Woman Reading and The Oasis of Matisse

Oasis of Matisse 1

The Oasis of Matisse – billed as the largest ever exhibition of Henri Matisse’s work in the Netherlands; and as the first Matisse retrospective of any size in the country for fifty years – is currently at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam. It will run until 16 August.

The Stedelijk is boasting an unusual approach to such a retrospective. The ground floor of the museum brings together a wide range of Matisse’s paintings, drawings, and prints, and juxtaposes them with both famous and lesser-known pieces from within the Stedelijk’s permanent collection. These include works by Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh, Piet Mondrian, Maurice de Vlamnick, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Pablo Picasso, Olga Rozanova, Marc Chagall, and Mark Rothko. The time-frame is broadly contiguous with the extent of Matisse’s life (1869-1954), showing both the artists who would have influenced his youth, and the new directions being explored towards his final years.

Following on from the comparisons and connections of the ground floor, upstairs showcases a selection of Matisse’s late cutouts alongside magazine illustrations, textiles, and stained glass works. The Oasis of Matisse was conceived as a response to and inspired by Matisse: The Cut-Outs, which showed at the Tate Modern last year from April to September, and then at MoMA from October until February.

The Stedelijk lent out one of Matisse’s best-loved cutouts for that exhibition: The Parakeet and the Mermaid, which Matisse created in 1952, just a couple of years before his death from a heart attack at the age of eighty-four. One of Matisse’s largest cutouts, aided by his assistants he pinned its shapes to large sheets of white paper, hung on the walls of his apartment in Nice as he recuperated from a major operation. Matisse was confined to a wheelchair, and found in his mural ‘a little garden all around me, where I can walk […] There are leaves, fruits, a bird’.

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La perruche et la sirène / The Parakeet and the Mermaid, by Henri Matisse (1952-1953). Goache on paper, cut and pasted on paper, mounted on canvas. 337 x 768.5 cm. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

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The very first room on the ground floor of The Oasis of Matisse offers a juxtaposition between Matisse’s La liseuse Woman Reading (1895), Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Jeune fille à la mandoline / Young Woman with Mandolin (1865-70), and George Hendrik Breitner’s The Red Kimono (1893-94).

The exhibition’s catalogue states that when Matisse came to paint Woman Reading, he had only recently attended an exhibition of Corot in Paris. And certainly there are clear points of similarity between the two cited works. Matisse’s painting could be viewed as Corot’s mandolin-player turned round, and reading at leisure instead of posing and playing her instrument. There is the same dark hair, although tied differently; and the women appear to share the same stature and roundness of face. Both paintings utilise a subdued colour palette, of brown and ochre offset by cool blues or greens.

Yet for an exhibition which culminates with Matisse’s late cutouts, and explicitly seeks new perspectives in the context of the whole of Matisse’s career, it seems more interesting and more fruitful to consider Matisse’s early interest in pattern. Breitner’s The Red Kimono is full of patterns, textures, and textiles: from the dark Aztec geometrics of the mattress and floor coverings, to the looser floral spots and splotches on the drapery behind. But it is the white, black, and olive petals which adorn the red kimono itself – in a composition which shows the influence of Japonisme both in the woman’s dress and in the flattened perspective – which offer the nearest link with the sea-green wallpaper in Matisse’s Woman Reading.

Comparing the two paintings, we may ask to what degree the pattern being worn changes our sense of the human subject. In relation to Matisse’s reading sitter, the petals on the red kimono scarcely make its female wearer appear any more animated. She lies in repose, leaning back on the covered mattress, her head resting on two pillows: and though she sustains a flower in the air with her right hand, there is no greater sense of inner animation. It is as though not only the choice of wallpaper – because after all, while we can presume that the lady in Breitner’s painting has chosen her red kimono, we can’t be sure that the woman in the Matisse chose her wallpaper – but the presence of it remains as vitalising as the fact of the red dress. Both patterns, worn or unworn, make staid scenes vibrant.

Matisse’s Woman Reading remains a realistic depiction, although in its blocks of colour it shows a tendency towards Fauvism which Matisse would soon develop. Breitner’s The Red Kimono by contrast is composed, carefully lit realism.

More than the Corot, Matisse’s Woman Reading recalls another painting in the Stedelijk collection: Van Gogh’s Augustine Roulin / La Berceuse (1889). The floral patterns of the wallpapers in both works are markedly similar: white and yellowish flowers on backgrounds of different shades of green, with the pattern regulated in the Matisse. Both works are also studies in green and red, given the reddish-brown of Matisse’s adjoining wall and cabinet.

But in Woman Reading the line is less bold, the colour and the contrast less intense, and the painting more naturalistic. There is not the same feeling of a subject submerged: of the surrounds and the woman becoming one, as there is in Van Gogh’s richly psychological portrait. In La Berceuse, Augustine Roulin’s green blouse and skirt compete with the green of the wallpaper; and her face and especially her hands are tinged with the same colour. In Woman Reading there are greens which function instead as accents, in the emerald table jug and mint lampshade.

While in Corot’s painting, the sitter looks directly towards the viewer, in both the Matisse and the Van Gogh the gaze is down and across. In Woman Reading this is presumably, as the title indicates, towards the book poised in front of her; though as far as we can see she could equally be gazing deeply into the corner of the room, as does Madame Roulin in La Berceuse.

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In fact in the last of the exhibition catalogue’s introductory essays, ‘Matisse and the Lure of Decoration’, Maurice Rummens compares Van Gogh’s La Berceuse with Matisse’s La guitariste / The Guitarist (1902-03), which he describes as ‘Matisse’s first “costume piece” and one of his first paintings with a striking ornamental pattern’. Rummens suggests that Matisse may have encounted La Berceuse early in his career; noting that in 1897, Matisse had purchased a drawing by Van Gogh from the Australian impressionist – and friend of Van Gogh’s – John Peter Russell, on a visit to Belle Île off the coast of Brittany. Matisse is recorded as saying, ‘Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained colour theory to me’.

Of course Woman Reading was done in 1895, two years earlier. Between December 1888 and March 1889 Van Gogh had painted five versions of La Berceuse: among the numerous portraits he made of the Roulin family, the parents Joseph and Augustine and their three children, Armand, Camille, and the infant Marcelle, whose cradle, out of frame, Augustine is rocking in La Berceuse. With two repetitions of La Berceuse complete by late February, in a letter to his brother Theo, Van Gogh remarked that Augustine ‘had a good eye and took the best one’ off on a visit to her mother.

The title La Berceuse meant for Van Gogh ‘”our lullaby”, or the woman by the cradle’. He wrote of the idea that even Icelandic fisherman, in their ‘melancholy isolation, exposed to all the dangers, alone on the sad sea’, could be comforted by the experience of his painting.

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La liseuse / Woman Reading, by Henri Matisse (1895). Oil on wood. 61.5 x 48 cm. Musée départemental Matisse, Le Cateau-Cambrésis.

Jeune fille à la mandoline / Young Woman with Mandolin, by Camille Corot (1865-70). Oil on canvas. 46.5 x 31 cm. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

The Red Kimono, by George Hendrik Breitner (1893-94). Oil on canvas. 51.5 x 76 cm. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Augustine Roulin / La Berceuse, by Vincent van Gogh (1889). Oil on canvas. 91 x 71.5 cm. F 507. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

La guitariste / The Guitarist, by Henri Matisse (1902-03)

Polynesia, the Sea, by Henri Matisse (1946). Design for the tapestry factory at Beauvais.