PRINT October 1992

Matisse, Art, and Le Bonheur

When I last saw a major retrospective of Henri Matisse’s work, at Paris’ Grand Palais in 1970, I recall thinking how little the external events of the artist’s life had impinged upon his art. It seemed to me that were Matisse’s paintings the sole evidence a future historian had to go on in reconstructing the 20th century, the conclusion would be inescapable that the artist had lived in golden times. I recently came across a letter Matisse wrote in 1915 to the American critic Walter Pach, in which the artist remarks, “Since I have not been drafted I believe it is my duty as a civilian to work as much as possible.”1 The “work” he was then engaged in was Nature morte d’après “La desserte” de Jan Davidsz de Heem (Still life after Jan Davidsz de Heem’s “La desserte”), hardly a response to a world at war. However modern Matisse became—and modernity in art is partially defined through Matisse’s discoveries and innovations—his sensibility was essentially that of the Nabis, with their unabashed endorsement of decoration and their readiness to disregard the distinction between the fine and the decorative arts. And the decorative arts seek to create a world within the world, like a walled garden, a space of pleasure and of tastefulness—of luxe, calme, and volupté, to cite the famous Baudelairian trinity that Matisse drew upon for his titles.

With Matisse it is the room that is the basic unit of artistic creation, a room in which the inhabitants are wrapped in beauty. The great Conversation of 1908–12 is paradigmatic: he in his striped pyjamas, she in her opulent robe de chambre, between them the ornamental grillwork in the window and the formal garden beyond it, the two figures locked together in a domestic colloquy that excludes us as their world excludes the world, a bubble of intimacy with no subject more pressing than their happiness. Sergei Shchukin, Matisse’s early patron, was haunted by this painting, and said that it reminded him of an icon. The simile is perfect: to the philosophers of the Byzantine empire, the icon did not so much represent a holy personage as contain that personage’s holiness, and La conversation does not so much represent as contain a reality, the reality that Matisse sought to create and to live as if it were the only one. That reality contains his paintings and his other works, and the works embody that reality. What is outside that reality does not count.

One has the sense that Pablo Picasso lived in the same world as the objects in his paintings and collages. He may not have been personally much engaged by the Balkan wars of 1912, but he lived among people who read about them in the newspapers and who argued over the major headlines as they took their aperitifs—and these were the newspapers Picasso clipped, pasted, and punned on alongside pipes, bottles, and glasses in his collage celebrations of the vie de café of those years. He was not an especially heroic participant in World War II, but he did endure the privations of Paris under the Occupation, and the still lifes with coffee maker and candlestick are eloquent embodiments of daily life under trying conditions. Picasso’s work contains the plain simple objects that everyone knew and used, and that defined a dailiness uniting the artist with no matter whom. In a wonderful conversation with Françoise Gilot, he contrasted himself with Matisse in just these terms: “It isn’t any old object that is chosen to receive the honor of becoming an object in a painting by Matisse.”2 And he spoke wryly of a chair in the shape of an oyster shell that Matisse would have liked, whereas he, Picasso, wanted to use only the most ordinary of kitchen chairs with plain caned seats.

Commonplace as the objects in Picasso’s work may be, the work itself is not in any sense commonplace, and it does not belong to the realities it portrays. It stands outside those realities as a group of cerebral and inherently complex representations of them. With Matisse, the very reverse is true: the works he created belong within the world they portray, but that world itself stands outside the real world. His work participates in the palpable hedonism of the world he created, a world that is sensuous and luxurious and has an atmosphere of rich fabrics, rare porcelains, floral opulence, languid and ornamental women—odalisques even when portrayed in European dress; and of tiled walls, heavy and florid carpets, sumptuous cushions, and windows through which the world looks like a painting by Matisse: palms, bright seas, well-kept gardens. There is an anecdote to the effect that Picasso and Matisse exchanged works, but each sought in the corpus of the other the work that most resembled his own. Small wonder in the case of Matisse: he would exclude a Picasso because too anhedonic as art and too banal as representation to fit tastefully into the space that was to contain it.

These days we are anxious for artists, and especially artists of the past, to have been subversives. (I recently saw an article on Alfred Sisley as a subversive!) We want them to be as critical of the established order as we are, we want their work to be political. It will not be easy to enlist Matisse in the legion of subversion that contemporary art history has formed out of the masters of former times. His task, as he said on repeated occasions, was to spread joy, to create a world in which it was possible to be happy. In looking at Matisse, I am reminded of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who thought, as he cited Dostoyevsky thinking, that God intended our happiness, and that if we turn our back on happiness we are in a state of sin. Wittgenstein felt an agony of guilt because he himself found happiness so inaccessible. In our world, though, happiness is a dubious state. We feel it almost as something to which we have no right, let alone a duty, given the terrible unhappiness in which so much of the world lives. Le bonheur—like the Matissean virtues of joy, beauty, and esthetic calm—seems very remote from the virtues enjoined by contemporary art and appreciated by contemporary thinkers.

Between the world on which Matisse turned his back—our world, bleak, suffering, threatened, fragile—and the luminous, decorative, delicious work, vastly displayed at the Museum of Modern Art for the first time since the great exhibition at the Grand Palais, there is bound to be a collision. Contemporary esthetics shudders at that much grace and pleasure. Still, the art holds a lot that we thirst for beneath our ideologies, and which set of values is to survive the collision is the fascinating question raised by this exhibition at this moment in history.

Arthur C. Danto is the art critic for The Nation and a professor of philosophy at Columbia University, New York.


1. Pablo Picasso, quoted in John Cauman, “Henri Matisse’s Letters to Walter Pach,” Archives of American Art Journal 31 no. 3, 1991, p. 5.

2. Pablo Picasso, quoted in Françoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso, New York: McGraw Hill, 1965, p. 68.