That Matisse would abandon oil painting and adopt a new technique so late in his career was a surprise to many people, although it need not have been. Paper cutouts were, of course, convenient for a semi-invalid, but Matisse had always been an extremely experimental and unpredictable painter, and he had a lifelong fear of stagnation. “An artist” he said, “must never be a prisoner, even of himself, a prisoner of a style, a prisoner of a reputation, a prisoner of good fortune.”
His paramount concern,ever since he had found his way in the early years of the century, had been composition by the pure confrontation of colours, and in colored sheets of paper he had a medium that provided him at last with the ultimate in color-flat, unvariable, unmodulated. “Only when one has reached complete maturity and mastery of color,” he once explained, “is it possible to do anything like these.” He denied that the cutouts represented any break in continuity, saying simply that they were “the result of my long career.”
Matisse is believed to have painted more than two thousand pictures, not to mention his cutouts, sculptures, brush-and-ink drawings, etchings, lithographs, linoleum cuts, ballet sets, and textile and glass sets. Because his production was so large and so varied, it is sometimes forgotten that, unlike Picasso, he matured slowly, and, in the early years, hesitantly.
It is true that when he arrived in Paris in 1891 from his home in the Picardy region of Northern France, he quickly displayed considerable technical skill in the life class of the painter Gustave Moreau. But he knew little of what was going on in the Paris art world outside of the academies, and for several years he painted thoroughly conventional, dark-hued still lives and interiors.
He came variously under the influence of Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Redon. The first two, in particular, taught him much about the importance of stressing the flat, two-dimensional picture surface, the orchestration of colors, the expression of nature through “emotional transpositions.”
In 1899 Matisse purchased a Cezanne masterpiece he could not afford- the small “Three Bathers” of around 1880, one of the strongest of the more than one dozen Cezanne compositions on the bather theme. Matisse kept the painting until 1936, when he presented it to the Petit Palais in Paris, remarking in a letter to the director that after thirty-seven years he knew the painting “fairly well, I hope, though not entirely; it has sustained me spiritually in the critical moments of my career as an artist; I have drawn from it my faith and my perseverance.”
Important as Cezanne and Gauguin were to him, Matisse’s real and rather belated, liberation must be dated from the summer of
when he encountered the neoimpressionist painters Signac and Cross in Saint-Tropez and started experimenting with their technique of rendering light in flecks of preliminary color. That road quickly led to the theories and practices that established Matisse as a leader of the only artistic movement to which he ever belonged-namely, Fauvism.
Matisse referred to his cutouts of the last 14 years of his life as Painting With Scissors. He began using scissors and pins, textiles and paper to compose his later works, which bear a striking resemblance to today’s computer-generated graphics. Was he already starting to “paint with scissors” when he composed Dance? In the cutouts, the edge of the compositional elements is no different than the edge of the surface of the canvass. He uses color to define compositional intensities in a white field, but internal treatment is not different than the internal treatment of the canvass. The density of pigment and level of detail are the same. He actually had his assistants saturate the white paper he would use for his compositions in Linel gouache paint. He produced his painted cutouts from a white medium, which was not paint and infusing his material with pigment, the same way an Old Master might apply paint to a canvas to create a visual illusion. Matisse is not creating a visual illusion but a material through his process.