For as long as I can remember, the first gallery of SFMOMA’s permanent collection has featured Henri Matisse’s 1916 portraits of Sarah and Michael Stein. Not now: Michael has been replaced with a second ‘Sarah,’ this one in graphite. If you’re in San Francisco it’s a must-see hanging.
The painting and the sketch are clearly related and are still strikingly different. The painting is softer, the drawing is more precise. The painting is mysterious, the drawing is direct. The painting is full of questions: Why are Sarah Stein’s arms in the air — or is she lying down? Why does her hair = earmuffs? No matter, it works.
Meanwhile, the drawing is the best kind of puzzle. Yes, it is a study for the portrait, but it is hardly warm enough to be a traditional study for a commission from a devoted supporter. Instead Matisse uses the sketch as a transitional exercise, a conscious scrubbing of recent practice. It’s a preparatory sketch — but for the artist himself and not for the painting he would make. In many ways the two Sarah Steins mark the end of Matisse’s cubist period and his transition to what was next.
Between 1914 and the Portrait of Sarah Stein, Matisse painted masterpiece after masterpiece. In a two year period and more or less in chronological order, Matisse painted: View of Notre Dame, French Window at Collioure, Goldfish and Palette, White and Pink Head (the portrait of his daughter Marguerite at right, to which we shall return soon), Still Life after Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s ‘La Desserte,’ Gourds, and Piano Lesson. In the fall of 1916, perhaps spurred on by the first public exhibition of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in July 1916, Matisse finished his two most ambitious cubist paintings: The Moroccans and Bathers by a River. It was a remarkable two-year burst.
At the end of that period came SFMOMA’s two Sarah Steins. They represent two-thirds of a dramatic turning point in Matisse’s
oeuvre. Before them: Cubism. After them Matisse would complete his transition away from cubism by making one last barely cubist portrait of a new model, Lorette. After that, Matisse gave up cubism for good. He would go on to make many non-cubist portraits of Lorette, followed by the Nice period. But first, the drawing… which I’ll discuss tomorrow.
Related: I can’t mention a Matisse portrait without steering you toward John Klein’s fantastic, must-own book about Matisse’s portraits.