As mentioned here, in 1907 Vasily Kandinsky moved to Paris. By the next year his paintings had changed: His compositions became more sophisticated, his brushwork more au courant, his colors more immediate and alive. What Kandinsky saw in Paris changed him. And the artist whose work I think he must have seen the most was Henri Matisse. It wasn’t just Matisse’s work that I think appealed to Kandinsky, I think Matisse’s biography, too.
Like Kandinsky, Matisse was fast-approaching middle-age. Like Kandinsky, Matisse had spent years making dark, Northern European paintings, struggling to break through into a progressive, new style. Matisse got there in 1906, when he was 36 years old. When Kandinsky arrived in Paris, he had just turned 40.
As Vivian Endicott Barnett notes in her catalogue essay, sometime during 1907 Kandinsky likely had his first exposure to one of two paintings (and probably both): An oil sketch for Le Bonheur de Vivre owned by Sarah and Michael Stein [at left, now in the collection of SFMOMA] and the finished painting itself. Given that the Steins lived in the same apartment building as Kandinsky’s girlfriend Gabriele Munter, it’s certainly possible that Kandinsky had regular opportunities to study the sketch. (Leo Stein owned the ‘final’ painting. It’s possible — even likely — that Kandinsky had access to it too. In fact, the Steins and their circle had plenty of connections to Kandinsky: Alice Toklas’ cousin Annette Rosenshine visited Kandinsky’s studio with Gabriele Munter at least once in early 1907, before Kandinsky’s big breakthrough. And Kandinsky had his own connections to Matisse: In 1908 and 1909, when Kandinsky seems to have been studying Matisse most intently, Matisse’s favorite model was Olga Meerson, a German who was a dear friend of Munter’s. Kandinsky was also friends with Meerson and painted her portrait in Munich in 1902.)
Last week I noted that Kandinsky soaked up influences and incorporated them into his work more aggressively than any of his contemporaries save Pablo Picasso. Sometime in 1908 Matisse’s palette and radical compositions begin to work their way into Kandinsky’s art: For example, Blue Mountain of 1908-09 recalls Matisse’s fauve experiments and Kandinsky’s paintings of 1908 and 1909 are full of colors that Kandinsky had never previously considered — Matisse’s colors. But it was Bonheur that must have dominated Kandinsky’s attention. It’s first evident in Kandinsky’s 1909 painting Mountain, wherein the composition recalls the structure of Bonheur, and the palette seems directly lifted from it. Walking up the Guggenheim’s ramp you can almost feel a major showdown coming, a painting in which Kandinsky attempts to synthesize everything he learned from Bonheur.
Sure enough: That painting is 1909-10’s Sketch for Composition II [below], which is arguably Kandinsky’s masterpiece and which is certainly Kandinsky’s declaration of arrival into the European avant-garde. (A larger image, along with many detail images, is available on the Guggenheim’s collection site, here.)
Kandinsky’s painting is so careful, so detailed, so referential that it seems safe to assume he spent serious time with Bonheur at Leo’s and with the oil sketch at Michael and Sarah’s. The bright, startling yellows, oranges, reds, greens and purples of Matisse’s mid-fauve palette are all present in Kandinsky’s paintings of this period, never more clearly than in Sketch for Composition II. Those colors would remain important to him for the next 15 years. (And could Kandinsky’s title be a reference to the debt he owed to Leo’s mini-Bonheur?)
Like Bonheur, the Kandinsky recedes from the foreground into the center-top of the painting. There is a couple embracing in the foreground-right of the Matisse, and there seems to be a reference to that couple in nearly the same place in the Kandinsky. (Kandinsky also mimics the Matisse by placing embracing figures — or about-to-embrace figures — in the center-left of the painting.)
Just above Matisse’s embracing couple there is a little glade of green-trunked treees. Those trees are in roughly the same spot in Composition. Kandinsky even gives the trees branches or blooms of red and green — the same reds and greens that Matisse uses in Bonheur. Matisse places reclining nudes at the center of Bonheur; Kandinsky, who had probably seen enough Matisse at this point (Leo owned Matisse’s 1907 Blue Nude) to realize that Matisse was intensely modernizing the reclining nude and was making it something of a trademark, places his signature image of a horse-and-rider at the center of his painting. I think that Kandinsky aimed for a bravura synthesization of the French master — and he got it.