The man who created this exotic and compelling art was not easy to know. In 1913, the New York Times dispatched Clara T. MacChesney to interview “The King of the Fauves” in his home outside Paris. Aware that Matisse’s work was revolutionary and “abnormal to the last degree“, Miss MacChesney was scarcely prepared for the “ordinary, healthy, individual” who greeted her as she walked into the studio. ” I found not a long haired, slovenly dressed, eccentric man,” she wrote, “but a fresh, healthy, robust blond gentleman, who looked even more German than French.”
Matisse, sensing her surprise, exclaimed : “Oh, do tell the American people that I am a normal man.” More sophisticated observers than Miss MacChesney, then and throughout Matisse’s life, often sensed a discrepancy between the art and the stout man with clipped beard and rimless professorial glasses who created it.
“…It was a fine line he was walking, and in the best of his works he walked over it, as it were, taking expressive leaps that made little natural sense. Their irrationality could no longer be rationalized as a demonstration of nature at its most surprising. They came to exist in and for themselves, as a manifestation of the artist’s own irrationality. As Matisse wrote in a 1938 letter, “nature — or rather, my nature — remains mysterious,” and it was through his irrational expressive leaps, overthrowing nature, that he conveyed his own mysterious nature.”
He was a man, wrote Leo Stein- who with his sister Gertrude was one of Matisse’s earliest patrons- who demanded ” a place for everything and everything in its place, both within his head and without.” He was ” the type of the great master,” wrote Picasso’s mistress Fernande Olivier. “Clear, of an astonishing lucidity of spirit, precise, concise, intelligent.” And, she added shrewdly, “perhaps much less simple than he wished to appear.” To the mercurial Picasso, Matisse was simply an enigma : “North Pole” and “South Pole” he used to say of Matisse and himself.
Few painters have lived more completely in and for their art, few have been able of such concentration and such unremitting effort. Younger artists like to cite Matisse’s trials with his Barnes Foundation mural, “Dance I” , which he labored on for more than a year , only to discover that through no fault of his own it had been painted several inches shorter than the space assigned to it. Characteristically, he refused to make minor adjustments, but instead spent another eight months developing and executing an entirely new design. Looking into his ” interesred rather than interesting eyes,” Gertrude Stein sensed this stubborn power in him; one always had the feeling, she wrote in characteristic prose, ” that he was greatly expressing something struggling.”
“Matisse does not so much dominate his female subjects, as admire them, out of need for the creativity hidden in their bodies. Albert Elsen notes “the almost complete departure of the male model from Matisse’s figural work” after 1906. The Serf (1900-04), a Rodinesque sculpture, is his most famous image of a male, and it is not a happy one. He is a downtrodden, melancholy figure, for all his muscularity, implicitly helpless and passive — unconsciously castrated — as his armlessness suggests. Is he Matisse’s surrogate, the emotionally inept, oppressed side of the vital, vigorous figure in the 1906 self-portrait? Was his Fauvism an attempt to break the mood embodied in The Serf? Was it an attempt to once and for all assert the vitality he felt he was losing, all the more so because he was aging? (He was in fact the oldest of the Fauves, born in 1869, and already in his 30s when the Fauves — Vlaminck (b. 1876) and Derain (b. 1880) were in their 20s — exhibited together for the first time in 1905.) Matisse gave up on the male model because he needed woman to save him from the “inner conflict” — his own words — that plagued him all his life. Identifying with her by expressing her body, he could absorb the wholeness of her being. ( Kuspit )
Visitors who saw him before his easel, meticulous in tweed jacket and tie, sensed neither the struggle nor the joy he took in his work. He was a courteous, contained, intense man who could so li
imagine diversion away from his studio that he could remark: “it has never amused me to amuse myself.” Aside from his trips, taken always in connection with his work, he moved for fifty years, with migratory regularity, between his various studios on the Riviera and those in Paris and at suburban Issy-les-Moulineaux in the summers, where his wife and children usually remained.