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: Institute Acquires a Famous Matisse


Richard S. Davis



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
With this issue of the Bulletin devoted to Henri Matisse, the Institute announces the acquisition of his famous painting of The White Plumes. This becomes our most important purchase to date in the contemporary field, for both painter and painting enjoy an international reputation. It is a magnificent painting which completely represents the highly original and rich, decorative style developed by Matisse during his fifty years of painting in France and the United States. One glance at this canvas and we agree with Gertrude Stein, whose summary of Matisse's position, here slightly paraphrased, is to the point: "Certainly, everyone can be certain that this one is a great one." The White Plumes is a major work in Matisse's mature style and, because most other examples of this period are in Russian collections and therefore inaccessible, has been more frequently exhibited and reproduced than any other during the past twenty years.Matisse painted two versions of The White Plumes, both dated 1919. The smaller and probably the earlier of the two, reproduced on page 27, is in the Chester Dale Collection in The Art Institute of Chicago. Here Matisse arranged the model in full face with the hair hanging down over the shoulders. Although rich in color, with a subtle use of white, the painting seems less vivid than ours. The Institute's version shows the model's head in profile and slightly bent as she stands with folded arms. Her oval face is emphasized by her dark brown hair and the horizontal of the hat brim. Her face and features are really small, but the general effect is of size because of Matisse's sweeping outline around the large hat, the shoulders, and the bust. This contour defines the shape of the model and forms the basic design of the painting. The model is placed in high relief by the use of an opaque background of dark red with a yellowish cast. By contrasting the red with the cream color of her dress, Matisse emphasizes his crisp outline, so reminiscent of Manet. Each color, through contrast or position, complements another. The cream color of the dress complements the white of the plumes. The yellow of the hat crown, the white and pink of the skin, and other whites form a harmonious unit in the center of the picture. This painting measures 29 by 24 inches and the one in the Dale Collection 19 by 15 inches.Few paintings more completely represent Matisse's method than his White Plumes. Sometime after moving to Nice in 1917, Matisse began painting a model named Antoinette, posing her in various bizarre costumes. His passion for exotic color had prompted him to use such costumes as studio props. The hat in our picture falls in that category. Matisse made it himself, and undoubtedly chose the wavy plumes for their elusive and floating effect and the rosettes of black and gay velvet ribbons to balance them. At this time he was painting in a semi-abstract style, influenced by the tight draughtsmanship of Manet, by the cubists, but mostly by his natural leanings.By 1918 he had begun preparatory sketches of his model wearing the hat with the plumes. In that year he painted an oil of Antoinette in the nude except for the hat. This first oil of the subject, formerly the property of Etienne Bignou of Paris, cannot be called as much a version of as a variation on our theme. Matisse seems to have continued drawing Antoinette in the plumes in 1918. The writer knows fourteen of these drawings, and there are undoubtedly more. Matisse was, after all, deliberately experimenting. He varied the composition, the model's pose or dress, or his medium between pencil and pen. Through such studies, Matisse gradually purified his design and selected what he wished to paint. They form a remarkable record of his thoughts and work. Moreover, they hold their own as works of art complete in themselves, audacious in design and instinctively decorative.The current exhibition of Modern Drawings lent by The Museum of Modern Art includes a pen and ink study for The White Plumes. It shows quite clearly that the medium requires concentration and economy of line. Matisse has distorted the figure for effect but it almost quivers with life. His pencil studies more nearly approximate our painting. The richest of them all belongs to John S. Newberry, Jr. of Detroit and is reproduced here. We see a succession of delicate lines and more form and texture than in the pen and ink drawing. Another pencil drawing, belonging to Henry P. McIlhenny of Philadelphia is even closer to our painting. These studies vary in size, but many compare in scale with the paintings. For example, Mr. Newberry's drawing measures about 21 inches by 14.The method followed by Matisse in painting The White Plumes is characteristic of that he followed throughout his long career. We know the artist's personal history through an enormous amount of literature on the subject. It gives us an account of his steady development as one of the most influential painter of our time. Every contact with the art of the past or the present has influenced his style and fostered his own highly original art which is the logical result of centuries of creative painting. A review of his purpose and method will contribute to an understanding of his achievement in The White Plumes. Matisse had had a clear idea of what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it from the beginning. Although often classified as an expressionist, he has never been interested in the emotions of his subjects but in the whole disposition of his picture. He has always chosen tranquil themes, such as figures in a landscape or an interior, and transformed them into compositions which refresh us through their color and harmony of arrangement. He has never tried to mystify us because he is too serious in his approach to painting. But his message is subtle. He paints to stimulate our sense of sight and to intensify our joy of life.Matisse's method of painting requires perfect co-ordination between eye, mind, and hand. His eye selects a suitable subject, absorbs the details, and forms an image. Next, his mind reduces that image to its salient features, which his hand transfers to canvas. He may have to distort arrangement or color to emphasize his point. Although he leaves realism to the camera when painting, he never takes liberties with subject or style without reasons. Since his eye and mind have gone to work before his hand, he knows exactly what he is going to paint, as in the case of The White Plumes. He may make some preparatory drawings of the subject, and such drawings are an integral part of his method. He may then experiment with color in order to suit it to his sensation. If he finds a pleasing color, he may develop it as the dominant color of the painting and alter other colors to complement it. As in the case of The White Plumes, he does not use many colors, but selects them carefully. He knows that varied color effects do not require an elaborate palette. When arranging his composition he gives as much thought to the space around his figures as to the figures themselves. Matisse eliminates in his painting any superfluous object which is not essential to his compositions.But The White Plumes is more than an example of an individual painter's principles. If the painter were anonymous the painting would still be complete, with a life and message of its own. The painting is not a portrait, for it is not concerned with the realization of a personality but with the sensation we receive from a beautiful face which has a mysterious charm of its own. This woman is ageless, half French and half Oriental, with a remote and at the same time voluptuous quality that is timeless in its appeal. Matisse has painted a rich and very articulate figure, and he has painted it in the best creative tradition.The White Plumes was purchased directly from the painter for Mr. Stephen C. Clark of New York, and comes from his collection to the Institute. It has been exhibited at the Carnegie International, the World's Fair in Chicago, and virtually every exhibition relating to Matisse at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. It has been published just as often. It becomes our first major example of Matisse's art, although the Institute has for some time owned a pen and ink drawing of a Woman with Folded Arms dating from the 1920s, and has very recently purchased two lithographs, The Arab Blouse and Odalisque on a Couch, also from the 1920s. The lithographs are reproduced here for the first time. Although they are printed in editions of fifty, Matisse considers his lithographs as important as his drawings, which they so closely resemble.In all these works now in our permanent collection, we see talent, thought, serenity, and vigor. In The White Plumes, especially, we see perfect control of color in relationship to form and line, and unmistakable instinct for decorative composition. The White Plumes not only greatly broadens our collection of modern masters; it contributes to a fuller interpretation of our collection of old masters because Matisse's art is the logical result of centuries of creative painting in Europe.Referenced Works of Art
  1. The White Plumes, 1919, by Henri Matisse, contemporary French painter. A recent acquisition through the Dunwoody Fund
  2. The Plumed Hat by Matisse. This oil, also painted in 1919, is in the Chester Dale collection in the Art Institute of Chicago.
  3. Pencil study for The White Plumes, 1919, by Matisse. Collection of John S. Newberry, Jr.
  4. The Arab Blouse. Lithograph by Matisse. Recently acquired through the Dunwoody Fund
  5. Odalisque on a Couch. Lithograph by Matisse. Recently acquired through the Dunwoody Fund
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "Institute Acquires a Famous Matisse," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 37, no. 6 (February, 1948): 26-31.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009