Henri Matisse painted this vigorously brushed canvas outdoors, sur le motif, likely in a single session, working quickly and spontaneously to capture the blazing light of the Mediterranean sun. From the welcome shade of a cypress tree, whose boughs overhang the upper edge of the composition, the artist gazed downhill toward the distant fishing commune of Collioure, located near the border with Catalunya. Two years previously, Matisse and André Derain had turned this ancient, primitive place into a fiery crucible of modern art, forging a new and radical kind of painting in pure colors, on canvases that stunned the public when first shown at the 1905 Salon d’Automne.
Dismayed and perplexed, the critic Louis Vauxcelles dubbed their efforts “fauve”, as if in the primal fury of their inspiration these two artists, together with some like-minded comrades, had painted like wild beasts. Matisse disliked the term, but by 1907, when he showed this Paysage de Collioure at the Salon d’Automne, this characterization had stuck and gained common currency. “The Fauves!”—Vauxcelles again declared in his latest review—“M. Matisse, chief fauve, M. Derain, sub-chief fauve,” then naming several followers and apparent fellow travelers (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., 1986, p. 199). Matisse, then in his late thirties, had become famous, even notorious, as the pre-eminent painter in Paris, who stood at the cutting edge of a new avant-garde.
In May 1906, following a two-week stay in Algeria, his first experience of North Africa, Matisse returned to Collioure as his base of operations, remaining in the Pyrenées-Orientales—apart from a couple of trips back to Paris, and a month in Italy with Leo and Gertrude Stein during the summer of 1907—until he moved back to the capital in early September 1907. From the outset of his second sojourn in Collioure, Matisse was already evolving in new directions. The expressive potential of color remained his primary interest; he had begun working, moreover, toward a formal re-organization of the pictorial surface, in conjunction with a changing emphasis in his choice of subjects.
Painting the land- and seascape in the dazzling light of the South had been Matisse’s driving passion during the initial season in Collioure. The figure became the artist’s priority during his subsequent stay. Matisse had once again taken up sculpture; Aristide Maillol, who lived in Banyuls-sur-Mer, a few stops distant on the coastal railway, provided technical and critical advice. In Matisse’s new paintings, the nude, singly or in groups, became the central element in pastoral, idyllic settings, often in the context of a classical, allegorical theme. He followed Le bonheur de vivre, painted in Paris during the autumn and winter, 1905-1906, with the two versions of Le Luxe and the study for La Musique, which date from the spring and summer of 1907.
The present Paysage de Collioure has been ascribed to 1906 or 1907, that is, within the span of Matisse’s second sojourn in his southern retreat, having been painted among a series of related landscapes during the summer, early fall, or winter of 1906, or certainly by the spring of 1907. The later date appears less likely, however, as Matisse had begun at that time to experiment with a more thinly painted, abstractly stylized representation of the landscape, which culminated in the Gelman Collection's Vue de Collioure, dating from that summer, or perhaps completed after his return to Paris in September 1907.
While the large figure compositions took precedence in the studio, Matisse was reluctant to forego the exhilaration he typically enjoyed while working outdoors, taking in that overwhelming effusion of light, while also absorbing the smells of earth, flora, sea, and sky, feeling the frisson of being connected, in the most direct way possible, to the here and now of his surroundings. This practice allowed Matisse, as Jack Flam stated, to “express the pantheistic vitality that he felt in nature” (ibid., p. 166). The artist’s visit to Algeria in May 1906 had been momentous and unforgettable, having opened wide all his senses. Painting in this manner afforded the artist his most authentic contact with the primacy of his sensations—the very essence of being fauve.
The landscape around Collioure, though by now familiar territory for Matisse, was still riveting in its primitive, elemental aspect. The site from which Matisse chose to view the town in the present painting was one he favored in other plein air canvases of 1906-1907—he set up his easel on the Roca-Alta d’Ambeille overlooking the town, finding shelter from the sun among the trees in le bois d’Ernest Py. The nearest houses lay just beyond the transecting diagonal of the coastal railway tracks. As the focal point in this composition, Matisse sighted on the landmark clock tower, once a lighthouse, that adjoins the portside Église Notre-Dame-des-Anges, highlighted against the dark blue of the Mediterranean.
This scene lent itself to the full range of hues on Matisse’s palette, from the sun-scorched earth tones of red, ochre, and yellow, to varied shades of cool and darker greens in the foliage, heightened in places with blue and white tints, interspersed with patches of blanched violet. Matisse was careful to denote the pale cerulean tone of blue along the horizon with the sea, in contrast to the darker cobalt expanse of the upper sky. Unlike the Impressionists, both first generation and Neo-, who had banished black from their paint boxes, Matisse made good use of this color that absorbs all light, for picking out scattered linear features in the landscape, and as a darkening agent with other hues.
Characteristic of Fauve facture are the slivers and patches of canvas that Matisse left untouched and bare, as passage between adjacent tones. The variety of marks throughout the composition, from the smallest spots to the larger patchwork of colors, were applied, blended, and scrubbed directly on the canvas. Matisse, in effect, drew this painting with his brush—color and line were united as form. Unlike the larger figure compositions of this period, worked and “layered” during multiple sessions, the composition of this quintessentially Fauve canvas proceeded quickly; the result was rough, but on its own terms whole, harmonious, and complete—the picture would neither require, nor admit, retouching in any way.
“What I am after, above all, is expression,” Matisse wrote in his Notes of a Painter, 1908. “Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings” (J. Flam, ed., Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 37 and 38).
In pursuing a freer and looser handling of his colors, Matisse discarded the Neo-Impressionist conception and practice he had derived from Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross, which laid the groundwork for his Fauve summer of 1905. The small blocks of pink paint at the upper left edge are a peripheral vestige of Neo-Impressionist divisionism. The influence of Signac and Cross had encouraged Matisse to analyze and employ color both as a means and an end in itself. Once freed from the technical discipline of Neo-Impressionism, Matisse was able to bend color to his own will and personal need for expression—“I simply try to put down colors which render my sensation” (quoted in, ibid., p. 41).
Vauxcelles and other critics viewed Fauvism as sheer anarchy in art, making out the professorial Matisse as if he were some mad terrorist on the loose in the Parisian art world. During 1906-1907, Matisse was actually seeking to foster, as he wrote, “a truer, more essential character” in his art, “to obtain greater stability” (ibid., p. 39). The present Paysage de Collioure, its Fauve credentials notwithstanding, reflects this tendency as well. The resolution of these issues, Matisse realized, lie in the work of Paul Cézanne. He never met the master of Aix, but had been aware and appreciative of the latter’s work since the late 1890s, well before many of his colleagues. He studied Cézanne’s paintings whenever they appeared in the progressive salons, and at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery, where he purchased a middle-period Trois baigneuses in 1899 (Rewald, no. 360). Cézanne passed away in October 1906, some two weeks into the Salon d’Automne, in which ten of his paintings were on view. Matisse had come back from Collioure to attend. A Cézanne memorial retrospective was slated for the following fall.
Cézanne’s influence on Matisse’s Paysage de Collioure is most outwardly apparent in the framing foliage in the upper part of the composition, a classical device that Cézanne often employed in his mature landscapes. More significantly, however, Matisse took from Cézanne lessons that guided the fundamental organization of space in this picture, deployed in planes of land, sea, and sky. In the locale of Collioure itself, three discernible bands represent the foreground, the middle ground up to the railway, and beyond that, the distance to the tower and the high horizon line where sea meets sky. The downhill illusion of this deep space is vertical and flat, as prescribed in modernist practice. Unlike Cézanne, however, whose more solidly constructed, naturalistic treatment of pictorial motifs is unfailingly legible, Matisse’s approach to composition takes on a more abstract, patterned quality, in which no one element stands out among the many others; all are subsumed within the larger whole. “The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive... Every part will be visible and will play its appointed role,” Matisse explained, “whether it be principal or secondary” (quoted in, ibid., p. 38).
Matisse chose to exhibit this Paysage de Collioure, together with another landscape study, among his seven entries to the 1907 Salon d’Automne. Both paintings (nos. 759 and 759bis in the catalogue) were possibly a year or more old, whereas his major contributions to the October exhibition were painted only a few months previously, and represented his most recent ideas on subject, form, and style: La Musique (esquisse) and the first version of Le Luxe. Matisse perhaps intended to contrast his latest work with examples showing their Fauve origins, tracing the line of his development since the revolutionary summer of 1905. The occasion of the Cézanne memorial tribute, comprising 56 paintings, likely inspired Matisse to include examples of his own work that would honor the late master of Aix. Matisse sought to demonstrate that Fauvism had stemmed as much from the constructive post-Impressionism of Cézanne—a painter newly recognized to have been a guiding pioneer in the modernist adventure—as it had proceeded from the Neo-Impressionism of Seurat, Signac and Cross.
Michael and Sarah Stein, brother and sister-in-law to Leo and Gertrude, likely purchased Paysage de Collioure during the 1907 Salon d’Automne; the painting is visible in a photograph of their dining room taken in late 1907 or early 1908. They also acquired Le Luxe I. Sarah became one of ten students when Matisse opened his Paris academy in January 1908. The unusual German listing in the provenance occurred when Paysage de Collioure was stranded in a Berlin exhibition at the beginning of the First World War; the dealer Franz Gurlitt confiscated the painting and fictitiously “sold” it to himself when America declared war on Germany in 1917. The German painter Hans Purrmann, who studied at the Académie Matisse and was a close friend of Sarah Stein, later assisted in restoring the painting to its rightful owners.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr., director of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, notified the Rockefellers in 1962 that Paysage à Collioure was available for sale at Eugene V. Thaw’s The New Gallery. The collectors acquired the painting, and began a lasting relationship with Mr. Thaw.