Henri Matisse at the Met: The Mindset behind the Masterpiece

Women admiring Henri Matisee paintings at the Met.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art throws a sure-fire crowd pleaser into its winter mix with the impeccably curated Matisse: In Search of True Painting, an eye-opening assemblage of nearly 50 of the modernist master, Henri Matisse's works, culled from the Met's own extensive collection as well as an array of international sources. Matisse is, of course, one the 20th Century's great art stars, and when we went on opening day the museum was already on high line-control alert, extending a velvet rope for a hundred yards outside the exhibition's gallery. The throngs of holiday tourists were not yet in evidence, so we were able to stroll right in, but you should be aware that a visit to the Matisse at the Met in prime time is likely to result in some line waiting or, at a minimum, jostling around the extensive, excellent "liner notes" accompanying the paintings. 

Henri Matisse's still life painting of table with bottles and food at the Met

Matisse at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met's notes are crucial to fully appreciating Matisse: In Search of True Painting, for this is one of those great exhibitions that is as educational as it is aesthetically pleasing. The point of Matisse: In Search of True Painting is to show how the man evolved as an artist over the course of a prolific career that spanned some five decades, and by doing so, show us how painting itself works. Matisse is especially well-suited for such a treatment, as he constantly experimented stylistically, and returned to the same subject matter again and again throughout his life. For instance, Matisse admired the work of both Paul Cézanne and Paul Signac, so in the early aught years he arranged a still life and painted it in two different ways: Still Life with Purro I (above left), in a homage to Cézanne; and Still Life with Purro II (above right), for Signac. 

Henri Matisse's painting of a sailor sitting on a chair at the Met

Appreciating Henri Matisse Paintings

To take another example: in the summer of 1906 Matisse spent time in the fishing village of Collioure, and he painted a local teenager using his at-the-time signature vivid colors (Young Sailor I, above left); he then painted a second version, this time employing flat color and adding deformation for a totally different look (Young Sailor II, above right). Unconvinced by this second effort, Matisse apparently told friends that it had been painted by the local postman. In addition to really understanding how Matisse went about his art–the thinking, the brushstrokes, the palette, the composition, all of it–you also get the pleasure of seeing lots of amazing paintings. His "Goldfish" pieces are among our all-time favorites, and at the Met's Matisse: In Search of True Painting, you have the opportunity to see two different versions, hung side by side. Well worth braving the crowds. 

The Met has Henri Matisse's painting of a gold fish in a bowl sitting next to a window.

Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Met 

The Met's Matisse exhibition will be on display through March 17, 2013. The Met is open Tuesday through Thursday, and Sunday, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. The museum is located on Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street. As always, the price of admission to the Met is "suggested." For more information about Matisse: In Search of True Painting, visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art online.    

Three of Henri Matisse's paintings of a women sitting on a pink sofa wearing a green robe.

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