White Plumes demonstrates Henri Matisse's mature style, particularly that of his so-called "Nice Period" from 1916-1930. During this period Matisse began to focus on both portraiture and interiors. Matisse was strongly influenced by the quality of light in Southern France. "The flat, arbitrary colors of his preceding paintings, both 'decorative' and 'experimental,' were replaced by a much broader range of soft tonalities that convey how reflected light will suffuse an interior. . .light is almost palpable in these paintings."1
is one of a larger number of portraits painted by Matisse during a period beginning about 1916. Matisse resumed portraiture after painting his most abstract works. This reversal also occurred among many other artists in the post-World War I years, marking a renewed general interest in naturalism.
Until this period, Matisse's usual practice was to paint friends and family. However, during his years in Nice, Matisse began painting professional models. Many of these portraits pre-figure Matisse's most celebrated subject from the Nice period - the partially nude Odalisques inspired by trips to Morocco in 1912-13.2 The woman in this portrait is Antoinette, his favorite model in Nice, whom he painted many times. The largest of two paintings of Antoinette made in 1919, it was preceded by at least 14 preparatory sketches.3
The woman sits before an intensely red background that sharply contrasts with the soft cream of her dress and her fair skin tones. Her face is framed by gently waved dark hair. She does not make eye contact with us, nor can we read her feelings from her face. According to Matisse,
"Expression does not consist of passion mirrored upon a human face. . .the whole arrangement of my picture is expressive."4
She wears a wide-brimmed yellow hat with graceful white feathers and loops of black ribbon that Matisse personally designed, revealing his love of costume. Her only jewelry is the green brooch at the base of her bosom. All unessential details have been eliminated because Matisse believed, "All that is not useful in the picture is detrimental."5
THE FIGURE EXPRESSED BY LINE
The female figure is what interested Matisse the most in his art. He stated that his model was the principal theme in his work and that he depended entirely on observation to determine the pose that suited her best. "Suppose I want to paint the body of a woman; first of all I endow it with grace and charm, but I know that something more than that is necessary. I try to condense the meaning of this body by drawing its essential lines."6 In this portrait, he uses flowing lines to convey the grace of the feminine form, creating a rhythmic pattern. From the swirl of the feathers to the line of the bust, from the dark hair to the descending shoulder, the lines and shapes play back and forth in harmony.
Matisse began a painting by laying down colors without a preconceived plan. He did not copy nature in a servile way, but rather interpreted it, submitting it to the spirit of the picture.
The period in which this painting was completed constitutes a new era for Matisse in terms of color. Although he still utilizes large flat areas of intense color, during his time in Nice, Matisse began to experiment with a different palette in many of his works. "He introduces blacks and earthen colors to his palette that were not there before, and simultaneously but in the opposite direction, colors that are faded and thinned out. . ."7 which are evident in the creams and yellows of the dress and hat. He clearly mixed different amounts of blacks with the crimson red in the background. As a result, two distinct shades of red meet above her White Plumes. Though both rich reds emphasize the undulating outline of the figure and hat, the two shades convey different senses of depth. Both reds advance, but the darker red does so less than the lighter red, contributing to a subtle sense of tension in the picture's space. There is an equilibrium between the flat decorative colored shapes and the fairly three-dimensional representation of the woman.
Expression is at the heart of all of Matisse's painting. In fact, Matisse defined composition as "the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at a painter's disposal for the expression of his feelings. The place occupied by the figures. . . the empty space around them, the proportions, everything plays a part."8 Matisse created this pleasing composition by eliminating details, which would be distracting, and by relying upon flat planes of warm color and elegant, flowing organic lines to create a sense of harmony, balance, and serenity.
THE ARTIST AND HIS DEVELOPMENT OF STYLE
Matisse had a comparatively late and slow artistic development. In 1889, at the age of 20 during a convalescence from an attack of acute appendicitis, his mother gave him a box of colors which marked a turning point in his life.
The moment I had this box of colors in my hands, I had the feeling that my life was there. I plunged straight into it, to the understandable despair of my father, who made me study other things. . . . Before, nothing interested me; after that, I had nothing on my mind but painting.9
Turning from law studies to art, Matisse first studied under Adolphe-William Bouguereau and later with Gustave Moreau. Although he found inspiration in the old masters, he rejected the classicism of the Academy. Developing as an artist in the late 19th century in a world dominated by Symbolism, Matisse looked to the immediate past and the methods of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists in an attempt to recapture the directness of painting. Matisse, like most of the Fauves, passed through a phase of heightened and exaggerated use of color based on the work of Seurat and Signac. However, it was Cézanne that influenced him most. A painting by Cézanne purchased in 1899, the small Three Bathers
, hung in his studio until 1936.10
From 1900 to 1905, Matisse was intensely involved in experimenting with color and exploring its expressive possibilities.
In 1905, Matisse exhibited at the Salon d'Automne. The term Fauvism came to be applied to the work of Matisse and his colleagues after a hostile critic proclaimed that the paintings looked like the works of les fauves meaning "wild beasts." As a movement, Fauvism was short-lived, and Matisse was never again associated with a particular movement, but pursued his own vision. He believed that because there was no single way of seeing reality, there could be no possibility of a single style. A major influence on his later development was the 1910 exhibition of Near Eastern art in Munich which contributed to his use of rich, flat patterning. Likewise, the timeless languor he observed in North African harem women on a visit to Morocco inspired new form and color in his work.
At the time this portrait was painted, Matisse was in his late forties, his children were grown, and he was enjoying a prosperous decade in the years following WWI. After 1917, he began to spend more and more time in Nice in the south of France, turning to subjects of pleasure and harmony. Although Matisse's paintings are the epitome of tranquillity, he was a man of great, almost violent, energy who held himself tightly in check. Always carefully composed, neat, and conservative, he was referred to by his colleagues as the "professor." Despite his outward control, he was filled with anxiety, finding it difficult to relax. His work was the center of his life and the vehicle through which he expressed his emotions. He stated, "I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have for life and my way of expressing it."11
Matisse held the belief that great painting was not merely a matter of style or technique but the result of deeply held convictions about vision in relation to life. Matisse remained active until the day he died. When he was no longer able to lift a paint brush, he created dynamic works by cutting shapes from paper. Many painters since have used color in a simplified and direct way and are in some way indebted to Matisse.
Use on the following tours:
- Visual Elements
- 19th- and 20th-Century Art
- Women and Art
- Highlights of the Museum's Collection
- French Art
Consider the many different reasons that artists use costume in works of art by comparing the costume in this portrait with the treatment of costume other works.
Matisse's painting and his sculpture. (He often used sculpture to work out problems for paintings.) Compare the distortion, abstraction of form, use of line, and creation of volume in both.
The use of a model and costume and a series of preparatory sketches relate Matisse to traditional old masters, such as Rembrandt and Rubens, showing the influence of his early studies. Yet, this is less of a "portrait" than it is a pleasing arrangement of line, color, and shape. Compare this painting to other portraits in the collection, to discuss what constitutes a "portrait" and how the idea of portraiture changes over time.
Frank Stella was influenced by Matisse's decorative style and use of color. In what ways does Tahkt-I-Sulayman, Variation II demonstrate that influence?
- John Elderfield. Henri Matisse: A Retrospective. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1992), p. 289.
- George Keyes and Patrick Shaw Cable. Minnesota Celebrates Matisse. (Minneapolis: The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1993), p. V
- Jack Flam. Matisse: The Man and His Art. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986), p. 441-442. This portrait was preceded by another series of portraits of an Italian model, Laurette, which anticipate White Plumes in their stylistic qualities.
- Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Matisse: His Art and His Public (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951), p. 119-23. "Notes of a Painter," originally published in 1908 and reproduced here, remain Matisse's most complete and important statement about art.
- Barr, p. 119.
- Barr, p. 120
- Jack Coward and Dominique Fourcade. Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1930. (Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art), p.49.
- Barr, p. 119.
- Flam, p. 27.
- Flam, p. 72.
- John Elderfield, Fauvism and Its Affinities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 102.