Between May and September of 1954, Alberto Giacometti made several visits to the ailing Henri Matisse in his apartment in the Grand Hôtel Régina in Nice and to his home in St. Paul-de-Vence. During these visits Giacometti created a handful of drawings of the ailing artist, including the present work, as studies for a medallion commissioned by the French mint (the coin ultimately was never struck). According to Giacometti:
Matisse was a difficult subject. He hated to pose and would give me only two minutes at a go. And to make it even more difficult, he kept telling me as I worked that nobody knows how to draw anymore. 'I can't draw, Giacometti, and certainly you can't,' he would say, and of course he was right. He knew he was dying, and he said he regretted it because he needed twenty more years to work...(quoted in R. Hohl, Giacometti: A Biography in Pictures, Germany, 1999, p. 149).
Giacometti continued to reminisce about the experience:
Only once when the conversation turned to drawing he said--and I have never seen him so animated before--'Nobody can draw! Nobody will ever be able to draw! I have tried my whole life long to learn to draw and--and I have never managed it!' (quoted in G. Jedlicka, "Fragmente aus Tagebuchern" [Conversations with Giacometti from 30 March, 1 April, 3 April 1953 and from 1958], Neue Zurcher Zeitung, no. 1114, 4-5 April 1964).
In 1941 Matisse was diagnosed with intestinal cancer and after undergoing several devastating surgeries was permanently confined to his wheelchair. Although physically incapacitated he was far from dormant, and it was in this last phase of his life that Matisse embarked upon what he considered the most important work of his career. Too weak to stand at an easel, he created paper cutouts by carving shapes out of colored paper and collaging them into often monumental pictures. Arguably his most innovative work, the paper cutouts were also the closest Matisse came to abstraction.
The present work is a moving tribute to an artist both at the height of his career and in the final moments of his life. There is no sympathy or weakness evident in the drawing but rather Matisse is depicted as a potent and omnipresent force--even while confined to a wheelchair--and testifies to the younger artist's reverence for the father of Modernism.
Giacometti exhibited at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York and Galerie Maeght in Paris. In May of 1954, the same year the current drawing was executed, the latter presented its second exhibition of Giacometti's work. This was the first exhibition to include a large number of his paintings and drawings in addition to his sculptures--a momentous occasion that finally demonstrated the significance of Giacometti's painted and drawn oeuvre, placing it on a par with his sculpture.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse at Hôtel Régina, Nice, 1952. Photograph by Hélène Adant/Rapho.