Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, 1913, Oil on Canvas, 145 x 97 cm. (57” x 38” approx.) The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Matisse is a difficult artist to wrap your head around. Like Picasso his career is long and widely varied. We see here one of the fathers of the Fauvist movement with its wild “animal” colors and liberating swing and flow of line. We see also a man who was fascinated by design for its own sake, who could paint large pictures devoted to a simple eccentric curlicue on a peasant’s blouse. He played with angles and light and the ways in which form could diminish and pop forward based on whether the artist chose expected or challenging color prompts. While every bit an artist, Matisse was very much the practical tinker tapping at the bits and pieces, seeing what kind of sharp and useful point he could make.
It doesn’t seem very threatening, but this portrait is the kind of thing the Nazi’s sought to stamp out in their campaign against “degenerate” art. I do not know if this particular painting was one of those in the 1939 Nazi exhibition, but since it ended up in the Hermitage as so many other rescued works did, it is possible. Certainly Matisse was squarely on the Nazi list. Hitler was a failed artist, you see, a man who had been denied entry into art programs not because he was from the wrong family or status, but because his art didn’t show any real potential. Naturally, being the understanding and self-reflective soul he was, once he was dictator in Germany he set to work striking back at the artistic world that had so badly wronged him. He staged shows of “Degenerate Art” at the same time as a show of what he considered to be proper, worthy art. The proper show failed to attract many visitors while the degenerate show had lines running down the street. His lackeys quietly shut down the degenerate show, and (to their credit) hid the art from their Fuehrer lest he destroy it. The unkind view is that they hid it to make their fortune later, but whether fueled by self interest or not, at least the art was saved for the most part.
Here’s Hitler on the subject, taken from Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:
Works of art that cannot be understood but need a swollen set of instructions to prove their right to exist and find their way to neurotics who are receptive to such stupid or insolent nonsense will no longer openly reach the German nation. Let no one have illusions! National Socialism has set out to purge the German Reich and our people of all those influences threatening its existence and character.
There you go then. It is difficult to look back and imagine that there was ever a time when people would listen to someone spouting that kind of hateful, limited argument and take them seriously. But of course, people were a lot less sophisticated in those days.
Matisse took a long time to compose this painting. His wife had to go through nearly a hundred sittings, and perhaps at the end she looked at him skeptically wondering if it could possibly have been worth it. Well, it was. At the risk of offering a swollen set of instructions, let me tell you what I see here.
I see the solidity and strength of a woman in her maturity, slender without being a waif. She is strangely attractive; we want to know her, we want to touch her. Her head is posed with a mysterious, Sibylline tilt to match the Hellenic masque of face which somehow surmounts its own formality and austerity to register with the viewer as human and tender. It is quite simply a hell of a thing. We are looking at vertical and upright lines, from the hat’s feather to the slender arms in tight sleeves. These lines are echoed by the back struts on the chair, by the thin twisting scarf of bold orange. Her clothing suggests a form without showing it to us. It could be anyone, and I think that is his ultimate scheme. He is giving us more than his own wife; he is showing us all our wives. This picture is aimed at heterosexual men. This is the portrait of the woman I love, Catherine, just as if she sat for Matisse all those years before her birth. All of you men who are looking at this, take a moment and imagine your finest love dressed as this one and sitting for Matisse. Is that not her?
It’s a hell of a thing, is what it is.
The arts are always the subject of controversy; that’s just part of their job. If you aren’t scaring someone, angering someone, boring someone, making someone laugh then maybe you aren’t pulling your weight. There will always be someone along to tell us this art is bad, that this other art is unnecessary, that we should cut its funding or question its values. It has always been that way. It will always be that way. And it will never matter because the artistic spirit of human beings cannot be squelched or squandered, even by the corporate cruds who think they can control it and ride it to the bank.
So if, like me, you live in a state where the government decides to cut or eliminate education in the arts, just remember that the pendulum will swing again. In the meantime, you can show your child this portrait. “Look here, angel. Look at this miracle. How a man painted your mother all those years before she was even born!”