting: “her rigid posture, elongated torso, and ovoid face–qualities that have been identified by Jack Flam as ‘the most direct use that Matisse ever made of African forms in his painting—are remarkably similar to those of the Fang reliquary figure in Matisse’s personal collection, lending her the imposing stature and abstract features associated by Matisse’s contemporaries with hierattic figures and idols” (Burnham, p.75). Of course the painting’s subject also participates in the modern with stockings and high heels and a modern chair.  Burnham concludes from these observations that Matisse intended “conflicting messages to coexist: prostitute and deity, intimate and stranger.” But even if Matisse intended to impose such a “literary” meaning or totemic quality to this painting (and he always denied doing any such thing), it would have been extraordinary for him to use this Fang object for that purpose. If you look carefully at the image from top to bottom (double-clicking on the image will produce a very large version), you see the following: The ovoid face is the result of a very large forehead, which the model in the painting does not have. The forehead of the statue has a hole for a helmet or hairpiece. The features of the face (allowing for the absence of the large stones for eyes that are typical for this kind of work) are complete with hatchings for eyebrows which join to form the nose. There are decorative incisings along the shoulders, but no “conical breasts” (which Burnham suggested was a feature of African art). As you scan lower you see that the hands are clasped and rather than sitting, the figure is squatting. But the most prominent feature is the male genitalia. So the figure is a man, not a sexualized female id. It would have been hard for a close observer like Matisse to miss such a detail (particularly, as we saw above, since it occurs at one of the junctions he taught painters to concern themselves with—the juncture of pelvis and thighs).

Bambara seated figure

24. Bambara seated figure, Mali. 19th–early 20th century. Wood. Private collection. (Not exhibited at the MFA show.)

This is not to say that Matisse did not use the overall body plan of this figure (or one like it) as a model for his paintings. Indeed, Woman on a High Stool (#15) seems much more like the figurine than the Steated Figure (#23) does, because the the facial features are delineated like the carved figure, her vase-like body (commented on by Pierre Matisse’s drawing on the wall over the table) is like his, the hair of both are pulled back and both are clasping their hands. But there is no hint of sexualization in the portrait of Germaine Rayal, just as there is no hint of sexuality in the statuette. That this second painting has none of the totemic significance ascribed to the first one by Burnham is some proof that the wooden object had no such significance to Matisse. Indeed, if there were a visual and connotative inspiration for the Seated Nude among Matisse’s African statuary collection, it is more likely to have been the Seated Figure from Mali (#24) (not in the exhibition) than the Fang piece. After all, the wooden figure is seated and it is a woman. It has the stiff upright posture that  was noted by both Burnham and Flam. It has the “conical breasts” claimed by Burnham to be typical of African representations of women, and therefore corresponds to the bare-breasted prostitute painted by Matisse. Plus there is more of a similarity in the extension of their arms.

My point is this:  Inferring the visual stimulus for a work based entirely on perceived similarities (and opportunity to copy) is an imprecise endeavor. To then import the “meaning” of the stimulus into the later work makes the entire enterprise more reliant on the intuition of the critic than the artist. Matisse, who invented more visual styles than any other artist in history, was essentially a machine for converting visual stimuli into works that prompted viewers to experience the world differently. He took cues from everything and everywhere. For instance, at Issy he studied the arabesques of the branches and limbs of the two lime trees he could see while he lingered in bed. More than likely that study showed up on one or more works, but we cannot say which, given how completely Matisse refracted vision through a spectrum of imagination, by means of physical objects (in the broadest sense). It may be interesting to compare one object to a work, but really the endeavor rises to no higher level.

For Matisse theAfrican art had a different purpose than either providing a new method of painting the figure or supplying a new “meaning” to his figures. It was more subtle and a more profound. Here is how Matisse described the effect it had on him when he first encountered African figurines at a curiosity shop on rue de Rennes:

I was startled just to see how it was constructed, I mean in terms of sculpture language—how close it was to the Egyptians. In other words, compared to European sculpture, which is always about muscles – because of the emphasis on describing the object – in the African statues the medium dictated the form, while the shapes and proportions were invented (Mattisse & Courthion, pp. 72—73).

The subtlety in which he applied this freedom is seen from what he took from African masks.

The Mask as Window to the Soul

The two major stylistic periods of Matisse’s career between 1906 and the end of World War I involved (i) highly fanciful and stylized mythical figures (like nymphs and satyrs) culminating in the famous Dance II and Music (both in 1910) and and the representation of those works as studio items; and (ii) the highly analytical and abstracting phase during the war. The first is not represented at all in the Boston show and the second only with a few items. There are a number of reasons: many are now located in the Hermitage which evidently still is not lending to the United States, most involve outdoor scenes and almost all involve subjects for which there was  no physical referent capable of being now displayed. But in among these two major stylistic innovations Matisse made portraits many of which suggest the influence of African masks and a representative number are included in the show.

The year 1907 represented a fork in the road in the development of modernism. Fauvism had essentially been played out. Many Fauvists, such as Derain and Braque, were moving toward what would later be called Cubism under the influence of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and began dividing the forms of their composition into overlapping planes giving the illusion of modeling in space. Picasso himself focused on ways of modeling the figure, while Matisse approached a composition as a unity with the figure rendered more abstractly and related to the rest of the work with more attention to formal concerns than yo those of three dimensionality. Indeed, Matisse’s figures were becoming flatter and colored with purer colors (straight out of the tube, as he told Courthion)..

Matisse, Portrait of Marguerite

25. Portrait of Marguerite by Henri Matisse. 1906–07. Oil on canvas. Musée Picasso, Paris.

In 1907 the rvialtry between Picasso and Matisse beyecame overt, each producing works seemingly commenting on the works of the other. Picasso’s younger acolytes (many of whom were more attracted to Picasso’s bohemian lifestyle and provocative and usually impromptu  verbal manifestos than his technical and aesthetic development) saw the professional rivalry in more personal terms than Picasso did. Nevertheless, the two masters agreed to an exchange of pictures. Picasso selected Matisse’s portrait of his thirteen-year-old daughter, Marguerite (#25). The picture itself is quite unlike anything Picasso was exploring at the time. It has an immature quality to it, something like the mannered work of those purposely affecting naiveté. The childlike title reinforces that perspective. But a closer look shows a departure for Matisse. If you look carefully at the brushwork (which you can do by clicking on the picture until you reach maximum enlargement), you will see that Matisse has abandoned his short quick strokes in favor of longer brushstrokes that tend to give the color a calmer, more sedate look. Moreover, the figure is outlined, and the figure is formally posed, looking outward rather than occupied in some activity unrelated to the portraiture.

At the end of 1907 Matisse gave his first published interview to Apollinaire and in that Apollinaire (possibly at Matisse’s prompting) writes that Matisse had processed the art of Egypt, Greece, Asia, pre-Columbia America and Africa into his own synthesis (Apollinaire, “Henri Matisse: (1907), translated in Barr, p. 102). There is little in the Marguerite portrait to justify that sweeping claim. But there is something decidedly mask-like in the portrayal of her face, and Picasso evidently felt that as well. Picasso’s use of masks in his work was entirely different from Matisse’s. For example, in Demoiselles d’Avignon he uses the mask as a substitute for the face (two of the prostitutes are “Africanized” by means of such masks—expressing the ethnocentric European view that the “primitive” was hyper-sexualized).  Matisse, by contrast, used masks to help him analyze features of the face or the face as a whole. Picasso must have felt this because he paired the painting on the wall with a strikingly similar Mukadj mask from the Punu region of Gabon (see 1910 photo of Picasso in his studio in McBreen & Burnham, p. 98). This pairing ought to have put to rest that Picasso acquired the work in order to ridicule Matisse’s talent as well as Spurling’s story that Picasso’s acolytes used the painting as target practice for their suction cup darts (Spurling (1998), pp. 379–80).

Matisse’s transformation of the face into a mask is brought to its extreme conclusion in the remarkable Portrait of Madame Matisse (1913), which unfortunately is not part of the exhibition. The pursed lips, semicircular eyebrows over black eyes the pale complexion and nose with what seems a metaliic tip all sit under a tight cap and atop a body derssed in conservative but fasionalbe suit. The seated figure is surrounded by the blue and green that make up her attire. The atmosphere punctuated by the mask-like face gives the impression that Matisse is expressing one of the many difficult periods in his marriage.

Matisse, Portrait of Sergei Shchukin

26. Portrait of Sergei Shchukin by Henri Matisse. 1912. Charcoal on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

A different use of the mask is found in his drawing of his great patron Sergei Shchukin. Shchukin was the first and probably most important of Matisse’s buyers. A Russian textile magnate he developed a taste for modern art that would become insatiable. He had collected Picasso but soon came to believe that Matisse was the most important artist of the 20th century. Shchukin came to Matisse’s rescue at a time when he needed income to support his growing family. At fist the Russian would visit Matisse’s studio and buy the pick of Matisse’s new crop, sometimes, Matisse would complain, when the paint was still wet. Later he commissioned Matisse for large projects.  (Dance (II) and Music were the result of one such commission.) Shchukin pushed Matisse towards portraits and figure painting. In 1911 he brought Matisse to Moscow to see his house so that Matisse could plan paintings for him personally. Matisse was introduced to the cream of pre-Revolutionary Russia’s aristocracy. And Matisse used the occasion to make close inspections of the best collections of Russian ikons, which he woud incorporate into his own work (seee.g.Zorah Debout (1912)). He sustained Matisse in periods of self-doubt and continued buying work and having Matisse ship them to Moscow until the war ended the possibility of such shipments.

In 1912 Matisse made a drawing of his patron (#26) which was to form the basis of an oil portrait, which never came about. The drawing captures Shchukin’s ample and carefully combed hair, large forehead and nose and high prominent cheekbones. (For comparison, see Dmitry Melnikov’s portrait (1915).) The subtle distortions, however, have been traced by the curators to Gelede mask in Matisse’s collection (#27). The principal feature of the mask is that the skull is elogated ventrally toward the area around the mouth. This causes Shchukin’s prominent forehead to appear to recede and makes his lips appear to extend outward. The wide but compressed crescent eyes (shared with eh mask) seem sunken, also as a result. The mask also has diamond-shaped chiseling under the cheek bone which is reflected in the shadowing in the drawing to represent the hollowing of Shchukin’s cheeks. It is impossible to say how this study would have been used in the portrait but it is not much of a stretch to speculate that Matisse intended to give Shchukin a “non-European” look because Shchukin was a champion of his when the European art establishment looked on in disbelief and the press ridiculed him, but also because Shchukin supported Matisse’s quest to incorporate non-Western influences into his art, both expressly and more subtly.

Gelede Mask

27. Gelede mask. Yoruba region, Benin or Nigeria. 19th–early 20th century. Private collection (formerly owned by Matisse).

Shchukin’s collection (and his mansion) were confiscated after the Revolution, which became a public museum to show the works. Stalin eventually shuttered this repository of bourgeois art. After de-Stalinization, the works were divided between the Pushkin and Hermitage Museums. Shchukin was able to escape Russian to Paris, but by that time Matisse had become a more-or-less permanent resident of Nice.

The most important works influenced, however much indirectly and generally, by African art are the five sculptures of the model Jeanne Vaderin, known as Jeannette I through Jeannette V (#28). While Matisse admitted that he only worked in clay to organize his visual thinking as an aid to painting and while he rarely discussed his sculptures publicly, these five sculptures represent a progression that illustrates his own thinking about form and ended with probably the most profound sculpture of the pre-War 20th century, Picasso notwithstanding.  The first two were modeled from Jean Vaderin herself; the later three were based on the earlier sculptures. These five sculptures depart from conventional sculpture as practiced in the West since the Renaissance in two respects. First, although it is three dimensional art, sculpture in the Western tradition is designed to be viewed from one vantage point. Matisse’s five Jeannettes, on the other hand, are mean to be seen entirely around. It is not simply that the heads are modeled completely so that one can see the front, sides and back. Rather they are designed so that the thing represented looks radically different as you see it from different sides. Jeannette V seen from different sides gives astonishingly different impressions of what the head should look like. Second, Western art until then had been designed to allow the viewer to understand volume and surface texture by how the light reflected from it. Courthion put to Matisse a maxim from da Vinci to the effect that sculpture was inferior to painting because light, in sculpture, defines volume rather than the sculpture. Matisse replied: “My sculpture isn’t made for light as such. Nor is my painting, it’s made for a light that that I create by my own means, a light equivalent to the model that inspires it” (Matisse & Courthion, p. 51). None of the Jeannette heads reflect light in the way that a Donatello sculpture does; nor a Rodin, for that matter. And so they draw you in so that you examine the intricacies of the modeling. And when you are close enough you see that Jeannette V has been splayed before you: without hair, skull partially removed, one eye hollowed out. While Picasso was building a form from the ground up, using planes and angles and geometric principles to analyze what is volume, Matisse tears it down, eliminates the surface and bores to the interior. In the process Matisse lets us see a completely naked human, one without bodily integrity, and yet she retains her dignity, the Essence that Matisse was chasing while Picasso was exploring the Material.

Matisse, Jeannette I – V

28. (l–r): Jeannette I, modeled 1910, cast 1953; Jeannette II, modeled 1910, cast 1952; Jeannette III, modeled 1911, cast 1966; Jeannette IV, modeled 1911, cast 1954; Jeannette V, modeled 1913, cast 1954. Bronze. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Jeannettes would also play their role in the self-referential documentation of Matisse’s oeuvreJeannete III (or at least a plastic cast of the sculpture) appeared in the monumental Red Studio (1911), a seminal work for its compositional innovations, its iconagraphic importance, and for its promotion of the view that an artist’s world must be explored mainly in terms of his own psychological/aesthetic/historical experiences. Jeannette V can be found in Still Life with Plastic Bust (1916).

As for the reason these works appear in the Boston show, Flam suggests that the Bambara seated figure (#24) in Matisse’s possession (Flam (1986) p, 420) provided a source, or at least a way of uderstanding Jeannette V. Whatever the source of inspiration (and it seems rather obvious that it was the logic of the rules that Matisse had laid down for himself beginning with Jeannette III dictated the outcome), the result was an iconic, perhaps even prophetic, moment in 20th century art.

Door lintel

29. Door lintel of the treasure house, eastern Pende region, Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th–early 20th century. Tinted hardwood,. Musée Matisse, Paris.

Two more notes from the show are in order. Matisse never really stopped treating the face as a mask or even using the mask as a frame, a portal, to the model’s face. Over time the ability to translate the principles of a mask onto the face of a model with the intent and effect of “only to interpret her more fully” became nearly automatic. Consider a lintel he acquired sometime after his early years in Nice (#29).

Now look how effortlessly the essence of the mask-like object informs the face of his last important model, Lydia Delectorskaya.

Matisse, Reclining Nude

30. Reclining Nude by Henri Matisse. 1949. Charcoal on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

It must be more than the practiced hand of an eighty-year-old artist that can conflate an ancient eye mask into a drawing of a modern face. It seems to me the combination of two things: the ability to process visual stimuli into a variety of expressions and the ability to see a subject as made up of parts that are analogous to things one has encountered before.

Matisse, Large Face (Mask)

31. Large Face (Mask) by Henri Matisse. 1952. Ink on paper. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As for masks, at the end of his life, he stripped them of everything but their essence: a few lines that suggest features, not hide them. The function of a mask is to reveal the true nature of the wearer, while at the same time hiding the external identity of the wearer. They can be used, just as robes, costumes, cosmetics, or other forms of masking, for nefarious purposes. Or they can be used to reveal the true identity of the wearer. It takes either an artist or a shaman to see the difference, and by the end Matisse thought he was both. However used, masks, like representations of faces, need only a few features. In his 80s Matisse had learned to strip everything but the essential from a mask/face (#21).

Objects as Props

Even before the end of  the war, Matisse began visiting Nice. The French Riviera in general had been a resort for over a century by that point and when Matisse came in 1917 it must have offered a welcome relief from the deprivation, fear and ennui of wartime Paris. Matisse’s yearly visits became longer and eventually he took up more or less permanent residence there for the rest of his life. For a painter the place offered bright sun, sparkling sea, scenic landscapes (Renoir, who lived nearby, said that the olive tees there sparkled like diamonds in the sun), frequent visitors, and even (at least to the mid-1920s) proximity to the center of French cinema production, which offered unexpected advantages (availability of textiles, fabrics and props from sellers who sprung up to service the industry and models which could be found among the hopeful actresses). The effect on Matisse surprised everyone (probably including Matisse himself). His art became flashy, emphasizing decorative effects as well as luxurious settings and eventually included a series of make-believe harem scenes with faux Turkish scenery and an eroticized “odalique” (chambermaid) usually posed at least partially nude. This art was at best pandering to a certain audience and at worst reactionary. The proof was that the 1920s became his most commercially successful period. Marcel Sembat, a government bureaucrat who spent his hard earned dollars on the avant-garde pieces to help keep Matisse afloat, was disgusted when Matisse had produced a work so retrograde, Odalisque in Red Culottes (1922), that the French government did not disdain to purchase it. Roger Fry, long-time defender of Matisse, attributed the popularity of his works in the 20s to their appeal to the wealthy (without directly saying that Matisse had sold out): “In their delight at such an etherialised expression of their own aspirations, the more cultured rich succumbed at last to his spell” (Fry, p. 11). To drive home the unstated point, Fry expressed a desire to see what new departure Matisse would have in the future.

The Boston exhibition has a larger sampling of this period than others, mainly, I suppose, because they include large numbers of objects that can be displayed next to them. But the most interesting work from this part of the show by far, it is quite arresting, is a portrait near the end of this phase, Woman with a Veil (#32).

Matisse, Woman with Veil

32. Woman with a Veil by Henri Matisse. 1927. Oil on Canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

With head propped on her hand and arm anchored on her knee, the model stares at the viewer with an emotional directness that almost all Matisse portraits lack. It is as though she is attempting to express something personal plainly; not as in most portraits where it is Matisse attempting to express something aesthetically. Her expression conveys a feeling deeply felt, one difficult to convey in words.

The model was Henriette Darricarrère. Matisse had spotted her in 1920 in the lot of Studio de la Victorine (the French Hollywood set up by Charles Pathé in 1919), where she was an extra. She had a dignified bearing and a neck that widened at the shoulders (something of a fetish of his, Matisse admitted). Though Matisse already had a regular model (Antoinette), he hired Henrietta for several engagements that year, and in 1921 she became his full-time model. Henriette was athletic and lithe but not delicately chic like nineteen-year-old Antoinette. John Klein (p. 226) says that she gave gravity to the artificial scenes Matisse created and sometime even introduced melancholy; “compared to Antoinette Arnoud, Henriette is more of an anchor than a balloon.”

Matisse and Model

33. Matisse and Henrietta Darricàrrere. ca. 1920. (Aragon, I:88.) Not in MFA exhibition.

Matisse had drifted into portrait painting back in Paris not long after he came to the end of his severely analytical and highly abstract period in 1916 with such works as The Moroccans and Bathers by a River (a painting he first began in 1909, took up again in 1913 and again in 1916–17). Beginning that same year Matisse began painting portraits of friends (notable among these is The Portrait of Sarah Stein). Soon he hired professional models to sit for him. The Boston show has the well known picture, now owned by the Guggenheim in New York, of his first favorite, Lorette, The Italian Woman. His work with her began in November 1916 and lasted nearly a year. While The Italian Woman continued (though less severely) the abstracting trend, stripping out anything thought superficial to the concept (Lorette even wore an inappropriately skimpy outfit for the winter in Paris), over time his work with her became more naturalistic, or at least more traditional. This can be seen in Lorette with a Cup of Coffee (#34), which is included because the curators were able to obtain the the table in Matisse’s collection which holds the cup. Matisse painted Lorette 50 times in the course of one year.

Matisse, Lorette with a Cup of Coffee

34. Lorette with a Cup of Coffee by Henri Matisse. 1917. Oil on canvas. Art Institute of Chicago.

Of Matisse’s first regular model in Nice, Antoinette, the MFA has no examples. But for the period from 1917 to 1921, two trends can be identified. First, Matisse was gravitating towards a less severe approach and one more attuned to popular conceptions of fashionable living. This was evident in the costume design he carried out for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe‘s production of Song of the Nightingale in 1920. (Stravinski’s opera was produced as a ballet for this London performance.) That trend would continue to an almost absurd degree in the 1920s in Nice. Second, Matisse left domestic scenes behind and took up the female model once again. This female, however, was a modern woman, not the traditional embodiment of male desire. She was painted mostly clothed and with a new 20th century importance. Women had done their part to win the war, and they felt their growing self-regard. Society also became more open to female poaitions outside the domestic sphere. Matisse often pictured the new woman with bobbed hair, smart (rather than “elegant”) clothes and high heels. He had no difficulty in fitting Henriette into the “new woman” roles because she was not simply a body. She was an accomplished violinist (she would perform a concerto for a regional orchestra which Matisse not only attended but also had given her encouragement and steeled her against her stage fright) and was competent at the piano. She and Matisse would perform duets (Matisse on his violin) for his amusement. (His stays in Nice became longer, and his wife’s reasons not to join him multiplied.)

Matisse, Moorish Screen

35. Moorish Screen by Henri Matisse. 1921. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Ending his fifth decade of life, Matisse seems to have been revitalized by the young models he hired.  Aragon, who spent much time listening to him reminisce, heard him give many explanations for how he chose his models. One was as though he were a Romantic poet: “It’s always love at first sight for his models” (I:8). Another, quoting Matisse, the imperious genius: “The model is a springboard for me—it’s a door which I must break down to reach the garden in which I am alone and so happy—even the model exists only for the sake of the use I can make of it” (I:235). But from his conduct and his treatment of Henriette in oil (and ink) this recollection seems the most apt: “He choses his model with particular care. Of one girl, he made as many drawings as there are stars in the sky, and commented regretfully that when she left he would be deprived of one whole source of inspiration” (I:27–72). But she was more than just a source of inspiration (although for Matisse  that was nearly all that was important); she was part of the family.

In the summer of 1921 Marguerite visited her father. She became a fast friend of the amiable model. Matisse had them both take part in scenes for him.  The most famous, Moorish Screen (#35), had Henriette standing before a fireplace talking to Marguerite who sat before her in a chair. Beneath both their feet is a Persian carpet and behind them a North African haiti screens (of which the exhibition has several examples from Matisse’s collection) which add intricate ornamentation. These props together with the patterned carpet to the right and the decorated wall paper suffuse the interior with a vibrant emotion. Only those things associated with recognizable persons, the white dresses of Henriette and Marguerite and Matisse’s open violin case, do not participate in the shimmering of the opulent visual surroundings. They, oddly, represent the structural elements of the image, the things of no imortance. Opulent design was the thing of interest. Aside from their working together as models, Matisse delighted in their company, driving them along the coast to see sight or to take them to entertainments.

Matisse got to know her family, and her brothers became part of Matisse domestic interiors. It was as if they supplied a need that he had now that his children had left and his wife was too sick or too indisposed to live with or visit him in Nice. It was not a sexual desire she fulfilled but rather a familial one. The paintings that she and her brothers appeared in were similar to the ones he painted of his own family. She appeared playing the piano alone (Henriette Playing the Piano (1923)). In another she is teaching one brother the piano (The Piano Lesson (1924) while the other reads a book next to them, perhaps an oblique reference to the painting in which his son Pierre trapped behind an enormous piano, appears like a prisoner while his discharges his required daily piano practice (The Piano Lesson (1916)). And there was one in which the brothers played checkers (Pianist and Checker Players (1924)), much like his own children did in the family portrait requested by Shchukin (The Family of the Artist((1911)).

Matisse, Odalisque with Green Sash

36. Odalisque with Green Sash by Henri Matisse. 1926. Oil on canvas. Baltimore Museum of Art.

But above all, Henriette was the one who allowed Matisse to paint his series of staged odalisque paintings. Antoinette had posed in turbans and even Marguerite had tried them on for her father. But it was Henriette who could appear sultry in the silk pants and unfastened or see-through blouses with a sensuous nonchalance. Just as some actresses are said to be loved by the camera, Henriette was loved by the brush, at least Matisse’s. She was elegant and lithe with an expressive face and a body that captured and reflected light in ways that intrigued Matisse. And the harem scenes not only made Matisse relevant among art buyers again, they made him more popular than he had ever been.

Brasero and Tray

37. Brasero and tray. Ottoman region (Turkey or Syria). 19th century. Painted copper, brass and wood. Musée Matisse, Nice. (Used as a prop in ## 36 & 38.)

Although there was precedent for this kind of work in the French pictorial canon—Ingres, for example, painted Grande Odalisque in 1814, and it was a significant work for it marked his break with Neo-Classism. But it is more probable that the source for the idea was inspired by the filming of La sultane de l’amour nearby, a film became France’s first movie hit. As is customary in the commercial film-making industry, a success  spawns countless offspring and soon the Studio de las Victorine was set up with Moorish palaces and prospective actresses lining up to join the celluloid harem. France’s Hollywood even attracted film makers from abroad including Rex Ingram, who made the blockbuster Garden of Allah (1927) there (Spurling (2005), p. 243). Matisse was intrigued by the make-believe that the film industry produced and even set up his own “theatrical” studio where his Turkish seraglio tableaux vivants would take place. He filled that theater/studio with fabrics, rugs, curtains, pillows, brass and copper containers of all sorts. He even rigged a pulley system that allowed for rapid “scene change, although it is unclear to me why that would ever be necessary for an oil painter. Matisse paid considerable attention to the details of all the plots, and the pictures were firmly set in the “real world,” not the non-determinative space he once used. Whatever the outside world thought, Matisse believed that each of these paintings were experiments in color and design, not a retreat from the formal advances he had staked out in Paris and Issy.

Aragon looking back believed that Matisse’s paintings of both Antoinette in 1917 and the Odalisques of Henriette, especially Nude on a Blue Cushion (1924), reflected a different, possibly unknown to Mattisse, aesthetic drive; namely, the motivation to conquer Innes’s 1814 Portrait of Madame de Senonnes (Aragon II: 110). It is true that Matisse tends to make the faces of these two models much more ovoid over time, but you, of course, can compare for yourself. For what it is worth, Aragon submitted drafts and proofs of his “novel” to Matisse, who evidently did not contradict this observation. And Matisse always admitted his early and continued fascination in this particular work by Innes. But the fact was that Matisse is on an altogether different project, one that he attempted before and one in which Henriette with her physical abilities and attributes were essential, and one that would have astounded his friends and enemies alike.

Matisse, Reclining Nude, Back View

38. Reclining Nude, Back View by Henri Matisse. 1927. Oil on canvas. Private collection. (To be shown only in the London installation of this exhibition.)

Matisse’s white whale was to create a modern recreation of Night, one of the two large allegorical figures on Michelangelo’s Tomb of Guiliano de Medici. Given how Matisse worked with clay, the project would involve many, long and painful sittings given the physical contortions required to mimic Michelangelo’s original. This was not solely attributable to Matisse’s notorious habit of repeatedly remolding clay before he settled on a final structure. The deeper problem was Matisse’s opposition to the Renaissance aesthetic. Matisse held that the masters of the High Renaissance sculpture, derived their idea of form from a deep understanding of anatomy. Matisse, on the other hand. claimed that he would work to understand anatomy, but once he understood it, he discarded the rules and proceeded only on the basis of his feeling (Aragon, I:81). As he said: “The model, for other people, is a source of information. For me, it’s something that arrests me” (Aragon, I;85). But this rather glib analysis does not explain how he would use a model to show him the anatomy of a Renaissance original (based on its creator’s own understanding of anatomy) and from what source the “emotion” would come. After all, the original would have to be part of any appreciation of the work; Matisse could not retreat to his own solipsistic defense of the final work (however much it differed from Michelangelo’s) or else why use a model at all?

In the end it took four years after he began the project in earnest in 1925 to complete it, two of those years after Henriette left. The result, Large Seated Nude, was another masterpiece of 20th century sculture, probably Matisse’s best. But along the way he and Henriette created another masterpiece out of the Odalisque paintings: Decorative Figure on Ornamental Ground (1926). Because the work is not part of the exhibition I will not analyze it here, except to note that in it Matisse resolves several problems for the last time: how to render solidity in two dimensions, how to anchor a figure in a decorative field, and how to relate two dimension decoration in the same work as a three dimensional object.

Mboom mask (Kuba)

39. Mboom mask, Kuba Kingdom. Democratic Republic of Congo. 19th–early 20th century. Wood, textile, shell, pearls, seeds, copper, and mixed media. Musée Matisse, Nice.

So returning to Woman with a Veil (#32), can we make a pausible guess at what Henriette is trying to convey?  Spurling speculates that her only bespeaking her physical exhaustion (which is why she is propping her head with her hand). In Spurling’s credit account, Henriette had collapsed the previous year while modeling, perhaps for Night. On the debit side, the unique combination of elements for Matisse seems hardly called for to paint a tired model.  Schneider notices the similarities to the rendering of Michelangelo’s other Medici tomb—that of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino. In the sculpture of the Duke himself, the figure has his forearm on his knee, his hand to his mouth, a pensive pose and a shadow on his forehead from his hemet (Schneider, p. 528). The curators of this exhibition see the portrait as heavily influenced by an African head in his collection, the the Mboom mask from the Congo (#39). In favor of that interpretation are: the veil-like band covering the figure’s eyes, the headpiece and the white streaks trailing from Henriette’s neck which possibly invoke the patch hanging from the mask’s necklace. It seems to me, however, a much too fraught occasion for the foregoing explanations to fully account for the image. If the expression were not enough, she is wearing a veil which could merely be a part of her Turkish costume, but never was before and her posture and direct gaze is hardly the pose of someone simulating the modesty the veil would suggest, so I think we are warranted in considering the connotations of a veil in the West. I therefore conclude (or would like to think in any event) that both were grieved by their parting, knowing that they had not only formed a familial bond, but also made some unusual pictures together, and two masterpieces. I tend to agree with Flam that Matisse  employed  something like Picasso’s language to treat this final portrait. Not Picasso’s vocabulary, because Matisse was not familiar enough with it, but perhaps the phonemes of some words of that vocabulary. These include: the direct engagement between the subject and the artist/viewer. The passive setting of the figure within the space of the canvas. The cross-hatching of the shawl, suggesting a nod towards an analytical approach to the figure. The fracturing of the face into planes by the veil over the eyes. “It is almost as if, from the expression of such intense sorrow Matisse instinctively turned towards the vocabulary of Picasso, the better to express an emotion that was common to Picasso’s art but so foreign to his own” (Flam (2003, p. 148).

After Henriette left him, he tried to continue his theater art, but he quit it not long after his wife joined him in Nice. Soon he left for Tahiti, with no real purpose. He only engaged a full time assistant (who would reluctantly become a model later) in the mid-1930s. That engagement lead to a crisis in Matisse’s marriage, not, however, because she believed that Matisse was sexually unfaithful to her, but because the assistant had assumed the role of manager of Matisse’s studio (a role that Amélie had considered her own since their marriage more than 25 years earlier). Matisse fired the assistant, but Amélie left him for good anyway. Fleeing the Nazis Lydia Delectorskaya returned to Matisse because she had no place else to go. Lydia, who had escaped the Russian Revolution before first coming to Matisse, experienced her second world-changing upheaval with Matisse. She would remain his companion, studio manager and nurse for the rest of his life.

Objects and their Metamorphoses

Pewter jug

40. Pewter jug. Northern France. Late 18th century. Engraved pewter. Musée Matisse, Nice.

What followed Matisse’s decade long engagement with his conservative staged pieces, Matisse gradually returned to exploration of the frontiers of modern art beginning around 1931. For the first decade he experimented with the abstract realations between a figure and the field. After that (the demarcation can be set at 1941 when a series of operations left his bedridden) his art became increasingly preoccupied by the use of lines themselves. The development during this period was not as rapid as at the early part of Matisse’s work, but it involved many individual pieces and many variations on the basic theme he was develping. Instead of tracing it, let me focus on one aspect that becomes apparent given how the exhibition isolates its selection to those related to referents they are able to display: In the last two decades of his life, Matisse developed the visual acuity to see the variety of ways an object could be visually transformed and the technical competence (mainly through the fluent use of brush or blade to made graceful lines) to fit that transformation into an overriding design of the work. I’ll give three examples.

Pewter Jug

41. Pewter Jug by Henri Matisse. 1917. Oil on wood. Private collection.

At the transition between Matisse’s severe period and his early Nice period Matisse executed a still life (#41) which featured a pewter jug (#40). The composition used the curves of the belly of the jug to emphasize its volume. But those curves also carried over to the folds of the cloth drooping on the table (which looks something like long fingers). We can see the jug partially, as diffracted by the glass (and the water in the glass). The curves also provide a visual cue for us to look at the plate containing the glass as well as two pieces of fruit. The fluted edge of the plate is a flattened version of the pattern of the grooved jug and the folded cloth. Although this contributes to the decorative effect of the composition, the forms are modeled and we see them in three dimensions.

When Matisse took up this jug again, he used it as an accessory in two highly decorative and very stylized portraits of a woman in a chair next to a small table that holds the jug which now functions as a flower pot. In the MFA show the portrait is Purple Robe and Anemones (from the Baltlmore Museum of Art); at the London show the portrait will be Yellow Odalisque (#42).

Matissse, Yellow Odalisque

41. Yellow Odalisque by Henri Matisse. 1937. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art. (At the London show only.)

In these two pictures (which share the same elements and approach to composition), the figures are considerably flattened consistent with the tendency of his works at the time. Both pictures are a riot of boldly renderded decorative effects, with the emphasis on lines whether (nearly) straight or curved. The thickness of the lines as well as the pure (untinted or modeled) colors make the effect jump out at the viewer, although the treatment of the figures makes them two dimensional. This is almost the reversal of the functions of line, color and modeling of Matisse’s early still lifes.

The show collects a handful of the drawings Matisse made of this jug as either part of a still life, a prop to a figure or studies of the [arts of the jug al leading up to his 1941 oil Still Life with Magnolias, which unfortunately is not shown at the exhibition. But these stages show how Matisse was able to progressively re-conceptualize his use of the jug from the 1910s to his migration towards design in the late 1930s and early 1949s.

Matisse Chair

42. One of the photographs Matisse sent Aragon showing the Baroque chair that “bowled” him over set among various of the other items we find in his paintings. (This photograph is not at the show, although the actual chair is.)

The second example involves a highly ornate Baroque chair that Matisse bought in 1942. He immediately wrote to Aragon about his excitement over the purchase. “I have at last found the object for which I’ve been longing for a whole year. It’s a Venetian baroque chair, silver gilt with tinted varnish, like a piece of enamel. You’ve probably seen something like it. When I found it in an antique shop, a few weeks ago, I was quite bowled over. It’s splendid. I’m obsessed with it. I am going to bounce on it gently when I come back in the summer from Switzerland” (Matisse to Aragon, 20/4/42 together with a sketch of the chair). The chair is highly decorative. The seat and back are made up of two halves of a cockleshell. (Remember the chapter in Ulysees where Dedalus contemplates the “modality of the visible”? The women with dog he encountered then are “Cocklepickers.”) The arms were snakelike animals with their head resting on the seat. The legs were also highly wrought. Matisse was so excited for the chair, and how it interacted with the other highly decorative items in his flat at Cimiez that he sent Aragon eight photographs of the seat in different settings (e.g., #42).

Matisse, Interior in Yellow and Blue

43. Interior in Yellow and Blue by Henri Matisse. 1946. Oil on canvas. Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.

Whatever excited Matisse about this object he did not explain. Perhaps it was a symbol of luxury and comfort that existed before the Nazi occupation of France. It seems entirely unlike any of the art he was exploring them (or even at any time before in its career). It violated his basic rule of art: that it should be stripped of everything that was not important. This chair is nothing if not an object in unnecessary detail. Nevertheless, it became a subject for a series of drawings (four of which are in the show) where the chair dominates the paper. In two, he draws the chair facing forward holding a vase of flowers, and the long stems combine with the lines of the back of the chair to make it look as though the flowers are exploding out of a the shell that is the chair. In another the chair sits slightly behind the ornate table we see in his photgraph (#42). The table holds a large vase without flowers. A stool behind the chair holds a vase of flowers.

That drawing was the basis for the painting Interior in Yellow and Blue (#43). The scene is not entirely flattened, but the perspective employed is quite “primitive.” And the figures themselves are only represented by outline. The canvas is divided into three fields: two solid blue and one solid yellow. The bottom blue field (a tabletop?) has lemons, a plate and a glass. The fruit is colored as is the glass; the plate is white and outlined. The only other objects colored are the leaves of the flowers in the vase on the stool. The work is a prime example of his increasingly “empty” figures set in fields that that are merely color panels.

Matisse, Rocaille Chair

44. Rocaille Chair by Henri Matisse. 1946. Oil on canvas. Musée Matisse, Nice.

All of the foregoing become mere preludes to his Rocaelle Chair (#44). The chair is no longer an object acting with other objects or acting as a prop to a model. It has become the subject and indeed occupies the entire canvas by itself except for a small bouquet of flowers on its seat. The cockleshell seat and back is ignored and the carved design of the leg reduced to a functional component; the only “ornamental” aspect of either the chair or of the painting are the snake arms, although the snakeheads are not fully delineated. If one did not know what the chair looked like, it is possible that the reptilian nature of the appendages would go unnoticed. They do provide, however, the arabesques running from the bottom left side to the right top half which are the principal design feature of he work. Aside from white, there are only three colors: the green of the arms (and leaves of the flowers), the golden yellow of the seat and back and the dark red of the background. This chair has undergone a complete metamorphosis from a rather tasteless rococo armchair, to an object in a setting, to a subject in its own right.. And not simply a subject, but a monumental one, so much so that it cannot be fitted into the canvas. It is as though Matisse had concluded, by using the methods he formerly did of human models, with multiple canvases until he discovered the “correct” pose, that he finally reached the essential artistic core of this object.

Calligraphy panel

45. Calligraphy panel. Chine, Qing dynasty. 19th century. Lacquered wood with gilding. Musée Matisse, Nice.

The final metamorphosis I will note is in reality more of a general transmogrification of  his means of communication. It is immediately apparent from the first viewing of any of his very late works (whether cut-outs or drawn figures) that Matisse had decided to so radically reduce his means of expression that it became solely the outline of the objects he placed on the field. All expression by the artist would be by color and the line.


46. Acrobat by Henri Matisse. 1952. Ink on paper. Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.

When you compare the wooden panel with the panel Chinese ideograms which he mounted on the wall above the head of his bed or the Arabic script contained on a wall hanging in his studio with one of the simple line drawings which converted an athletic pose into an ideogram itself (#46), it is clear that he saw, at the end of his life, that his works should have the directness of writing and like writing dispense with all lines that are unconnected with the most economical form of intellectual communication. Matisse had traveled so far in this direction that it requires the written word, the title of the piece, to allow us to decode it at all. But once we know the subject, we see that all of the information that was intended to be conveyed is present. In the end, he happened on the most parsimonious definition of art: intellectual communication. All the attributes (style, grace, beauty) have to be derived from the information the artist communicates. It is no longer a question of the artist mediating between an external reality (however conceived) and the expression of the intellectual content he intends to convey. This not only is the most radical version of modernism possible, but it also contradicts much of what Matisse said he was trying to achieve from 1908 forward.

The response to any concern over seeing that Matisse eventually betrayed his earlier manifesto is something Aragon declared in his edition years after Matisse died (and therefore had no ability to comment on): “When a great painter speaks,  we must retain much of what he says. But also, when he judges himself, we must know how to close our ears to his words firmly though respectfully” (Aragon I:75).

Final Thoughts about the Installation

The career of Matisse is far too diverse to adequately explore it in a single exhibition unless it is the size of the 1992 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The MFA attempts to find an organizing principle that allows one to see the entire range of his career on a much smaller scale. The theme selected, Matisse’s studio works or practices, is almost absurdly overly broad because Matisse was essentially a studio painter his entire career (except, curiously enough, for his seminal break-through during the summer of 1905; and his Morocco trips). Even in Tahiti he painted indoors. But whether indoors or just outside his home, he made everything a studio:

“Every place the family ever lived in—cramped Paris flats, disused convents, borrowed houses in Bohain and less Lesquielles, seaside lodgings in St-Tropez, Colliuure and Cavalière—became primarily a studio. At Issy Matisse regularly produced nature works in the garden, the living room and upstairs in his bedroom (his wife’s dressing table with its hatpin stand and ring saucer was the subject of a majestic dual response to Cézanne and Cubism, The Blue Window)” (Spurling, (2005), p. 176).

It doesn’t particularly help to try to restrict that universe to those paintings for which the curators were able to find studio referents (for reasons that I mentioned throughout the review).

Nevertheless the sheer number of items included and its sampling from each stage of his career ensure that the exhibition justifies (and indeed requires) several viewings. Matisse showed us so many different ways of seeing things, and carefully studying them gives us many different ways of seeing Matisse and modern art in general.


Aragon, [Louis], Henri Matisse: A Novel trans. by Jean Stewart (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972). 2 volumes.

Barr, Alfred H., Jr., Matisse, his Art and his Public (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951).

Bock-Weiss, Catherine, Henri Matisse: Modernist against the Grain (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009).

Burnham. Helen, “African Art and the Nude” in Matisse in the Studio ed. by Ellen McBreen & Helen Burnham (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017), pp. 67–93.

Carlson, Eric Gustav, “‘Still Life with Statuette’ by Henri Matisse,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 1967), pp. 4-13. (JSTOR)

Elderfield, John, Henri Matisse: A Retrospective (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992). (Internet Archive)

Flam, Jack D., Matisse, The Man and his Art, 1869-1918 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

Flam, Jack D., Matisse on Art (Rev. ed.: Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

Flam, Jack D., Matisse and Picasso: The Story of their Rivalry and Friendship (Cambridge, Mass: Ion Edition/Westview Press, 2003).

Fry, Roger, Henri-Matisse (Paris, Editions des Chroniques du jour; New-York: E. Weyhe, 1930).

Grammont, Claudine, “The Object as Actor” in  Matisse in the Studio ed. by Ellen McBreen & Helen Burnham (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017), pp. 45–65.

Gowing, Lawrence, Matisse ((New York: Oxford University Press, 1979

Klein, John, Matisse Portraits (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2001).

Kramer, Hilton, “Matisse as a Sculptor,” Boston Museum Bulletin, Vol. 64, No. 336 (1966), pp. 48-65. (JSTOR)

MacChesen, Clara T., “A Talk with Matisse, Leader of Post-Impressionists,” New York Times Magazine, March 9, 1913, p. 12. (NY Times) (ProQuest)

McBreen, Ellen & Helen Burnham (eds.), Matisse in the Studio (Boston: MFA Publications, 2017).

Matisse, Henri & Pierre Courthion, Chatting with Henri Matisse: The Lost 1941 Interview edited by Serge Guilbaut; translation by Chris Miller (Los Angeles, California: Getty Research Institute, 2013).

Rubin, William, “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern  (New York  Museum of Modern Art, 1994).

Schneider, Pierre, Matisse (New York: Rizzoli, 1984).

Spurling, Hilary, “How Matisse Became a Painter,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 135, No. 1084 (July 1993), pp. 463-70. (JSTOR)

Spurling, Hilary, The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Early Years, 1869–1908 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).

Spurling, Hilary, Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005).

Stein, Gertrude, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (©1933). (Online edition by University of Adelaide)

Botticelli and the Crisis of Humanism in Renaissance Florence

“Botticelli and the Search for the Divine”
at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

School of Botticelli, Altar Piece, Montelupo

1. Enthroned Virgin and Child with St. Sebastian, St Lawrence, St John the Evangelist and St. Roch by student of Botticelli. Tempera on Panel (Altar Piece). ca. 1495–1500. Pieve di San Giovanni Evangelista, Montelupo, Italy. All numbered illustrations are of pieces shown at MFA exhibition. Click to enlarge any picture.

Fifteenth century Florence experienced one of the more remarkable periods of Western cultural history. Politically, if any place saw the West emerge from corrupt theocratic feudalism it was Florence. Florence was a republic, a form of government rare enough over the past millennia and a half, but it became the center of a useful trade, textiles, which united, at least commercially, most of Europe and less directly the much more enlightened Muslim world and places further east. With Dante (who was a soldier in the political struggles of the time) Florence became a (arguably the) center of post-medieval literature. In the 15th century (the early Renaissance proper) he was followed by Florentine writers such as Boccaccio, a pioneer of the novel form, and Machiavelli, a pioneer of political theory. And in between Florence was a center of Neoplatonic research. As for sculpture, Florence produced, among others, Donatello, who seems to have channelled the Hellenistic approach to produce works, virtually without immediate precedent, which we recognize as vital and startling even today. And of course a century later Florence would produce Michelangelo, who would define High Renaissance sculpture and painting in the 15th century, both of which remain a standard by which Western visual art is measured. Leonardo da Vinci was also born in the Florentine Republic and began his career there, and Raphael spent significant time there. Indeed, before the Renaissance, Giotto, the most innovative painter until that time, lived and worked in Florence.

But there is no denying that paintings during the period between Giotto and Michelangelo leave us early 21st century nonspecialists completely cold, and perhaps not only us. Even art historians who try to engage us with the paintings of this period, urge us to make allowances. Mather, for instance (p. 157), tells us that even the more famous of these artists, such as Fra Filippo Lippi or Ghirlandaio, are “by no means great artists” and that while their importance to the history of art is “slight,” they are “very important” in the history of taste. Even the frequently over-the-top booster Bernard Berenson cautions us (II:1) that painting “offers but a partial and not always the most adequate manifestation” of the personalities of these Florentine painters, because in addition to painting, often they were sculptors, architects, poets and scientists as well.

There are a number of reasons for the emotional distance we have with these painters—a distance we do not have when experiencing great art of cultures we have almost no understanding of (say, the cave paintings of Lascaux or the sculptures of early Hindu and Buddhist votaries in Southeast Asia). The typical work shown in museums are tempera painted panels. Whatever this may look like in natural Tuscan sunlight, in a museum these works have an annoying glare that make them nearly impossible to see as a whole (and this is the case in the MFA exhibit I am going to discuss, which used harsh overhead halogen lights). A more significant problem from our point of view is that these artists had not entirely mastered all the techniques to make what we consider a harmonious composition. It is unfair to blame them, because they were essentially inventing things like 2-dimensional perspective, compositional settings, color harmony, and so forth, since, unlike sculpture, the Greeks did not leave behind two-dimensional pictorial art for the “re-born” artists to follow. It is nevertheless something that bothers our sensibilities. But the overriding objection we instinctively have is that the subject matter of 15th century (the Quattrocento, as the cognoscenti call it) Florentine painting of this period is largely confined to a very few number of types, repeated endlessly: virgin seated with child, adoration of the Magi, and so forth. Portraits, generally from the shoulders up, show people who although wearing much more interesting costumes (Florence was, after all, the center of European textile trade), have expressions and postures almost as unapproachable as that in early New England portraiture, an art form that solidified the reputation of New England Puritans as among the more forbidding people ever. And historical or mythical paintings (and even religious ones) contain iconography teaming with such esoteric symbolism that we cannot hope to understand it and have little interest to try.

Botticelli, Three Graces

The Three Graces, a detail of Primavera by Sandro Boticelli. ca. 1482. Tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. (Not in MFA exhibition.)

But all of the foregoing notwithstanding, there are two images from 15th century Florence, parts of two different paintings, that connect with modern viewers: the Three Graces in the painting Primavera (shown left) and the Venus figure in The Birth of Venus. The Graces may be the very first important nudes in Western art, but independent of that their pose expresses a dance of such spontaneous lissomeness that we immediately see them as the personifications of “grace.” The Venus figure expresses a kind of wistfulness so resonant that it has been used in the logo of a software company, among other desecrations. The paintings from which these figures come were fashioned by the same artist: Sandro Botticelli. And so the exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts “Botticelli and the Search for the Divine,” which runs until July 9, gives us an entry into this representative of Quattrocento painting in Florence and allows us to examine our own, and Florence’s, attitudes about what makes art.

The Boston show contains neither The Birth of Venus nor Primavera (they are by far the most popular possessions of the Uffizi and therefore probably travel rarely) but the MFA is now showing one of the two solo Venus paintings (probably by Botticelli’s workshop) and another famous mythological work as part of its small but representative collection of Botticelli’s career which includes a handful of significant masterpieces. The exhibition is organized around Botticelli’s vision of what constitutes the “divine,” from the earliest of his works through the period when liberal Florence encountered the singular Hell-preaching demagogue and reformer, Girolamo Savonarola. Representative works from each stage of his development are shown, but to consider them with appropriate grounding we should probably first trace the highlights of his life.

Brief Biography of Botticelli

Very little is known of the public life of Botticelli, and essentially nothing of his inner life (except his paintings to the extent they are a reliable guide). He left behind no memoir or correspondence and his contemporaries recorded next to nothing about his sayings or doings. Over a half century after his death, Marsilio Vasili gathered together such stories and sayings about Botticelli that were handed down and added to them plausible fictions designed to make certain moral, aesthetic and political points in his collection of The Lives of the Painters (first published in 1568). As a courtier to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici Vasari had great antipathy for Botticelli, whom he believed had gone over to the opposition when the Medici were driven from Florence in 1494. Although Vasari acknowledged Botticelli’s importance as a painter, it is obvious that he minimizes his work and fabricates unflattering stories. Nevertheless, much of what he says is still uncritically passed on because there really is not anything much else to offer.

From tax filings by his father we know that Botticelli was born ca. 1444. His father, Mariano di Vanni d’Amedeo Filipepi, was a tanner, and the family lived in the Ognissanti parish of Florence. Born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Botticelli was the youngest of four boys to survive childhood. The name “Botticello” was first applied to his oldest brother, the pawnbroker Giovanni, evidently based on his appearance (“little barrel”), The first record of its application to Sandro is a 1470 document referring to Sandro Mariano Botticello.

Giovanni’s upward mobility allowed the family to move to larger quarters in the same parish in 1464 on the Via Nuova, and Giovanni would inherit that house. Botticelli, who remained a bachelor his entire life, never left that home.

It was probably when he was around 14 that Botticelli was apprenticed. If so, he had a considerably longer liberal arts education than most youths destined for a craft (and painting was also considered a craft). Vasari says that Sandro was apprenticed to a goldsmith. This might have been his own brother Antonio (who may have been in business with their father acting as the beater of gold leaf). Vasari says that Sandro came into contact with painters in that position (painters used gold leaf in their paintings for wealthy merchants and bankers) and decided on a career in that field. Possibly with the assistance of influential figures in the neighborhood (the Vespucci lived there and later commissioned Botticelli for work at the Ognissanti church), Sandro’s father arranged for him to be placed in the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi no later than 1460. In 1469 when Fra Filippo died, his son Filippino Lippi joined Botticelli’s workshop. The activities of Botticelli between 1460 and 1469 are not documented, but many, based on the differences between Botticelli’s work in the 1470s and Fra Filippi’s own work, have speculated (with no documentary support) that Botticelli studied with both Antonio Pollaiolo and Andrea del Verrocchio. These latter two artists are supposed to have taught Botticelli how to give his figures more “volume” as well at the rudiments of anatomy.

Botticelli, Portrait of Young Man Wearing Mazzocchio

2. Portrait of a Young Man Wearing a Mazzochio by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1480. Tempera on wood. Galleria Palatina, Florence.

In 1470 Botticelli finished his first dated work, Fortitude, commissioned by the Tribunale dell’Are della Mercanzia, the important tribunal of the association of merchants of Florence. The work hung among others painted by Pollaiolo, which indicated Boticelli’s growing reputation. During the 1470s Botticelli must have attracted the notice of the inner circle of the Medici because after the aborted 1478 Pazzi conspiracy (in which a merchant faction attempted to overthrow the Medici interests which ruled Florence and nearly resulted in the assassination of Lorenzo de’ Medici), Botticelli was commissioned to paint the effigies of the executed conspirators. (This wall painting no longer exists.) Before then Botticelli executed portraits for the Medici circle, and after that time he painted historical works and devotional pieces which his workshop became famous for. Botticelli’s portraits (e.g., #2), were unlike the traditional approach to that genre. Rather than paint idealized version of the subject, he painted them true to life, making them seem harsh to some. When he placed real figures into historical, mythological or religious settings, he continued that approach. For example, in the Birth of Venus we can speculate that the two flying “wind” deities must be based on real models because they are so individualized.

Botticelli’s reputation had grown to such an extent that he was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV to paint several frescos in the new Sistine Chapel. During that long-term engagement he worked out a solution to issues presented by the visual narrative, a form he would explore in a number of ways in the future. When he returned to Florence in 1482 (never to leave again), his reputation secured, he became a Medici favorite in the 1480s. This, of course, was helped by the fact that his major competitors had moved out of Florence: Leonardo da Vinci had moved to Milan in 1482, not to return until 1500; in 1484 the Pollaiolos left for Rome and in 1489 Verrocchio removed to Venice. The last three never returned to Florence. It was during this period that Botticelli painted the four pioneering works of Renaissance humanism: PrimaveraBirth of VenusPallas and the Centaur and Venus and Mars.

Vasari wrote that on his return from Rome, Botticelli made a close study of Dante and began his long project of illustrating the Commedia, and he added this rather odd assessment of the value of the project:

[Upon completion of the paintings in the Vatican] he returned immediately to Florence, where, being a man of inquiring mind, he made a commentary on part of Dante, illustrated the Inferno, and printed it; on which he wasted much of his time, bringing infinite disorder into his life by neglecting his work. He also printed many of the drawings that he had made, but in a bad manner, for the engraving was poorly done.

Boticelli continued devotional paintings in the 1480s refining his approach to Virgin-and-Child work to such an extent that it was copied throughout Italy and beyond. His fresco of St. Augustine for his parish church, commissioned by his neighbors the Vespucci, was completed in the early part of the decade. By the end of that decade he began experimenting with stylistic distortions that would anticipate Mannerism by decades.  Those experiments would continue, and his works would become increasingly stylized, symbolic and expressionistic for the rest of his life.

In 1494 a combination of the French invasion, a popular uprising over Medici mishandling of it, and clamor for more wide-based sovereignty led to the exile of the Medici and the rise of a firebrand, puritanical reformer and apocalyptic preacher, Girolamo Savonarola. This one-time Dominican monk soon dominated all of Florence’s religious and political life. He led a movement that not only democratized the republic but also entirely reversed its cultural orientation, substituting severe piety and an ascetic view of morality. As a result Botticelli no longer had a market for humanistic works and his output was restricted to religious paintings, but not the celebratory works of the past. Rather, they took on a mournful, austere look and were filled with symbolism relating to suffering (of Christ, of the Virgin and John the Baptist, of the saints, of Florence and mankind in general). At the same time he continued his movement towards a kind of expressionism that rejected the tendency of the art of the past quarter century to emphasize space, perspective and natural approaches to subjects in favor of a mannered and in some cases severely exaggerated stylization, together with esoteric references and symbolism, this time to religion rather than the humanistic teachings of the scholars in the Medici circle.

His brother Simone’s diary entry for November 1499 says that the followers of the overthrown (and executed) Savonarola used Botticelli’s studio for their clandestine meetings, and from this (and Vasari’s accusations) many have concluded that Botticelli himself was a follower of Savonarola during his last years. But Botticelli’s name was not among the signatories of the petition of Florentine citizens to the Pope to lift the ban on the friar’s preachings, and even during the height of the enthusiasm for the friar anti-Savonarolans visited Botticelli openly.

Among Botticelli’s last works was a 1496 fresco for a convent just outside the city of St. Jerome, which was destroyed in 1529. The very oddly symbolic and pensive Mystic Nativity, the only signed and dated work of all existing Botticellis, was painted in 1500. By the beginning of the 16th century Botticelli’s works (both his earlier ones and his new expressionistic ones) fell out of favor and attention was turned to the new High Renaissance style of the other Florentines, former citizens and residents da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. So precipitous and deep was the plunge of Botticelli’s reputation that it was not until the mid-19th century that a revival began (mostly of his early highly decorative works) and not till the turn of the century, when another full-scale crisis of European liberalism acted out, that reappraisal began.

Botticelli’s Influences and his Early Devotional Works

The Boston exhibition begins with a half dozen works by Botticelli’s master, Filippo Lippi, a Carmelite friar who quit the monastery (although not released from his vows), became, among other things, the chaplain of a nunnery in Florence. During an engagement for the cathedral in Prato the former monk violated his vows (and other things) with a novitiate of the cathedral, whose union produced a son, Filippino Lippi, who would become an apprentice of Botticelli (thus squaring a circle I guess). The works illustrate all the reasons we find 15th century Florentine painting off-putting, which I sketched above. One painting illustrates an even more  fundamental reason—we view the function of an artist entirely differently than they did.

Filippo Lippi, Virgin with Angels and Saints

3. Virgin and Child with Saints, Angels and Donor by Filippo Lippi. ca. 1430s. Tempera on panel. Venice, Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

In Fra Filippo’s early work Madonna and Child with Saints, etc. (#3) has all the (lack of) immediacy, but none of the heuristic value of a piece from the High Middle Ages. Perhaps the linear perspective is a bit better, but the use of it does not enhance the picture. The figures are oddly shaped, strangely grouped and their faces have no expression. The angels playing the musical instruments show no joy; indeed, they look pained. But the painting highlights a contemporary figure in the foreground—the patron of the painting, and this illustrates the most important difference between painting of that time and the painting we are most familiar with: the role of the artist.

In the 19th century Romanticism introduced the conviction that artists (in all arts) were the creative agents of their works, motivated by some ill-divined inspiration-producing force. But before then, artistic inspiration was something that was unheard of in post-classical times in Europe. And while Greek poets (and their Roman imitators) ritualistically sought the aid of the Muses (see, for example, the first lines of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid), no one really wanted in-spiring, which meant divine possession, and almost always resulted in madness, for example, what happened to Ajax in the play by Sophocles.

In the Middle Ages artists were merely craftsman, as Thomas Aquinas makes clear in the typical circular manner that scholastic writers’ thoughts ran. In a gloss on Aristotle Aquinas wrote: “Art does not require rectitude of appetite.” You can explore in detail the thinking behind this conclusion by reading Singleton’s essay (cited in the Sources below), but here is the abbreviated version: Aquinas divided human activity into two mutually exclusive categories: making (facere) and doing (agere). Practicing art, he rather laboriously explains, is making, and is judged by the good of an external thing (bona exteriora). Doing (which he illustrates by such things as thinking, willing, hoping, seeing), however, is evaluated by the subjective intention of the doer (humana bona) and therefore requires prudence. Art, however, does not because it is simply a mechanical task. not an expression of the subjective intent of the artist.

Filippo Lippi, Virgin and Child, Medici Riccardi

4. Virgin and Child by Filippo Lippi. ca. 1466–69. Palazzo Medici Riccardo, Florence.

Baxandall, by citing numerous example, has shown (pp. 3–27), that the analysis of Aquinas would continue to be valid in the early Renaissance, not because of Aristotle but based of a commercial fact: Unlike the market for art that we are familiar with, paintings of the 15th century Italy were largely designed, not by the artist, but by the customer. (In Aquinas’s day, art was commissioned by the Court or Church almost exclusively.) Of course the buyer generally could not come up with an entirely new pictorial composition, but repeated tropes could be used (virgin and child, adoration of Magi, annunciation, etc.) with variation. The customer could specify who would be added, what color their costumes, how much of the expensive pigment or gold flakes would be used, and so forth. All of this would be reduced to a written contract, and sometimes the artist would provide a sketch of the composition to be appended. On occasions a third-party arbitrator would be appointed to certify progress of completion or when payment was due or even whether the final work was of sufficient quality to comply with the contract (perhaps something like our merchant contracts which require a “warranty of merchantability”). As Baxandall put it (p. 3), “in the fifteenth century painting was still too important to be left to the painters.” Of course, what it was important for was also important: private devotional use, furniture decoration, gifts to business partners, political figures, churches, public aggrandizement, etc. In one respect, however, there is a similarity: both contemporary patrons and and those 600 years ago commissioned portraits. Early Renaissance ones may not have had the variety or flair of modern ones, but they yoked artist and patron in much the same way.

Botticelli, Madonna of the Loggia

5. Madonna of the Loggia by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1467. Tempera on wood. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

The commercial customs in which the artist had to operate greatly restricted much of what we consider the artist’s purpose—to create an individual work that expresses the artist’s personal vision. The talent of the artist, and indeed his individuality, was not to be seen in the overall work but rather in subtle handling of details. This way of experiencing visual art does not allow us to experience large emotions like the grandeur we feel on seeing a Greek or Hellenistic frieze, the power of a Caravaggio, or the wonder of new ways of seeing things that Picasso showed us. But we can, if we spend enough time, appreciate the development of artistic sensibilities over time. In all respects, for example, the late 1460s Virgin and Child by Filippo Lippi (#4) is in almost every respect a vast improvement over his effort in the 1430s (#3). Staying with this same visual trope we can see how Botticelli emerged from Fra Filipo’s studio to develop his own more lyrical style—the thing we notice in the Venus or the Three Graces.

Skipping over the works in the show that might be attributed to Botticelli from Fra Filippo’s studio, Botticelli’s earliest independent works exhibit a more mature concept of composition, a more realistic modeling of the figures and an attention to the emotional life of the figures that his master’s works lack. The infant’s eyes gaze lovingly at his mother, while the virgin emanates contentment and devotion.  The Madonna of the Loggia (#5) is a private devotional work in the mother-child tradition, and the arcane iconography we avoid (there is a dove representing the Holy Spirit among the clouds) is minimized. And while the architecture surrounding the figures gives off a sense of claustrophobia, the abstracted landscape with the river which outlines the back of the child gives the composition a gracefully (not artificially) abstracted look.

Botticelli, Madonna of the Book

6. Madonna of the Book by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1479. Tempera on panel. Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan.

Botticelli would become a master of this visual trope, which he (and his studio) elaborated in a number of ways. The Madonna of the Book (#6) shows the Virgin teaching the child to read. The book she is reading (the Horae beatae mariae) contains phrases from Isaiah 7:14 & 15, the so-called prophesy of the virgin birth (Lightbown II:40). Her hand rests on the book and the child touches it in a very lifelike manner. The tenderness of that touch is matched by the child’s gaze into the virgin’s eyes. The emotional connection is quite realistically enhanced by the attention to detail to the surroundings, such as the bowl of fruit behind the child, the tassel that drapes over the child’s lap and onto the virgin’s leg and the veil that covers her head. What I particularly noticed in this show is that the virgin in several paintings (and Venus) have a remarkable resemblance, as though they are based on the same model—the shape of her nose, the placement of the cheek bones and especially the color and texture of her hair. In this painting the hair on her right side dangles with the same body as does that of the Venus in the show and the one in Birth of Venus as it droops down the side. The intimacy of the relationship is enhanced by the overall composition. The figures take up most of the work, and the color organization unites the work. The central flesh tone colors are surrounded by the virgin’s cerulean blue robe on one side and the dark corner of the room on the other. Behind the robe is a window showing the light blue sky. The haloes above the heads are subtly rendered, giving only a slight gold touch to the overall color palette.

The symbolism is as lightly inserted as the haloes. The cherries in the bowl represent Paradise, the insignia on the virgin’s left shoulder is an unknown (at least to me) emblem and the crown of thorns around the child’s left arm of course foreshadows the crucifixion. The gruesomeness of the last association is not apparent until after close inspection and reflection; it could easily on superficial examination be seen as a bracelet. In short, the dogmatic Catholic associations are subordinated to a view that could easily be a domestic genre setting.

The figures in that painting and others of the same time have a natural three-dimensional roundness entirely absent from Fra Filippo’s works. Credit for this “advance” in Botticelli’;s style is often given to Antonio del Pollaiolo. Some believe Botticelli worked in the studio of Pollaiolo after leaving Fra Filippo, although this view seems to be based on inferences from stylistic development in Botticelli’s work. Another more plausible suggestion is that Botticelli must have studied Pollaiolo’s work around 1470, at the time he was commissioned to add one of the Virtues (Fortitude) to a series of seven originally to be completed by Pollaiolo and his brother. Visiting the Pollaiolos’ studio was probably necessary so that Botticelli could create a work similar to that of the others in the Sala Tribunale dei Sei. This last point is quite likely but one has to wonder how drastically and fundamentally one’s style can be altered no matter how long one simply studies another’s work. The MFA exhibition has two works by Pallaiolo to allow us to make comparison. The first is one of the existing prints of the only known engraving by the artist from the MFA’s own collection, The Battle of the Nudes, which has two sets of five nude men fighting each other with swords, axes, dirks and a bow and arrow, all having thrown down their shields.  Vasari, writing in the next century, assures us that Pollaiolo’s treatment of the male nude was superior to all his predecessors because he had actually dissected corpses and knew how to define muscles.

However Pollaiolo stacks up against predecessors and contemporaries in treatment of nudes, it is clear that it had little effect in that regard at least on Botticelli, who rarely portrayed male nudity. When he did, it was nothing like the way Pollaiolo did. One need only compare Pollaiolo’s Martyrdom of St. Anthony, with its careful treatment of the saint’s contorted body and tortured expression, with Botticelli’s own treatment of the same scene with the saint’s body in essentially the same position. Botticelli makes no effort to show the physical effect of the torture on his body; in fact, the saint looks uncommonly serene and unharmed (except, of course, for the arrows piercing his body).

Pollaiolo, St Michael Killing Dragon

7. Saint Michael Killing the Dragon by Antonio del Pollaiolo. 1465 or before. Oil on canvas. Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence.

The MFA show has one other Pollaiolo, Saint Michael Killing the Dragon (#7). The work shows the saint in action; indeed, he has much the same posture as one of the warriors in the foreground of his Battle of the Nudes. Fully clothed and with armored leg-wear, the archangel strikes a pose that Botticelli never tries to recreate. Moreover, his battle-wear is unlike the elaborate (or at least lavish) costumes of the characters in Botticelli’s works. The latter’s figures very often have robes or other wraps which allow Botticelli to concentrate on the rendering of flowing fabric, trimming and occasionally embroidered patterns. But the main difference between this work and Botticelli’s is the subject. Botticelli never portrayed struggle and conflict of a physical sort. Even his two-panel portrayal of Judith and the beheading of Holofernes does not show the act itself, although it depicts the grisly aftermath and Judith’s maid carrying off the severed head. In the latter of those two scenes Judith walks, sword still in hand, seemingly unruffled by her act or the battle that is taking place in the distant background.

Botticelli’s choice of subjects had to do with the clientele he had developed, and it was the cream of Florentine society—the Medici. And the Medici of Botticelli’s generation were more interested in transcendent emotions than war.

Botticelli and Medici Humanism

The Medici dominated 15th century Florence financially, politically and culturally. Cosimo (1389–1464) turned his father’s bank (which started as a local money-lending operation and became an important pan-Italian business) into an international financial organization with offices in the major cities of Europe. That financial reach and Cosimo’s strategic alliance with Cardinal Baldassare Cossa (later Pope and then Antipope John XXIII) allowed it to become the preferred financial institution for the Holy See giving the Church’s vast army of collecting agents a place of deposit and supplying the Vatican’s monetary needs by means of its lending facilities and material needs with its associated trading businesses. The bank’s association with [anti-]Pope John XXIII first gave it great ascendency, then threatened its existence when John XXIII was arrested by the Emperor (eventually freed by Medici money). But the bank survived, and Cosimo emerged a wealthy enough man to control Florentine politics without ever having an office. He did so though his control over the men who did. Despite its formal nature, the Florentine republic was an oligarchy but one dominated by Cosimo. Like all oligarchies, Florence was subject to jealousies and political instabilities, and in 1433 Cosimo fell into a trap which resulted in his exile. But the precipitous drain of merchant capital that resulted from the absence of Cosimo and his capitalist followers soon had the Florentini calling for his return, and when he came back in 1434 he secured a power that would not be disturbed until his death in 1464.

Donatello, Judith and Holofernes

Judith and Holofernes by Donatello. ca. 1457–64. Bronze (and originally gilded). Copy in Palazzo Vecchio of original in Sala dei Gigli, Florence. (Not in MFA show.)

During the last 30 years of his life Cosimo used his vast fortune to promote one of the most outstanding flowerings of art and culture since Athens. He guided public works which acted as guides for future Renaissance architecture and the Duomo di Firenze, engineered by Brunelleschi, a project that might as well have been a monument to Cosimo. He commissioned some of Donatello’s most daring sculptures as well as painters, including Fra Filippo. but his deepest influence may have been literary. Cosimo was the builder of libraries and the collector of books. He subsidized the translations of ancient texts. And significantly promoted a new form of Platonic study when he founded the Platonic Academy in 1445.

That academy, which was really more of a loose association of classically inclined scholars who met informally and once a year held symposia, was under the direction of Marsilio Ficino (1433–99), who would become the leader of the form of humanism associated with the Medici and their literary and artistic clients.

At ease in a villa granted him by Cosimo in 1463, Ficino translated the entire corpus of Plato into Latin for the first time. But his lasting imprint on Renaissance thought was the introduction of a kind of humanism based on a watered-down version of the Neoplatonism of the 3rd century (C.E.) metaphysician Plotinus. (Ficino of course stripped the teaching of the thorny gnostic concept of demiurge and all the anti-orthodoxy that implied.) Contrary to later popular characterizations of Renaissance humanism, Ficino did not turn away from Christian theology toward some naturalistic view of the world. Indeed, he attempted to combine Platonic thought with Christian teachings in such a way that the ancients were not viewed as pagans but rather as precursors to the revelations of Jesus. This conclusion was not new (Aquinas held to it), but Ficino did reject the method of evaluating philosophical arguments employed by the scholastics (who were the semi-official intellectuals of the Church during the Middle Ages) in favor of an approach that included what passed for science in his time. His explorations of astrology got him accused of magic by the Church and his last works flirted with heresy.

Jacopo de S ellaio, Psyche

8. The Story of Psyche by Jacopo da Sellaio. ca. 1480. Tempera and oil on panel. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Ficino’s contributions (I here follow Kristeller) can be grouped into: 1. Ontology and its relation to epistemology; and 2. the implications of the foregoing to human morals, psychology and aesthetics. As for the first (I summarize with broad brush and much omission): all material things exist in a receptacle called “prime matter” (materia prima), that this abstraction, while existing outside the human mind (contra the scholastics), can never be directly understood by humans, but certain attributes can be comprehended, that its existence is the basis for the immortality of the human soul and that approaching it organizes human morality. The One (as in all Neoplatnism since Plotinus) has emitted a series of emanations, the first being Nous (the Mind), then Psyche (the Soul), which contains all individual souls. At the farthest reaches of the universe is the material realm, and humans participate both in the material and the spiritual worlds. The purpose of human life, according to Ficino, is to transcend the material to the spiritual realm. That men can do this, by contemplation, demonstrates the existence of the immortal soul. Moreover, that men can actually contemplate the divine is shown by their apprehension of Beauty, one of the attributes of the One. Complete transcendence requires the exercise of Platonic Love (a term invented by Ficino). Finally, that Ficino’s thinking was not pagan and opposed to Christian teachings is shown by his teachings that the aim of morality is to “separate the soul from the passion of the body” and to remove the “dirt and filth of the body.” (Kristeller, pp. 301, 332).

Ficino was not simply the beneficiary of Cosimo’s patronage, he was the tutor of Cosimo’s grandson Lorzenzo the Magnificent (1449–92), and the two remained lifelong friends. Il Magnifico assumed the role of magnate of Florence on the death of his father in 1469, and he skillfully guided Medici-connected interests for more than two decades, aided at least once by luck when he escaped an assassination attempt. But Lorenzo’s fame rests on his promotion of Florentine letters, building, sculpture and painting during Florence’s Golden Age. Lorenzo himself embodied what it was to be a Renaissance man by his activities as political puppeteer and diplomat, by his encouragement and support of the arts and by his own poetic writings. He and his circle championed the use of Italian in literature, and his friend, the poet, philologist and scholar Poliziano, helped lead a revival of interest in classical literature by translating portions of The Iliad, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Plutarch’s Eroticus and Plato’s Charmides, among other classics, into the Tuscan dialect. The advent of printing helped disburse works of literature and scholarship, and soon mythological stories became subjects of paintings (e.g., ##8 & 9).

Botticelli, Judgment of Paris

9. The Judgment of Paris by Sandro Botticelli and workshop. ca. 1485–88. Tempera on panel. Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Galleria di Palazzo, Venice.

It is not known whether Botticelli himself subscribed to the Neoplatonism of Lorenzo’s circle. On the one hand, his formal education could not have extended beyond his 13th year and so navigating the various elements of Neoplatonism that assumed knowledge of a variety of classical writings probably would have been daunting. But his keen interest in Dante, shown by his detailed illustrations published in 1481 (the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s copy is shown in the MFA exhibition), and continued later (and his “commentary” if Vasari was right that Botticelli wrote one), suggests that he had an interest in literature. Whether Botticelli himself was steeped in Ficino’s Neoplatonic thought or whether he took directions from Lorenzo or someone close to him, in the early 1489s Botticelli produced four remarkable allegories which fairly drip of Neoplatonic symbolism. I referred to two of them above: Primavera (1481–82) and The Birth of Venus (1484). The other two were Venus and Mars (1483) and Pallas and the Centaur (1482–83).

Botticelli, Turin Venus

10. Venus by Sandro Botticelli and workshop. 1484–90. tempera on wood. Galleria Sabauda, Turin.

The MFA show has a relic of The Birth of Venus in the form of one of the two large-scale Venus portraits produced by Botticelli and/or his studio. The MFA is showing the so-called “Turin Venus” (#10). The pose of Venus in this picture is the same as that in The Birth of Venus. It is based on a Hellenistic marble copy of a Greek bronze (in the manner of Praxiteles) which Botticelli possibly saw during his period in Rome. The statue, known as the Venus de Medici, is now found at the Uffizi in Florence. At its base is a dolphin, implying that she is stepping out of the ocean, just as she is in Botticelli’s larger work. That work contains several other figures, including Zephyr and Chloris, two wind deities whose breath propels Venus to the shore and Horus, one of the seasons, who, standing in an orange grove, is welcoming Venus ashore with a mantel to cover her.  Venus is riding a shell on the top of the water, an image that has no certain known antecedent.

Whatever Neoplatonic iconography The Birth of Venus contains (which I will omit commenting on except to note that Venus, the center of the painting, represents love in classical mythology and undoubtedly Platonic Love in Ficino’s version of Plotinus), the figure of Venus itself took on an iconic status among patrons in Florence. It is not hard to see why (and why we still find this a more compelling image than the multitude of religious and devotional art that was overwhelmingly produced). The image is made up of gracefully flowing lines beginning with her posture with both her torso and legs slightly bent. Her arms accent these lines as does her red hair, although it is shorter in this version than in either The Birth of Venus or the “Berlin Venus.” Her expression conveys an ethereal reverie. The face itself is one that Botticelli had settled on for his version of modest, but fertile, womanhood (which can be seen in his later Madonnas): sloping nose, high cheek bones, sensuous mouth, thin, rounded eyebrows and high forehead. These features (though generalized) are so similar that it struck me that they might all have been painted from the same model (although I have no knowledge of how modeling worked at the time and I have not read about it anywhere). What is engaging about the figure (and this can be said as well about the Three Graces from Primavera) is that while it is fully modeled, there was no effort made to place it in three-dimensional scene. The figures obey principles of design rather than principles of scene placement. Probably in Botticelli’s time design was a function of narrative (whether it was the biblical stories he depicted in the Vatican or the symbolic stories he produced for the Medici). Nowadays we accord greater importance to design, composition and visual narrative as essential elements. So while we appreciate the same aspects, we and and 15th century viewers do so for different reasons. The other “Neoplatonic” painting in the MFA shows where we differ.

Botticelli, Pallas and Centaur

11. Pallas and the Centaur by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1482. Tempera on canvas. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Pallas and the Centaur (#11) is a composition that seems designed not to illustrate Platonic Love but rather another Neoplatonic theme dear to the Medici heart: the conquest by reason of unbridled passion. This seemed to be a favorite them of Cosimo (witness his commissions of Donatello’s David as well as Botticelli’s own Judith and Holofernes (discussed above)). That these two themes are not mutually exclusive is shown by the fact that the Pallas painting was hung in the same room as the Judith and Holeofernes panels at the palace on Via Larga of Lorenzo and Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, cousins of Il Magnifico. According to a 1498 inventory the Pallas painting was hung above a door, and it has been suggested that it was planned for that location, which would explain what looks like the sotto in su foreshortening of Pallas’s face (Arasse & De Vecchi, p. 122). If this is so, it seems to me that a viewer from below looking at a certain angle would see the face of the centaur looking directly at him quite naturally, rather than unnatural bending of the head we see when looking at the painting straight on. The MFA show mounts the picture at eye level so there no way to determine if I am right on this. (My own bourgeois scruples prevented me from lying on the floor to get the right distance, but I invite less inhibited readers who view the exhibition to report the results of such an experiment.) But Florentine artists had a long experience of accommodating the viewers’ experience to the setting of the work. Donatello may have been the first to solve the problem of viewing a work from below, as was shown m the sculptures from the Duomo brought to New York and exhibited at the now shuttered Museum of Biblical Art in Manhattan (February to June 2015). Donatello’s sculpture of John the Evangelist was designed to be placed in a niche 10 feet above the ground. Donatello devised a reverse system of spatial perspective that involved distorting features that were further away from the viewer following linear geometrical rules. The features were also heavily incised so they they seemed “normal” when viewed from below. Looking directly at eye level, the piece looked deformed and somewhat primitive. But when placed at its proper level from the human eye, it looked quite lifelike. (For a detailed description of Donatello’s technique, which he pursued again in a sculpture of St. Mark, see the article by Munman generally and Zolli at pp. 53–61, both cited in the Sources below.)

The iconography of the painting is quite obscure and because Neoplatonism is esoteric (not to mention the other classical sources drawn on by the circle around Il Magnifico), it is probably impossible to understand all the symbolism. There is even a dispute as to who the female in the figure is. She was identified as Pallas in the late 19th century (after the British Pre-Raphaelites and those with similar affinities revived the long buried reputation of Botticelli) by a scholar who incorrectly connected this painting to another described by Vasari. The name Pallas stuck, however, even though she is not wearing the helmet or carrying the aegis or kind of shield normally associated with her in ancient portrayals. It has since been suggested that she is Camilla from the Aeneid (XI:532–43, 570ff), the virgin votary-warrior of Diana, but the text more closely associates her with a spear than the halberd carried by the female in the picture. Lightbown (I:82–85) suggests she is Chastity victorious over Pride. It is reasonably clear, however, that she represents Medici ideals because the three diamond-pointed balls that form a pattern on her diaphanous gown are a commercial/professional symbol of the Medici, although of the Cosimo–Lorenzo branch, not the Pierfrancesco one and the latter branch owned the painting (Arasse & De Vecchi, p. 124). There is more, but we have undoubtedly passed the point that those not interested in scholarly disputations avoid. Perhaps all that need be assumed is that the female represents something the Medici considered “good” and has vanquished something they considered “bad”: whether it is the human intellect defeating earthly passions on the way toward salvation, the rational rule of the Medici-interests over the rabble or some other religious, philosophical or political point really no longer helps us appreciate the painting,

Botticelli, St Augustine (Ognissanti)

12. Saint Augustine in his Study by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1480. Detached fresco. Ognissanti (Church of All Saints), Florence.

One final humanist painting in the exhibition was one not painted for the Medici but rather a church—St. Augustine in his Study (#12). Vasari tells us that this work was originally commissioned by the Vespucci family for the Ognissanti church and that Botticelli set about to use the commission to outdo all his contemporaries in the painting of saints, particularly Dominico Ghirlandaio, whose painting of St. Jerome was on the wall opposite Botticelli’s. (Vasari is notorious for allowing his speculation to get ahead of his documentary sources, and one of his literary tropes is to set painters against one another. It is true, however, that Botticelli’s painting is superior to Ghirlandaio’s in composition and emotional content.)

The painting celebrates Augustine’s life of learning and scholarship (as did Ghirlandaio’s painting of Jerome) and is filled with the paraphernalia of 15th century science, including an astrolabe. The emphasis on this learning probably was the result of the recent acceptance by the church’s monastic order of Bemedict’s rule, which emphasized the importance of learning (Basta, p. 104). There is a curious sentence in the open book behind the saint’s head (the one with geometric figures or proofs in the margins) related to this brotherhood (first noticed in 1984) which in translation says: “Where is Fra Martino? He has run away. And where has he gone? He is outside the Prato gate.” This is another instance of art of the time being used to communicate something known only to the patron-insiders.

Botticelli, Augustine in Study (detail)

13. Detail of Saint Augustine in his Study (#12).

Whatever the mysteries that the surrounding objects intend to convey, there is no doubt that the overall composition is very effective. The predominant orange is well set off by the blue-green background. This color harmony remains even though the colors seem to have greatly faded over time. The field is dominated by the figure of Augustine, and it is designed to draw attention to his rapt contemplation and the dramatic gesture of his right hand. The clock behind the saint sets the time as after sunset, but there is light streaming in from the left. Helen Roberts (see Sources) first explained this, as well as the connection between the paintings of Augustine and Jerome in the church: A letter of Augustine (now known to be spurious) tells of his seeing a flood of light at a specific time (the very time that is on the clock in the painting) and hearing the voice of Jerome. Only later did he learn that that was the moment of Jerome’s death. (This explanation is nearly universally accepted, but Stapleford (1994) argues that the moment captured is the conversion of Augustine. That Augusine’s bishop’s mitre is lying next to his arm suggests to me that the scene depicted must be of a time several years after his conversion.) The explanation that Augustine is hearing from Jerome accounts for the intense expression on Augustine’s face which reveals something of a psychological insight; namely, that in such a circumstance, the saint would have experienced both awe and pain. The portrait is perhaps the most subtly expressive portrayals ever attempted by Botticelli. It also is consistent with the fact that the fresco was originally intended to face the painting of St. Jerome in the choir of the church. (If one is so inclined, he can also see how Botticelli “topped” Ghirlandaio by showing that Augustine not only lived beyond Jerome, but was the person who Jerome called out to in extremis.)

Savonarolla and the End of Medici Humanism

Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492 and the reins of Medici influence were turned over to his son Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (1471–1503). His unfitness for the role, and the disaster that came to Medici interests under his leadership, is summarized by the epithet that became affixed to his name: Il Sfortunato, “the Unfortunate.” Two factors conspired that would have made it difficult for even a man with the political and diplomatic acumen of his father to preserve Medici dominance of Florence. The most serious was the ambition of French King Charles VIII who, egged on by the short-sighted (and self-interested) offer by Pope Innocent VIII, began a military invasion of Italy amidst the disintegration of the tenuous Italian peace. The second factor, more obscure but for all that probably more destructive of Medici influence, was the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola.

Machiavelli watched Savonarola up close in Florence and later concluded (in The Prince) that he was destined to fail, being an unarmed prophet. But for a while the times were right. The belief was taking hold that the dawn of the year 1500 would usher in some sort of prophesied end of things. Savonarola was a product and became an inciter of this anxiety. In 1475 he took vows at the Dominican convent in Bologna. He was assigned as a lecturer to the Convent of San Marco in Florence in 1482, but soon left and began the life of an itinerant preacher whose sermons gradually became more like jeremiads against the corruption of Italian society. In 1490 he returned to the Florence convent at the instigation of humanist and church-reform philosopher Pico della Mirandola, who lived under the protection of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Savonarola soon began delivering sermons denouncing tyranny in government, immorality in culture and corruption in the church. Lorenzo attempted without success to moderate the priest who was becoming a firebrand. When Il Sfortunato took control of Medici interests the external affairs were ominous and he lacked the finesse of his father at dealing with domestic unrest. Savonarola began prophesying that Charles VIII would soon attack Florence and become the scourge for the needed divine chastisement of the city-state. In November 1494 Charles indeed was nearing Florence and asked for leave to pass through on his march to Naples. Piero made the mistake of denying it and instead tried to muster forces to oppose the French. General panic swept through Florence when Piero’s forces were defeated and Piero and the Medici allies fled the city.

Botticelli, Painted Crucifix

14. Painted Crucifix by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1496–97. Tempera on cut wood panel. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Prato.

Savonarola assisted in negotiating a relatively humane peace with Charles and that together with the fulfillment of his prophesies of Florence’s defeat greatly enhanced the priest’s prestige. Florence was declared a democracy, but for the next four years Savonarola led a campaign against luxury, immorality and church corruption in his attempt to make Florence into the New Jerusalem. Anti-Savonarolans emerged in competing pulpits and in city politics. The Arrabbiati party joined forces with the Duke of Milan and Pope Alexander IV, but against such overwhelming opposition Savonarola mustered enough popular support to stave off destruction for a remarkably long time. During that period a large swath of Florence subscribed to a severe form of pietism demonstrated notably by the “Bonfire of the Vanities” on February 7, 1497, when much of Florence at great cost proved their devotion by offering up jewelry, fineries, luxuries, and some books and art. Savonarola’s party passed anti-“vice” laws which punished sodomy, public drunkenness, adultery and the like. Vigilante groups organized to enforce this new morality. But Savonarola’s base among the artisans could not outlast the combined and determined opposition of the oligarchs in and outside of Italy who had the enthusiastic backing of the corrupt pope. When Savonarola’s preaching became increasingly directed at the Church, the pope ordered him to appear in Rome. Rightly suspecting a trap,the friar declined for health reasons, and the Pope issued a ban against his preaching. Savonarola could not long abide such an order and excommunication soon resulted as well as the threat of interdiction of Florence should the citizens support him. The mounting pressure reached its climax in a most bizarre manner. A Franciscan preacher challenged the friar to a trial by fire. Savonarola evidently declined but a surrogate took up the gauntlet. On the much anticipated day, the event was postponed several times until a storm forced the cancelation. A mob took this as a sign of Savonarola’s disfavor and attacked the San Marco convent. In May 1498 Savonrola and two colleagues were arrested and tortured until they confessed. On May 23 the three were executed by hanging and their bodies consumed in a fire beneath them.

Though outlawed the teachings of Savonarola galvanized a group of radical followers, the Piagnoni (the “Weepers” or “Mourners”), who remained a potent underground force in Florence, claiming miracles, fulfilled prophesies and urging that his death was an apocalyptic event. Savonarola in life and death was an enigma: a demagogue who supported a broad-based republican rule, supported by the middle class against oligarchs, but who also insisted on a puritanical and narrow view of morality.  (But of course the middle class always supports a sterner view of morality based on self-discipline on which their economic survival rests than the wealthy, who can afford extravagance and self-indulgence without much fear of their immediate impoverishment.) The Piagnoni remained republican and anti-Medici. (One of Ficino’s last works was a denunciation of the Piagnoni.) When the Medici returned in 1512, the Paagnoni remained organized and eventually drove them out again by a revolt in 1527–30. They were eventually defeated by the Medici pope, Clement VII, and the Emperor, who turned Florence into a hereditary duchy.

It would have been difficult for any artist to remain unaffected by the tumult of the Savonarola period and its aftermath. But Vasari makes a very specific claim about Botticelli and

Fra Girolamo Savonarola of Ferrara, of whose sect he was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting, and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress. For this reason, persisting in his attachment to that party, and becoming a Piagnone [Mourner, or Weeper] (as the members of the sect were then called), he abandoned his work; wherefore he ended in his old age by finding himself so poor, that if Lorenzo de’ Medici, for whom, besides many other things, he had done some work at the little hospital in the district of Volterra, had not succoured him the while that he lived, as did afterwards his friends and many excellent men who loved him for his talent, he would have almost died of hunger.

Vasari is demonstrably wrong that Botticelli abandoned painting after the death of Savonarola, because The Mystical Nativity was signed by Botticelli who dated it 1500 (after Savonarola’s death). The rest of it also seems implausible.

Botticelli, Modonna and Child

15. Madonna and Child by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Oil on panel. Museo Stibbert. Florence.

But there is at least something that might indicate that Botticelli’s will was bent in the direction of the demagogue. Botticelli must have represented the very kind of art that Savonarola had in his sites. Not only was Botticelli a client of the Medici, he essentially invented the humanist art of the classical mythological scene, particularly in his use of (indeed creation of) the nymph. The Three Graces of Primavera may be the first of what we call the modern “nude.” Kenneth Clark (p. 150) calls the group “one of the most personal and memorable evocations of beauty in the history of art”; one that had no immediate antecedent. (The female nude was not depicted in classical Greece, although it became common in the Hellenistic period after Alexander.) As for Botticelli’s Venus pictures, all fully nude, and while stationary, yet expressing vibrant motion by the very curves of the lines that define her, they produce a shocking challenge to any Catholic puritan in that her face is the very face that Botticelli uses in his Madonnas. As to this fact, Clark wrote (p. 155): “That the head of our Christian goddess, with all her tender apprehension and scrupulous inner life, can be set on a naked body without a shadow of discord is the supreme triumph of the Celestial Venus.”

We don’t have to speculate on Savonarola’s views because he expressed them directly. As Dempsey (p. 30) puts it:

Savonarola … not only urged Florentines to cast into the bonfire of the vanities paintings of indecent nudes (like the Birth of Venus), together with the worldly poems in Petrachan Conzonieri and the ribald tales of Boccaccian Decameron, but also, in a sermon in 1946, excoriated the women of Florence who “put their daughters on display and dress them so that they appear to be nymphs.” He went further, claiming that these nymphs impiously served as the models for the paintings of the Virgin and female saints placed on the altars of the churches. “These are your idols, which you have placed in my temple. The images of your gods are the images and likenesses of the bodily forms you cause to be painted in the churches, so that young men go about saying of one woman or another, ‘She is the Magdalene,’ and ‘Behold, she is the Virgin.’ For you have had bodily forms painted in the churches in the likeness of this woman or another […] Do you believe the Virgin Mary went out dressed the way you have painted her? I tell you she dressed like a poor girl, simply, and covered so that her face could scarcely be seen. So too did Saint Elizabeth go out simply dressed. […] You have made the Virgin appear dressed like a whore.”

Not remarkably, coming from the mouth of a man who could inspire a Bonfire of the Vanities, these words had effects. For Botticelli there would be no more nudes or anything reeking of the teachings of Ficino. And his paintings of the Virgin changed drastically. Before he painted her, as his patrons wished, dressed in the finest contemporary raiment (e.g., ## 5 & 6). Now she was dressed as Savonarola dictated. In the Stibbert Modonna and Child (#15) her dress is matronly, nearly drab with the trimming only offering variety. The background is no longer an inviting setting (as in #5) or a harmonious setting to enhance the intimacy of the mother and child (as in #6) but rather an undistinguished urban setting which adds to the somberness of the scene. Indeed the virgin is no longer the young mother whose attention is absorbed by her young child. She seems weighed down by care, burdened by the future. It is as if the picture is not celebrating a Christmas story—the arrival of the Prince of Peace, but rather the beginning of a long and painfully eventful story, one in which joy is banished. This conclusion is seen in other religious scenes.

Botticellil, Adoration of the Magi

16. Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

The 1500 Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli (#16) was his fourth and last version of this scene. It was a popular subject among 15th century patrons and was painted by many artists, including Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo.  Florence every five years put on a pageant in which the leading citizens, merchants, manufacturers and bankers, dressed up as Magi and paraded through the town. One year even Lorenzo the Magnificent joined them. The story of the eastern kings allowed these gentlemen to display their wealth, possessions and taste for all to see. The paintings that were commissioned of the Biblical scene also involved large numbers of Magi, all dressed elegantly and the paintings were usually quite sumptuous, lavishly using expensive pigment and gilding. Botticelli’s three earlier paintings follow this pattern. The first two are held by the National Gallery. The first one is a fairly conventional narrative version with a long train of Magi approaching the child who is seated on the right side of the piece. The second has the Virgin and child in the center under the ruins of an interesting building with the Magi forming groups on both sides. The third, at the Uffizi, has the holy family on an elevated platform among stone ruins. All three show the Magi as contemporary patricians would like to see themselves. In fact, the third one contains portraits of three Medici, including Cosimo, and perhaps even Botticelli himself, as Magi (Paolucci, pp. 70–71). The final one, shown in the MFA exhibition (#16), is entirely different. With the exception of a courtier in the foreground (the patron?), the Magi are all modestly attired (as are Mary and Joseph). There is no celebration of wealth, and indeed the setting has the superficial appearance of a desert. Perhaps more significant is the attitude of the devotees. Unlike in the three previous paintings the Magi are humble, devout and self-deprecating. They are members of a pietistic faith rather than participants in a pageant.

Is this difference in subject matter, composition and costumes enough to suggest that Botticelli was a devotee of Savonarola? I think we have to return to the fundamental economic fact that a great many of the attributes of paintings of the period were largely dictated by the buyer. And to the extent that Savonarola had impact on the subject matter and compositional manner of painting, he probably did so through his influence over the buyers. Now, of course, there were anti-Savonarolans who existed in Florence during the same period, so why does the change in Botticelli’s work seem to point only in one direction? I think it is probably not difficult to imagine that once the Medici were driven from Florence, there no longer would have been any commissions for ostentatious humanistic works that emphasized non-Christian themes because there would be no protector for such a vision. And even those remaining Florentines who entirely rejected the pietism of Savonarola would have been reluctant to buck an emotional tide that was powerful enough to cause citizens to burn their own expensive possessions as a public display of piety.

Botticelli, St Augustine in his Study (2)

17. Saint Augustine in his Study by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1490–94. Tempera on panel. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

There is one additional consideration that might shed light on the stylistic change. It seems to have begun before the advent of Savonarola. For example, in the early 1490s Botticelli painted a second version of Saint Augustine in his Study (#17), this one much smaller. But the size difference does not account for the entirely different conception. Humanism is no longer celebrated in this painting. The saint is in a bare study, surrounded not by the tools of contemporary science but by icons of religion (the Madonna and child appear as relief under the lunette behind him). His diligence is demonstrated by the crumpled papers and discarded quills under his fee—as though he is so intensely dedicated to his writing that he cannot stop to properly discard prior drafts. There is no luxury in the setting. His robe and the curtain are quite simple and the rest is in a lifeless monochrome. And most noticeable is the lack of emotional expressiveness in the smaller work. It is as though Botticelli were attempting to show aestheticism merely by eliminating elements that made his humanist paintings interesting.

Returning to the late Madonnas, there is a tendency during the Savarolan period to emphasize Mary as Queen, as in the Enthroned Madonna with Saints in Montelupo (#1). In that picture the Virgin is the largest figure and dominates the composition, at the same time she seems devoid of emotion altogether. In an even more exaggerated way the Virgin in Madonna with Child and the Young Saint John (#18) dominates the picture. In fact, the three figures squeeze out all background except the rose bush (roses are traditionally associated with the Virgin) and John the Baptist’s reed cross (in Matthew 11:7 Jesus is quoted as calling John a “reed swayed by the wind”). John the Baptist was the patron saint of Florence so the painting might symbolize the Republic’s embracing of the Savior. Once again the overall mood of the piece is one of deep melancholy, the knowledge that the crucifixion lay ahead thus eliminates all joy from the beginning.

Botticelli, Madonna with Child and Young John the Baptist

18. Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Tempera on canvas. Galleria Palatina, Florence.

The greatly elongated figure of Mary is a striking stylistic departure for Botticelli. To our eyes it is decidedly “modern,” but it is the same tendency of reducing a symbolic figure into a “flattened” design element that he used (with different emotional content) in The Birth of Venus and the other two Venus pictures by his studio. The same technique can be scene in the body of Mary as well as the head of the donkey in the late 1490s picture The Flight into Egypt. The donkey’s head in this painting is so strikingly original that it remained me of Chagall or Franz Marc. Kroegel argues (pp. 62–64) that the elongation of Mary to the point that she towers over other the other figures in a picture does not necessarily result from the influence of Savonarola because Botticelli’s drawings of Beatrice for his illustrations of Dante’s Paradiso have the same tendency (although to a lesser extent) and those drawings began before Savonarola returned to Florence. Whether or not, however, Savonarola was the cause, there can be little doubt that Botticelli engaged in extreme stylistic experiments late in life and the most notable ones took place in pietistic paintings.

A recent discovery in Prato shows an unusual work for Botticelli, a crucifixion designed for use in a religious procession (#14). The painting is on a board cut to the outline of the figure and cross. In no other work did Botticelli prepare the substrate to accommodate or illustrate the work, much less prepare a silhouette to paint on. It seems to me that it is significant that this departure was for a work to be used as a prop in a religious procession, and one that involves ritual lamentation. A second example of an extreme departure is the famous Mystical Nativity, a work not exhibited by the MFA. The piece at first looks highly decorative with angels dancing above the stable and embracing shepherds (?) in the foreground.  The same elongation of the donkey’s head as in Flight into Egypt occurs with the donkey next to Mary looking into the infant’s face. Those around the stable are in positions of humble devotion. Only a few years before Michelangelo left Florence to found the High Renaissance style by his paintings in the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli had not only not developed in the same direction (Botticelli even refused for the most part to paint with oils), he was decidedly moving backwards towards a Gothic conception of art. Perhaps the most extreme example of that tendency is seen in his Mystic Crucifixion (#19).

Botticelli, Mystic Crucifixion

19. The Mystic Crucifixion (Magdalene at the Foot of the Cross or Crucifixion with the Penitent Magdalene and Angel) by Sandro Botticelli. ca. 1500. Tempera and oil on canvas (transferred from panel). Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The painting is the visual representation of an apocalyptic vision. The crucified Christ is the center, and the cross he is on divides the picture into two fields. The body of Christ is the only “rounded,” modeled figure, as if this Ideal figure is the only reality; everything else (including the cross itself) has been “flattened,” rendered into two-dimensional design elements. The Christ body and the cross appear to be the model for (or modeled after) the processional crucifix we just encountered (Lightbown, II;94). The scenes on the two sides of the cross are starkly different. On the right is a scene of violence and retribution with a menacing sky from which projectiles and demons are falling. On the left side the sky is calm, clear blue and filled by shields with red crosses. In the top left God sits among cherubim, and below him the placid city of Florence can be recognized by Giotto’s Campanile, the Duomo, etc. At the foot of the painting are two figures. One, prostrate, is the common figure of a penitent Magdalene holding the base of the cross. An animal, likely a wolf, runs from her garment. To the right is an angel, holding an animal, probably a lion, which she is about to strike with a sword. It appears she has already lashed the animal once for a ring of blood can be seen on the animal’s neck.

The symbolism of this painting has universally been considered Savonarolan (Steinberg, pp. 69–77, Lightbown, I:130–33; Ettlinger & Ettlinger, pp. 103-05; Hatfield, pp. 91 & 93), but the exact referents of particular symbols are disputed. For instance, the shields with the red cross are identified by some as the small red crosses given out to participants in the children’s penitential procession on March 27, 1496, while others see them as the symbols of the populo which were ordered to replace Medici insignia throughout the city in May 1497 as a sign of the Signoria of Florence, commemorating the establishment of a “people’s government” under the guidance of Savonarola (in place of the Medici rule and the narrow oligarchic rule that briefly followed the expulsion of the Medici). Another example is the search for Savonarolan meaning in the lion and the wolf, when, it seems to me, a source more familiar to Botticelli would have been Dante, where a she-wolf and lion are two of the three ferocious animals that confront him in the first Canto of the Inferno (Ciardi translation). (In the Inferno the she-wolf represents the corrupt church. The corruption of Pope Alexander IV and his Curia had to have been obvious to all in Florence, even the anti-Savorolans, who would later make truck with him temporarily to rid themselves of the pious demagogue).

Regardless of the details the meaning seems quite clear in broad strokes. Magdalene, who represents Florence, seeks forgiveness of sins and as a result the corruption (the animal running from her garments leaves her, and she is saved from the retribution that had begun (the invasion of Charles VIII, takeover of the government by the merchant oligarchs—both of which Savonarola had an important role in), and as a result peace returns to the city. In fact, by its location within sight of the cross on Calvary, Florence must be the New Jerusalem (the Paradise that Savonarola preached would result if the Florentines would repent their sin, corruption and vanities), which escaped the chastisement inflicted on her by the angel (a lion was the adopted symbol of the Florentine Republic). But granting all the Savonarolan imagery, the work is not conclusive in showing that Botticelli, rather than the patron who commissioned the work, was a Piagnoni. In the end it is probably irrelevant. Even if he became an enthusiast or follower, it hardly means that he had thrown over Medicean humanism. Michelangelo, after all, was a follower of the friar, and he went on, into the belly of the beast, to create works that form the cornerstone of Italian humanism.

What goes unremarked about the piece is its astonishing expressionism. In his last decade or so Botticelli had struck out in a direction apart from where the mainstream of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were headed. At the time Botticelli’s late work was attributed to his decline in ability. That together with the change of taste in the 16th century caused Botticelli’s reputation to to be eclipsed for over three centuries until it was revived in the mid 19th century by English dilettantes and the pre-Raphaelites. Even today modern art historians refer to Botticelli’s late works as “rough” or products of his dotage. As to the last point let me show one more work, one not found at the MFA show, but it can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, St. Zenobius Healing the Sick and Raising the Dead, one of four related panels (three of which are held by the Met).

Botticelli, St. Zenobius Raises Dead

Saint Zenobius Heals the Sick and Raises the Dead by Sandro Botticelli 1500–10. Tempera on wood. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

If you view art history like positivists or progressive historians view human history, as a succession in some ordained or preferred way, then this work is decidedly retrograde, for it dispenses with almost every innovation (some pioneered by Botticelli himself) of the 15th century. The figures are simplified to the extent of nearly being cartoons. The perspective is hyper-geometrical. The buildings are stylized beyond anything we would consider realistic. It decidedly partakes more of the spirit of the Gothic than of the High Renaissance that was just dawning. But I cannot fail to see hints of 20th century modernism in these works. Modernism, after all, returned to the “primitive” in order to find its way. “Radical,” in its origins, simply is a search for roots (radix, pl. radices). This feeling will probably be scoffed at by those who see the past as explained by self-contained boxes, but frankly we can only bring out own experiences, points of reference and prejudices to any view of the past. And if we are to see any commonality between out time and the Quattrocento we cannot pretend we know nothing of the future that they knew nothing of. But perhaps Botticelli could see a little bit of things to come, maybe through a glass darkly. After all the same man who turned the Virgin into Venus might also have been able to see the chaos in the outwardly orderly. In any event, Botticelli, unlike almost all his contemporaries, is able to reach us, even if we do not (and cannot) learn the same lessons he was commissioned to teach. We can enjoy the Venuses without steeping ourself in Neoplatonism, and so why can we not enjoy the late works without steeping ourselves with a kind of apocalyptic puritanism that we are unfamiliar with? Perhaps it is enough that we can see our own apocalyptic forebodings (of a different sort) in his.


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