"Académie Matisse: Henri Matisse and his Nordic & American Pupils," Oct. 17-Nov. 17, 2001, at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture, 8 West 8th Street, New York, N.Y.
Matisse spent almost a third of his life attending drawing and sculpture classes run by either mediocrities, has-beens or geniuses. His color experiments and the liberties he took with human anatomy were met with ridicule or, at best, sympathetic silence. He was kicked out of more than one studio because of his stubbornness, belligerent attitude and inability to conform.
It's not surprising, then, that thanks to his friends and patrons, the artist founded the Académie Matisse in January 1908, when he was 38. It operated until the summer of 1911. Matisse was not financially well off at the time, and he received free studio and living space as a result of the formation of the school.
Matisse clearly had an interest in pedagogy and wanted to communicate his thoughts about art making -- in addition to opening the school, he published his Notes of a Painter in 1908. He was also keenly aware of the fact that his public image had suffered because of his artistic experiments.
How did Matisse teach? He made his students draw copies of casts, including the Apollo Belvedere and the Borghese gladiator from Louvre. His pupils drew for several months before they were allowed to take up paints. They drew from the model and used color freely, things Matisse was not able to do when he studied art years before at St-Quentin under the strict gaze of Jules Degrave.
He discussed Post-Impressionist color theory and sent them to study and copy works at the Louvre on Saturdays. (Matisse preached what he had practiced; he spent six and a half years copying Chardin's The Skate when he was studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.) According to Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling, many of Matisse's pupils felt that he was at his best when he gave practical advice.
Matisse discouraged flights of fancy and made it clear early on that he did not approve of pupils simply aping his style or sloshing paint around in an attempt to be new. According to the recollections of his pupils, Matisse was generous and strict. He had little patience for lazy drawing. He could be a hard critic, but many students later spoke about the experience in a reverential tone.
One pupil was the Russian-born American artist Max Weber, who fondly remembered Saturday class visits to Matisse's studio. Matisse would show off his small art collection, which included African sculpture, ink drawings by van Gogh, and the painting Matisse loved above all others, Cézanne's Three Bathers, and enjoyed having visitors comment on his work.
Matisse would provide an in-depth critique once a week, usually on Saturdays, a prospect that would fill many of the pupils with apprehension. He was self-conscious about leaving enough time for each pupil to receive a fair share of criticism. Matisse did not alter the drawing or painting he was discussing in any way. After 1909 these critiques were rendered on a bi-weekly basis and the school closed shortly after the Matisse family moved to Issy-les-Moulineaux.
The show at the Studio School surveys works by 19 artists from six different countries. Half of the works were drawn from the scholarly survey of the Matissare, or the Scandinavian Académie Matisse alumni, staged earlier this year at the Lillehammer Art Museum in Norway. Since the exhibition is largely a study of student production, it wasn't designed solely to showcase the best works of the artists involved (which is not to say the pictures on view are amateurish or ill-conceived). A few women, including Sarah Stein, were enrolled in the school, but no examples of their work appear in this exhibition.
This exhibition includes figure studies done in oils, ink and pencil, a few still lifes, including a small and lively one by American artist Patrick Henry Bruce, and Fauvist and Cézannesque landscapes. There are quasi-Cubist and Art Brut works by Max Weber. Forms are outlined in black; shadows are colored green and blue; details are blurred or omitted; surfaces consist of a weave of horizontal and vertical brushstrokes and contrasting colors are often used. Matisse and Cézanne seem to have had equal sway over the pupils.
The show features a number of carefully painted and expressive figural compositions. Henrik Sørenson's Portrait of Jean Heiberg Paris (1909), was obviously inspired by Cézanne's early palette-knife paintings. The thick impasto and rust orange and dark green color scheme work well together, although the rendering of the hands is a bit belabored.
Morgan Russell's Reclining Woman (1920) was completed after he attended the Académie Matisse. The flame-like brushstrokes are reminiscent of Soutine. This painting contains a painting within a painting, a compositional device that Matisse was obsessed with. The lush color combination of rich dark brown, deep green, and sensual orange pink quietly hums and glows.
Jean Heiberg's Figure Study (1909), is a beautiful back view of a thin nude female. The black outline lends weight to the figure and the musculature is indicated by broad areas of color. The background consists of a dense layering of light and dark violet and blue green brushstrokes. The sense of agitation created by the clash of warm and cool colors strengthens the image.
Another work by Heiberg, titled Nature Morte (1916), is a strong and somber study. The low key palette of grays and earthy greens is Flemish and can be traced back to de Heem. The objects on the table -- a primitive sculpture, onions, a bowl and a bottle -- look like they are covered in ash.
Hans Purrmann's Standing Nude (1910), is made up of pearlescent flesh tones and harmonious areas of brown, green and blue. The foreground and background form a gentle watery surface, and the flesh is finely nuanced.
One prize of the show is the three pencil sketches of a seated female nude done by Matisse himself. These confident and graceful doodles were almost certainly done by the master during one of his class visits. A profile view of Matisse hurriedly done in pencil by Max Weber is among the rarities in this exhibit. Weber also provides an independent view of the master's workplace with The Apollo in Matisse's Studio (1908). Covered by Fauvist green shadows, the scene is carefully modeled and built up through a process of intense observation (Matisse had his pupils work on individual pieces for several days in a row). This particular painting could easily be mistaken for one of Matisse's early figure studies.
Alfred Maurer's Fauve Landscape (1910-12), with its staccato brushwork, dabs of pure color, has a calming effect. Maurer was a typical example of an American artist who sought out the Paris avant-garde. Van Gogh was the main inspiration behind this painting.
The show includes paintings by Ludvig Karsten, Henrik Sørenson and Alf Lundeby of the same long-haired, plump model. The thick-legged, smooth-skinned figure is firmly planted in the center of these canvases and her facial features have been all but erased. Her hair is gathered together in her left hand and rests delicately on her left breast. Karsten dissolves portions of the outline of the figure and Sørenson constructs a sturdy form with a beautiful patch of whitish light on the stomach and chest. In each of these works, complimentary colors, violets and oranges and reds and greens, are placed next to one another. This agitates the surface but also unifies it.
Through teaching, Matisse examined his learning process and clarified his goals. He painted his most experimental canvases not long after the Académie Matisse closed: The Red Studio, The Blue Window, View of Notre Dame. Decoration could only become expression through hard work and prolonged and intense scrutiny of the world.
Even though Matisse never underestimated the importance of skills, he firmly believed that "the life of a painting comes not from the technical expertise brought to bear on it but from the steadiness and intensity of the painter's own emotional response." A few of Matisse's pupils began to understand this while attending the Académie Matisse.
ERIC GELBER is a New York art critic and assistant editor of Artcritical.com.