Last week, the most influential painting of the 20th century, Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra) (1907), went back on view at its home museum, the Baltimore Museum of Art, after a nearly year-long visit to Chicago and New York. As usual, Blue Nude has been busy playing a supporting role in an exhibition about something else.
In recent years Blue Nude was included in 2007’s “Matisse: Painter as Sculptor,” which was co-organized by Baltimore, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center and which also traveled to SFMOMA. The show’s curatorial team included Blue Nude and its sister sculpture Reclining Nude (Aurora) (1907) to show how Matisse’s sculpture informed his painting, and vice versa. In the just-closed “Radical Invention: 1913-17,” co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art, Blue Nude was a show-stealing stage-setter, one of a handful of paintings that gave introduced the show and that gave testimony about where Matisse had been before he entered his near-cubist period.
Blue Nude will make only a brief stop back home in Baltimore before returning to the road: Next year the painting will serve as evidence in “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde,” a SFMOMA-Metropolitan Museum of Art-Centre Pompidou exhibition about the collecting acumen and salon-holding import of Gertrude, Leo, Michael and Sarah Stein (and I’d think likely Harriet Levy and Alice Toklas too).
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride! Blue Nude has never received a starring role in this kind of exhibition and has never been cast as a sole protagonist. This what happens when a great, important painting is held by a relatively small museum in a small city, a museum that doesn’t have the access to scholarship-and-exhibition-enabling million$ that, say, the Museum of Modern Art or SFMOMA does. The painting (and its maker) deserve more, including an exhibition and related scholarship that places the painting within the tradition of the European nudes and pastorals that influenced it, Matisse’s work from the period just before and after it, and the work that it motivated or influenced, such as Pablo Picasso’s more famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
It’s both amazing and not that Blue Nude has been so little featured and contextualized. In celebration of its return to the Cone Collection galleries at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I’ll feature Blue Nude here all week. I’ll start with the story of how the painting was made, move on to how it impacted Pablo Picasso and other artists, and then I’ll double-back for a closer look at the painting itself and to make some informed guesses about where the painting came from.
The stories about the painting’s creation are legendary, oft-repeated and substantially derive from the artist himself. According to an unpublished 1941 conversation between French art historian Pierre Courthion and Matisse in the archives of the Getty Research Institute, Blue Nude was born from work Matisse did on a small sculpture of a reclining nude while in Collioure in early January of 1907. The clay sculpture was an experiment in which Matisse tried to maximize the presentation of an expressive figure within a tightly confined space. Matisse worked on the sculpture for weeks. Finally, in a fit of exhaustion or inattention Matisse accidentally knocked the sculpture to the floor, where it smashed into pieces. An astonished, anguished Matisse was taken out of his studio by his wife Amelie for a head-clearing walk.
The next morning, with pieces of clay stay littering the studio floor, Matisse began to re-conceptualize the sculpture on canvas as Blue Nude. (Matisse later re-made the sculpture as Reclining Nude I (Aurora) [1907, above, collection Baltimore Museum of Art].) The compression that Matisse labored to create in three dimensions came to him swiftly when he returned to working in two dimensions: According to Leo Stein, the painting was finished in mere weeks, in early February. With an eye toward showing the painting as soon as possible, Matisse asked painter-buddy Henri Manguin to find an antique frame for it. Manguin must have succeeded: Matisse introduced Paris to Blue Nude at the Salon des Independants in March, where it was the only painting he showed. The Paris art scene went nuts.