New York

Henri Matisse, Young Sailor I, 1906, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 32".

Henri Matisse, Young Sailor I, 1906, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 32".

“Matisse: In Search of True Painting”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Henri Matisse, Young Sailor I, 1906, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 32".

SOMETIME DURING the summer of 1906, in the French border town of Collioure, a teenager named Camille Calmon sat down to model for Henri Matisse. Matisse completed two paintings of Calmon in sailor’s clothes. Young Sailor I possesses the brilliant color, vigorous handling, and accentuated facial contours, verging on scarification, of the painter’s Fauvist portraits of the previous year; his voluminous green leg and the sweeping crescent line of his arm foretell the grand manner of the famous paintings of bathers and dancers of 1907–1909. Calmon looks to his right. His body is wiry, compact. His knee dangles over the chair’s edge clumsily, and his arm presses against the back. His thumb juts into his thigh in a forced pose. A naturalistic depiction, in the end: a local boy earning a day’s pay, perhaps. He has a case of spilkes, ants in the pants. How he longs to spring from his seat.

Now consider Young Sailor II. A field of pink surrounds Calmon, pitching his body toward us. His chair obtrudes into the picture plane. His right knee bears down on the canvas’s lower edge. His left arm pushes his head forward, like an odalisque, and we are reminded of Matisse’s Nice paintings and his Pink Nude, 1935. Like the fabulously supine creatures of these later works, the sitter in Young Sailor II presents himself for our delectation. His right hand is fleshy, sensuous, his shirt an explosion of blue; his thighs and crotch are fields of emerald. His lips are a gash of russet and green. The delight we take in this brilliant arrangement is only enhanced by his arresting stare. His almond eyes are enlarged and outlined. The irises are jade daubs. Where the sitter in Young Sailor I is sullen, unyielding—in a word, trade—this sailor is a courtesan, a tart. The feminine younger brother of the haughty, mannish Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra, 1907, he is infinitely more available.

Gender is but one of the differences suggested by Young Sailor I and Young Sailor II, the most decisive early double of the many doubles of Matisse. (Leo Stein, who saw the pair on Matisse’s return from Collioure, was startled by the “extreme deformations” in the second picture: the disregard for modeling, the exaggerated features, the reductions of limbs to shapes.) It is the nature of repetition to reveal difference, semiology suggests. To look at two similar depictions or to read two versions of a story causes us to perceive, to fully grasp, their specificity—the fact that they aren’t the same. As Lévi-Strauss observed, myths often contain pairs—the comparison of which allowed the anthropologist to explore the variations between each paired element and, therefore, how each one means.

There is a history of doubling in modern art; this history includes Matisse. Although few painters or sculptors are consistently “doublers” throughout their careers, Picasso, Man Ray, Rauschenberg, Johns, Eva Hesse, Robert Smithson, Mel Bochner, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and countless others have repeated and inverted at pivotal moments in their careers. By making two of something rather than one, they allow us to see difference—the identity of one thing in relation to another. As “Matisse: In Search of True Painting” curators Rebecca Rabinow, Cécile Debray, and Dorthe Aagesen (of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Centre Pompidou, Paris; and Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, respectively) suggest in their remarkable show, doubling was a long-standing tactic for Matisse, explored for almost fifty years (although Matisse rarely exhibited his pairs in his lifetime). Well known to students of Matisse’s work, this aspect of his practice has been touched on in previous shows. A rigorous presentation of the artist’s doubles (and a few triples and multiples) in sequential order, this exhibition accomplishes something shows rarely do: It asks a viewer to inhabit the artist’s mind, to imagine the process of making two or more intimately related works. As our two Young Sailors suggest, this method often yields startlingly unique results.

Repetition had a particular utility for Matisse. He aimed to instill a sensibility in each work, a method he described as composition. Composition, he wrote, is “the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.” An artist attempts to evoke an encounter, an ambience—for example, what it felt like to be in a particular room at a given time. His depictions of his rather modest apartment at Nice’s Hôtel Beau-Rivage, where he stayed through the winter and spring of 1917–18, capture different moods—whether the breezy morning of Interior at Nice (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), 1918, an arrangement of lace curtains at an open window, viewed from several feet away, or the warm afternoon implied by Interior with a Violin (Room at the Hôtel Beau-Rivage), 1918, itself a study in comparison, presenting a proximate view of a closed black shutter and, next to it, an open shutter lit by sun exposing an azure sea. Every work by Matisse is a precise arrangement: It can’t be otherwise. Matisse does over, but he never repeats. Repetition yields another composition.

In their catalogue text, Aagesen and Kathrine Segel note that Matisse’s practice of making two versions of a work—a sketch (esquisse) and a finished picture (tableau)—derived from academic tradition, but that the artist, like the Impressionists before him, extends and troubles this protocol, converting progression into antinomy. And nowhere does he accomplish this more significantly than in those works, like Young Sailor I and Young Sailor II, that are of equal size, since this parallelism allows one to see how the same constituent elements are augmented or, conversely, undone—or shifted into another formal rhetoric outright, for example from “Fauvism” to “decor.” Rather than realize a finished work based on a sketch, he makes two different works. “I always strive to give the same feeling [to each of the two works] while carrying it on further,” he told an American reporter, Clara MacChesney, in 1912. Provided her transcription is correct, I interpret Matisse to mean this: One can “try” to repeat, but in repeating, something else happens. A feeling “carried further” is an intensification—an exaggeration—of the feeling, and thus a different affect.

Matisse described the effect a composition should have: a “calming influence on the mind . . . like a good armchair.” His most famous remark is usually interpreted to mean that he wanted to make pleasing images. Could it be, though, that he sought to project serenity as a way to overcome his restlessless? That he identified with the “businessman” and “man of letters” for whom he said his paintings were made? Ever dissatisfied during the early years, when he tried on various styles like hats (Divisionism, Cézannism, “Synthetism,” Fauvism, etc.), he found in doubling a disciplinary technique, a method of control (same motif, same size). Like a researcher, he could compare the results. For Claudine Grammont, writing in the catalogue, the very first of the show’s pairs, dated 1899—Still Life with Compote and Fruit, an arrangement of orange, red, and yellow planes devoid of shadow, and Still Life with Compote, Apples, and Oranges, a Vuillardesque assortment of modeled shapes and discrete brushstrokes—is a compelling heuristic comparison. Noting that Jack Flam, the first scholar to discuss the two works together, claims the former postdates the latter (anticipating such still lifes as Pink Onions, 1906–1907), Grammont suggests that no evidence exists to confirm this: It is quite possible, she argues, that in this instance Matisse did not foresake modeling for flatness, as he often did. (I am more persuaded by Flam: The latter canvas feels overworked, its marks hesitant, its palette a clumsy sampling of spectral tones.) For Alastair Wright, two depictions of Madame Matisse and her son, the sketch The Gulf of Saint-Tropez, 1904, and the canonical Luxe, calme, et volupté, 1904, represent a deconstruction of Impressionist and pointillist techniques, respectively, and more deeply a fundamental tension in Matisse’s art, between a desire to represent a scene (composition) versus a “modernist” desire to arrange color, shape, and line abstractly. For Yve-Alain Bois, writing in an earlier essay reprinted in the Pompidou volume, the transition marked by Le Luxe I, 1907, and Le Luxe II, 1907–1908, is an amplification of the painter’s discovery in The Joy of Life, 1905–1906, that the quality of a color is inextricable from its quantity—a ratio of amount and effect; and that this epiphany made it possible for Matisse to dissolve, as Mondrian and Pollock would, the old binary of line and color. (In essence: The more color, the more impact, the less need for fussy modeling, which is precisely why Young Sailor II is even more arresting than Young Sailor I.)

In other words, the exhibition incites one to make decisions, just as Matisse did. Faced with two depictions of the same motif, I often found myself preferring one to another—such as the Museum of Modern Art’s bizarre masterpiece View of Notre Dame, 1914, in which the cathedral’s facade is etched in sgraffito and suspended in an ether of blue and black lines, to Switzerland’s Kunstmuseum Solothurn’s more conventional painting of the same year, whose uncanny resemblance to the agreeable works of the artist’s friend Albert Marquet reminds us why Matisse is Matisse. I preferred Stockholm’s Moderna Museet’s Acanthus (Moroccan Landscape), 1912, a ravishing and relatively realistic depiction of a garden in Tangier after a long rain, limned in royal blue, spring green, violet, and lavender, to the National Gallery of Art’s more loosely constructed but tonally restrained depiction of the same scene, Palm Leaf, Tangier, 1912. The day I visited the exhibition, viewers around me were engaged in similar acts of discernment. Matisse’s art does this: Even in its precision, it relinquishes absolute authorial control, causing a spectator to occupy (momentarily, in the act of looking) the active role of the painter-composer. His doubles in particular incite us to look back and forth, and ultimately to choose. There is no superior rendition—only another version. But comparison quickly evolves into preference, as a beholder matches her experience to two depictions, as opposed to merely one. A viewer alone decides which portrait of the young sailor is better able to convey what it felt like for Matisse to paint him, and what it felt like to be painted by Matisse.

“Matisse: In Search of True Painting” is on view through March 17.

James Meyer is a contributing editor of Artforum.