Matisse wasn’t just a painter but an explorer, and each painting was a journey, writes JAMES POLCHIN
For Matisse working and reworking a painting illuminated both the painterly process and the ongoing possibilities of the canvas. His early critics were distressed by this quality of his work. One critic in particular expressed his hope that Matisse would overcome this “malady of the unfinished” as if these sketch-like paintings were in some way a sickness. Perhaps as an effort to reply to such criticisms, Matisse began to photograph his painting process, and the transformation of the canvas through its stages of development, and continued to do so through much of his life. In his Notes of a Painter, published in 1908, he wrote: “I do not repudiate any of my paintings but there is not one of them that I would not redo differently, if I had it to redo. My destination is always the same but I work out a different route to get there.” In this way, the photographs of the works in progress offered a kind of road map as Matisse explored the direction of the painting each day.
By the 1930s the canvas itself became a dynamic space, for unlike his earlier focus on a series of canvases with a singular subject, he worked with the same canvas, painting and repainting it, scraping paint off from the last session, leaving other paint untouched, each reworking holding some trace of earlier compositions. This is how he composed “The Large Blue Dress” in 1937, painted over several days, each session concluding with a photographic portrait of the canvas take by a photographer who Matisse had hired. Helping him with this process was the model for “The Large Blue Dress,” Lydia Delectorskaya, a Russian émigré who met Matisse in Nice in the early 1930s when she was 22 and he was 62. Matisse hired her to be his wife’s assistant and to help him in his studio. While her presence caused a rupture in Matisse’s marriage (his wife left him in 1939), Delectorskaya would become his consummate model, muse and caretaker for the rest of his life. Throughout the 1940s Matisse and Delectorskaya, who was often his supportive collaborator in the studio, worked together in the painting process in his studio in Nice, almost unaware of the destruction of war that swirled around them. Matisse was not a political artist and his works from the 1940s have few traces of the conflicts of Europe.
Image: Reprint of archival photograph documenting Henri Matisse’s process of painting “The Dream” (1940)