Henri Matisse

[27 May 2014]


Matisse went through Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism with an overriding leitmotiv that underpinned the limpidity and power of one of the most important oeuvres of the 20th century: “see life through the eyes of a child”.

Convalescence is often a trigger for artistic creation. The most obvious case that springs to mind is that of Frida KAHLO, but it was also true for Henri MATISSE. Born on 31 December 1869, Matisse started drawing when he was already 20 after his mother gave him a set of crayons to distract him during a bed-ridden convalescence. Within a few months, his drawings prompted an unavoidable conclusion: Henri was destined to be an artist… so he was packed off to study art in Paris where he discovered the luminous and colorful sensations of Impressionism. This was followed by the more fragmented but also more rigorous feel of Neo-Impressionism which he heartily absorbed. His main influence at that time was Paul Signac, a master of Pointillist re-compositions and the perception of colors and with whom Matisse spent the summer of 1904. A year later the intensity of the colors is substantially amplified in a spirit of rebellion giving birth to “Fauvism”. The art critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the term (he also invented “Cubism”) in a not particularly complimentary description of what he considered the unsophisticated application of bright colors, as exhibited at the 1905 Salon d’Automne. These “wild” artists included Derain, Vlaminck and Matisse, all firmly committed to expressing the energy that the “liberation” of color allowed them. The search for balance between shape and color became a fundamental theme throughout Matisse’s artistic career, right up to the multi-form shapes of flat color that he painted towards the end of his life.

The strength of his initial works – which elicited much laughter and mockery from visitors to the Salon d’Automne – immediately projected Matisse to the position of spearhead of the French avant-garde, who, for a relatively small group of connoisseurs, represented the talent and liberty of a profound upheaval in pictorial representation. Among these connoisseurs, Gertrude Stein – a politically engaged writer (who also recognized the talent of Pablo Picasso) – and Sergei Chtchoukine, a Russian collector who immediately commissioned works from Matisse. The success that Matisse encountered was destined to last forever. His notoriety overran the French borders and was soon sprinting across the United States, mainly thanks to an order from the American billionaire Albert Barnes for a wall fresco to adorn his Foundation (the Barnes Foundation): the work, completed in 1933, was entitled La Danse, and it was to become one of the most emblematic works of the 20th century. Today, the American market still harbors strong demand for Matisse’s work. More of his works sell in New York than anywhere else: 38% of auction transactions in the US versus 18% in the UK, 17% in France and 12% in Germany. The Big Apple generates the bulk of his auction records and 16 of the 19 results above the million-dollar threshold have been hammered in New York, versus 2 in London and 1 in Paris.

Overview of the records
Matisse’s first 8-digit result was hammered in 1989, at the height of a speculative bubble on the art market that was followed by a number years of substantially lower prices as the market deflated and subsequently began to pick up steam again. Between 1995 and 2000 there were no further results at that level. In fact, Matisse did not hit a new auction record until 2007 when his L’Odalisque, harmonie bleue was sold at Christie’s for $30m (€20.7m), i.e. 10 million above its high estimate. Two years later, Matisse signed his all-time record, not in New York, but in Paris, in the context of the historic Pierre Bergé/Yves Saint Laurent sale organized par Christie’s at the Grand Palais in Paris on 23 February 2009. The sale took place just as Wall Street posted its lowest levels for 12 years (S&P 500 at 743.33 points) and it generated more than a third of France’s total Fine art auction turnover for the entire year ($265m of the $665m recorded). The quality of the works on offer generated a number of exceptional auction results and including four of the ten best in 2009 and new records for Matisse, Brancusi, Mondrian, De Chirico, Duchamp, Klee, Ensor, Géricault. After that sale, the new record for Matisse stood at €32m (for Les Coucous, tapis bleu et rose, dated 1911) and the world’s best auction result in 2009.

A collector of African statues, Matisse stylized the shapes in sculptures that can fetch as much as his paintings. In May 2000, his bronze La serpentine – La femme à la Stèle – L’araignée fetched $12,75m ($14m) at Sotheby’s New York, beating Picasso’s record for sculpture. In 2010, his Nu de dos, 4 état (Back IV) fetched €31.1 ($43.5m) at Christie’s. However, not all of his works sell for giant prices. In fact half of the Matisse lots offered on the auction market go for less than €6,000. These are essentially prints, but also some original drawings such as a Nu in crayon that sold for the equivalent of €4,800 at Christie’s last February 5. His paper works on paper should not be neglected. Studies for La Danse (belonging to Chtchoukine) occasionally crop up at auction and, with the subject being so famous, several related aquatints have crossed the €100,000 threshold. Moreover, his paper works offer an additional dimension in the form of cut-outs, a technique rarely exploited so effectively in Modern art.

Matisse’s cut-outs
In fact, as Matisse aged and became wheel-chair bound (after the successful removal of a malignant tumor), he turned towards cut-outs. He was 72 when he first started cutting shapes in gouache-painted paper, without any prior drawing to guide is hand. This work, halfway between sculpture and painting, between figuration and abstraction, represents a pure language that combines spontaneity with discipline and energy to obtain the essence of shape. This was not just a technique of the last resort: as he himself said, it allowed him “an immense passion for painting, because by completely changing my technique, I believe I have discovered one of the main points of artistic yearning and fixation of our epoch… I don’t think I ever achieved such a high level of balance in my work as I now have with cut-outs” (from an interview published in XXème siècle in 1970). Matisse cut-outs are rarer at auction than his drawings and even the small formats can fetch close to a million dollars, such as Algue rouge sur fond bleu ciel (1952) measuring 45 x 42 cm, which sold for £580,000 in 2010 ($924,000 and $1.1m including costs) on February 2 at Christie’s in London. London’s Tate Modern is currently hosting a superb exhibition of Matisse’s later works and cut-outs (17 April – 7 September 2014). This sizeable exhibition – bringing together 120 pieces from all over the world – will subsequently move to New York in October.