A pioneer of British Art, Matthew Smith was deemed both the ‘English Fauvist’ and a modernist portraitist. Connie Martin exemplifies Smith’s arresting use of colour and his manipulation of traditional compositions.
The influence of Fauvism is most prominent in Smith’s early works. The quick application of paint and the separation of pure colours on the canvas coincided with the young artist’s belief that colour and form were of equal importance, and this rejection of traditional ideals appealed to Smith. In resistance to the academic institutions that had prioritised technicality over expression, Smith moved to Paris in 1911 to study at the Atelier Matisse. His work flourished amidst the exhilarating release from confinement and the immersion in new influences. ‘Non-finito’ works, for example, exposed the elementary workings of Smith’s processes; large swathes of the canvas could remain bare and untouched while the work functioned as a cohesive whole regardless. For Smith, “the gravest immorality [was] to try to finish what isn’t well begun. But a picture that is well begun may be left off at any point.” The artistic freedom that Paris allowed for was fundamental in the progression of his Fauvist period.
Whilst in Paris, Matthew Smith frequented the home of Modernist art collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein. His life here was permeated with the influences of the people he met, and of other great works; those of Matisse, Vuillard, Cézanne, Bonnard, Van Gogh and Van Dongen had a clear impact on the nature of his work, and his access to modern artistic trends would have significantly outweighed that of his English contemporaries. The outbreak of the First World War saw Smith return to London where he took a studio on Fitzroy Street in Camden and, with the influences of Paris fresh in his mind, he produced some of his most significant portraits, including ‘Fitzroy Street Nude (I)’ (Tate) and ‘Fitzroy Street Nude (II)’ (British Council) It is in this period of his life that the current lot, Connie Martin, was executed.
This period of Smith’s oeuvre stood in stark contrast to the backdrop of London’s artistic output at the time. Broad areas of powerful colour in Smith’s work celebrated the flatness of the painted surface, whilst line was now employed in his portraits as much as tone. Smith would mark the main composition using a thin paint and later apply the colour to the form. In this way, he had moved on from the rapid and energetic application of paint that he had learnt from the Fauves, yet couldn’t quite be neatly placed within the category of the Colourists. “They all praise the colour, you know, but there is something else, I think”.
It is, however, in the abrupt and powerful use of colour that parallels between Smith and Matisse are most easily drawn. Matisse’s La Raie Verte (National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen) is an iconic portrait of the artist’s wife with a green band marking the centre of her face. The work scandalised critics when exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1905. Connie Martin subverts the accepted roles of colours in portraits in a very similar way. The green, however, that falls across Madame Matisse’s face might principally read as the decomposition of light into its constituent colouristic elements, a distinguished technique of the colourists, yet in Smith’s work its function is alongside the ‘something else’ that he had referred to.