Continuing MAN’s series of posts on the most under-examined and under-celebrated 20thC painting in an American museum: Henri Matisse’s 1907 Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra), which went back on view two weeks ago at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
None of Henri Matisse’s peers made use of the Louvre as much as Matisse. Starting in the 1890s when he studied under Gustave Moreau, Matisse made visit after visit to the Louvre, often with his paints and brushes in hand. He was a voracious viewer and copier, a believer that the more he assimilated with his eyes and the more he copied, the more he’d understand how other painters achieved their effects. Matisse biographer Hilary Spurling reports that Matisse started visiting the Louvre intently in the early 1890s and that he set up easels in the Louvre’s galleries well into the following decade.
While Blue Nude is typically discussed as being descended from Cezanne, the Louvre’s Sleeping Ariadne, the traditions of the European nude and the pastoral nude, I think there are several other key sources for the painting at the Louvre, sources that are less discussed and that could be teased out via an exhibition that celebrates and examines Blue Nude. One of those paintings is a magical little Chardin, Pipes and Drinking Pitcher [above]. At roughly 12 inches by 16 inches, it’s a tiny gem, the kind of painting that doesn’t speak to you unless you’re searching for something to listen to. It’s not often discussed in the Matisse literature, but Spurling found Matisse referring to it in conversations with both French historians Pierre Courthion and Raymond Escholier, and included a paragraph on it in the first volume of her Matisse biography:
[Pipes and Drinking Pitcher] was the first painting [Matisse] ever copied in the Louvre, and which baffled him with an elusive blue on the padded lid of the box in the middle of the canvas: a blue that could look pink one day, green the next. Matisse tried everything he could think of to pin down the secret of this painting, using a magnifying glass, studying the texture, the grain of the canvas, the glazes, the objects themselves and the transitions from light to shade. He added more white at his friends’ suggestion (“I listened to everyone”). He even cut up his own preparatory oil sketch and stuck bits of it onto Chardin’s canvas, where each separate section was a perfect match, but when he put them together, there was no longer any correspondence at all. “It is a truly magical painting,” he said, adding that this was the only copy he had in the end to abandon.
One of the remarkable things about Pipes is the way the blue lid of the box seems to fill the painting, the way that color migrates into every object and surface on the canvas. One way that Chardin achieved this effect was to include little bits of that blue throughout his painting: In the handle of one of the pipes, in the reflection of the silver cup (no matter how impossible that would have actually been), in the flowers of the tea cup and even on the wall behind the box. The most obvious migration of that blue is onto the white drinking pitcher in front of the box, onto which Chardin has smeared one long brushstroke of blue, and then a couple smaller ones.
Matisse returned to Pipes for years and years. His most obvious painted reference to it is in Woman with a Hat, the famed 1905 portrait of Amelie Matisse. Just as Chardin moved color around his canvas with a bold, seemingly out-of-place brushstroke, so too did Matisse in creating Amelie’s shockingly green, brushstroke of a nose, a brushstroke that emphasizes the green background, Amelie’s green blouse, the green on her hat and so on.
By 1907 the key he was taking from Pipes was that color did not need to be confined to its host object, that it could travel throughout a painting, infusing and unifying it. Blue migrates throughout Blue Nude: It is a flesh tone. It outlines the figure. It colors the grass on which the figure is positioned. It’s part of the plants that surround and frame the nude.
Related: The second painting Matisse copied at the Louvre was Jan Davidsz de Heem’s A Table of Desserts, a painting to which Matisse returned again and again over the course of two decades, most famously in this painting in MoMA’s collection.