Matisse: Cut-Outs at MOMA – Part Three by Franklin Hill Perrell

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A Sketch of Henri Matisse (1869-1954) From that same exhibition, Matisse’s painting, Woman in a Hat, 1905, was purchased by Gertrude Stein and her family. It portrayed Amelie Parayre whom the artist had married in 1898. She is the Madame Matisse known to history. Enabling Matisse’s art by her earnings running a successful hat shop, she is regarded as integral to the artist’s enduring involvement with fashion. They became the parents of two sons, one being the illustrious art dealer, Pierre Matisse (who figures in the MOMA exhibition as arranging his father’s commissions from America).

Despite the essential encouragement and support that his wife provided, their marriage deteriorated as the artist gained fame and financial independence. Biographers have ascribed to the artist a series of affairs with his models. There is continuing debate over whether this speculation is exaggerated. Nonetheless, prior to their marriage, Matisse had warned his wife-to-be, “Mademoiselle, I dearly love you, but I love my paintings more.” While Madame Matisse assuredly suffered from some genuine ailments, she appears to have lapsed into a psychosomatically induced state of invalidism over marital tensions across twenty years.

While she undoubtedly suspected her husband of infidelities, her persistent rival was certainly his art. Ultimately, she left him by 1939. A major provocation was that Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse’s studio manager and model through most of the 1930’s, and then nurse for the bed-ridden Madame Matisse, had taken over running the entire household. The break-up was followed by a formal separation agreement, in which the artist found himself in a lawyers office, obliged to give over half of his art to his wife, an experience that proved emotionally devastating. Madame Matisse’s health appears to have improved at this point.

Madame Matisse had raised the artist’s daughter, Marguerite, and the two of them were close. They both joined the French Resistance during the war, were arrested by the Gestapo, and narrowly escaped death at the hands of their captors. The war years were not without consequence to the artist (already condemned as “degenerate” by the Nazis), who took laudanum to calm his nerves, and whose studio was shadowed by the local police for harboring Lydia, an enemy alien. Matisse’s contemporaneous biographer, Louis Aragon, also asserts that Matisse’s studio was a communications drop off point for the Resistance. Certain pictorial references and a trail of inference in the late work suggest that the artist was less insulated from contemporary events than has been generally supposed, though surely such a response was indirect.

Matisse, in his early seventies, and shortly after his marriage separation, suffered from a gastrointestinal breakdown of such magnitude that he would rely on a wheelchair for the rest of life, being virtually unable to stand. He nearly died from cancer surgery in January, 1941. The beautiful Lydia, who stayed on with him, resumed her role as his lead assistant throughout the creation of the cut-outs.

Characterized at the hospital as “the man who rose from the dead,” Matisse described his recovery as a “second life…. though one that wouldn’t last very long'” providing him an unanticipated freedom to make a fresh start.

We see photographs of him working from bed around this time, now at his studio which doubled as a bedroom, with a charcoal attached to a long wooden rod in hand, drawing outlines on big sheets of paper tacked to the wall. Cutting directly into colored paper himself, he developed a method whereby his assistants moved the cut-outs around, tacking them to spots he indicated on the walls, an exhaustive process subject to continuous revision.

Photos Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art
Top Left: Matisse in front of gouache-painted papers, Hôtel Régina, Nice. Photo: Lydia Delectorskaya. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse Top Right: Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954). Venus (Vénus), 1952. Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, on white paper, mounted on paper panel. 39 7/8 x 30 1/8” (101.2 x 76.5 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1973.18.2. © 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Bottom Left: Matisse’s studio, Hôtel Régina, Nice, c. 1953. Photo: Lydia Delectorskaya. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse Bottom Right: Hôtel Régina, Nice, 1953. Photo: Hélène Adant. Centre Pompidou – MnamCci – Bibliothèque Kandinsky

This three part essay is part of Artful Circle’s journalistic endeavor: Artful Observer: Blog. To read the blog, you can visit on our website, or directly on Our articles will not only feature Artful Circle activities, but also art news about blockbuster museum exhibitions and showcasing selected artists and gallery shows. For the last few weeks, Franklin Hill Perrell has been making several visits to the latest exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art on Henri Matisse and his cut-outs. After viewing the show and doing extensive additional research, he has put together an in-depth article that will help you appreciate the exhibit and art with deeper understanding. Whether you have the opportunity to get to MOMA or simply want to learn more, Franklin has created a comprehensive essay for your reading pleasure.

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