One summer early in the twentieth century,Henri Matisse took his family to the seashore. There, in the light of the Mediterranean, a new way of painting came forth. ….
Picasso was the one who suggested that Henri Matisse and his family spend the summer of 1905 at Collioure. Matisse’s son Pierre had been ailing. The nineteenth-century belief that a “change of air” can cure anything was still current. Picasso said, “Try Collioure” , and off they went. Collioure already had a good name among painters. Paul Signac had been there in 1887 and had painted the old fortress overlooking the bay so that it looked as big as Alcatraz and twice as impregnable.
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Collioure was a pleasant little town where living was very cheap and the air was pure, even by the standards of the day. It was on the Mediterranean coast, no more than a mile or two from Spain, and life there had certain echoes of Spanish ways: above all, the round dance, the “sardana” , which was danced on the beach to the accompaniment of an ad-hoc wind band.
Three Mediterranean villages were to play a great part in the art of the twentieth century. Ceret, a town in the hills not far from Collioue, was one of them; there Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque spent summers at a crucial period in the development of cubism. Another was Cadaques, a little fishing village just across the Spanish border where in 1908 Picasso painted some of the toughest and densest and most difficult of all his paintings. The third was Collioure. For Henri Matisse, for Andre Derain, and later for Juan Gris, it was a place where something very important happened.
None of them were places of exceptional beauty. All that they had in common was that they were a long way from Paris, demanded a minimum of social contacts, had an uncontaminated local life, and cost almost nothing. They lay in countrysides that were quite undeveloped and they kept to a style of life that was plain, dignified an unpretentious. The same could be said even of St-Tropez at the time, but there was something about the isolation of the three C’s-Collioure,Ceret, Cadaques- that was particularly propitious for uninterrupted work. There is work that cone be done best in big cities, and there is work that calls for a long privacy; for Henri Matisse, winter in Paris and summer in Collioure was to prove as good a formula as could be found.
Matisse was in his middle thirties. As an artist he had been a late beginner and was still a slow developer. In 1905 few people would have picked him out as a man destined to be one of the greatest of all European artists. Yet today that is how we see him: as painter, as draftsman, as sculptor, and as the creator in his late seventies of a completely new medium- colored paper cutouts- that allowed him to carve color as a sculptor carves marble. In 1905 little of this innovative mastery had emerged; to his younger coleagues Matisse seemed to be prematurely aged, like a provincial savant long set in his ways, from whom nothing astonishing could be expected.
He had plenty to look serious about. By birth and by temperament he was a worrier, a man from the burdened north. Reared in a conspicuously hideous countryside in northern France, he had no idea that Nature could be essentially voluptuous. Nature as provider was one thing; but Nature as playmate ? Nature as seductress? No such idea had presented itself to the square-built, strong-jawed young student who went to Paris in 1887 to study law. Why he had opted for law nobody knew, perhaps least of all himself. He was a quiet, steady, inconspicuous young man with nothing much to say and no clearly defined bent.
If Matisse was a “great artist” in a novel or a film, he would be presented to us at that stage in his life as on fire for art. He would be shown responding to the great men who were, in fact, that very year shaping the future of art: Georges Seurat, Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin. The novelist or film director might not bend history to the point of having Matisse on terms of personal acquaintance with any of them, but it would certainly seem implausible to a creator of fiction that matisse at the age of eighteen would care nothing for painting, good or bad.
Yet that is how it was. It was as if he was anesthetized where art was concerned. He read his law books, and he passed his examinations, and he went back to the sodden north, and he got a little job in a law firm, and he pushed his pen for the prescribed number of hours each day, and that was all. He does not seem to have had any sense of his identity as an independent human being; to himself, and probably to others, he seemed blank, torpid, purposeless, unawakened.
But then, in 1890, when he was nearly twenty-one, Henri Matisse got sick. His appendix had to be removed. Recovery was unexpectedly slow, and he lay in bed with time on his hands. At some point in his long and tedious convalescence his mother gave him a Sunday painter’s box of paints, a set of brushes, and an instruction book. Matisse opened the book, took up the brushes, and set to work copying a landscape, one of the chromolithographs that were the debased currency of art at the time. The effect on Matisse was miraculous. “For the first time in my life,” he said later, “I felt free, quiet, and on my own.” ( to be continued)