Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
The months that Matisse spent at Collioure during the first decade of the twentieth century--the summers of 1905, 1906, and 1907 (fig. 1), as well as the winter between the last two--were critical to the formation of his artistic vision. It was at Collioure that his experimentation with form and color flowered first into Fauvism, and then into the flattened, highly reductive style that would rival Cubism as the most advanced method of modern painting between 1908 and 1914. Painted at Collioure in the late spring of 1907, Les Pivoines combines the varied, gestural brushwork of Fauvism with the abstract, intangible space of Matisse's revolutionary decorative mode. Within weeks of its creation, it was acquired for the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune by the critic Félix Fénéon, said to possess the most discerning eye for modern art in all of Paris. The painting was featured in an exhibition of still-lifes at Bernheim-Jeune in November 1907, and Matisse still considered it sufficiently innovative and important that he included it in a solo retrospective at the gallery in 1910, intended to demonstrate his steady progression toward a reinvigorated modern art. Jack Flam has written, "For two years [1906-1907] Matisse moved indirectly but nevertheless steadily toward the formulation of a space that was flat and largely intangible. Having already moved away from light and atmosphere, he was now moving away from consistent three-dimensionality. The illusionary space behind the picture plane and the real flat surface of the painting were being framed within a new harmonic and pictorial structure. The ideal of Matisse's painting was increasingly becoming a decorative one--decorative not in the pejorative sense of superficial but rather in the abstract musical sense with which the term was associated at the time" (Matisse, The Man and His Art, 1869-1918, Ithaca, New York, 1986, p. 215).
In Matisse's day, Collioure was a remote fishing village on the Mediterreanean coast in the far southwest of France, largely unmodernized and unaccustomed to tourists. Prior to his arrival there in May 1905, Matisse had been working in the Neo-Impressionist manner of the late Seurat and his disciple Signac, applying small touches of complementary hues side-by-side in a systematic, calculated way. His masterpiece in this style was Luxe, calme, et volupté (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), which was interpreted by critics and fellow artists alike as Matisse's formal declaration of Neo-Impressionist allegiance when it was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1905. Within a few weeks of arriving at Collioure, however, Matisse (much to Signac's dismay) was already flouting orthodox Neo-Impressionist practice, and he called upon his young protégé Derain to join him there (fig. 2): "I cannot insist too strongly that a stay here is absolutely necessary for your work. I am certain that if you take my advice you will be glad of it. That is why I say to you again, come" (quoted in H. Spurling, The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, The Early Years, 1869-1908, New York, 1999, p. 316). Indeed, the 1905 sojourn at Collioure would transform both artists' work. By the end of the summer, they had broken free from the model of Neo-Impressionism and begun to paint in a freely brushed and intensely colorful style, characterized by irregular strokes of pure, unmodulated pigment, placed separately on the white primed canvas to create a dazzling effect of vibrating light. When Derain and Matisse exhibited their work from Collioure at the Salon d'Automne in October, it created an immediate sensation. The critic Louis Vauxcelles, scandalized by the violent immediacy of the paintings, dubbed the two artists and their cohort Les Fauves ("The Wild Beasts"), thereby lending a name to the first real revolution in twentieth-century art.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the critical furor that Matisse's paintings from Collioure provoked, his rising reputation as the leader of the newly-christened Fauves drew the attention of dealers and collectors alike, and brought about a sea-change in his fortunes. A week before the Salon d'Automne closed, the American expatriates Leo and Gertrude Stein, who were among the most enthusiastic and perceptive collectors of modern art in Paris during the first decade of the century, purchased Matisse's incendiary Fauve portrait of his wife, La femme au chapeau (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), for the asking price of 500 francs. In the spring of 1906, the enterprising dealer Eugène Druet gave Matisse his second one-man exhibition, and also paid 2000 francs for a stock of his latest paintings; competition stirred Ambroise Vollard to snap up 2200 francs worth of Matisse's work shortly thereafter. Less than a week after the close of the 1906 Salon des Indépendants, where Matisse's single submission--the monumental Bonheur de vivre (Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia)--was once again the succès de scandale, the artist left Paris, traveling first to Algeria for two weeks and then returning for a second stay at Collioure. This time, rather than staying only for the summer, he remained there until the end of February, returning to Paris for just six weeks in the fall to attend to his submissions to the Salon d'Automne. Collioure, he explained to Henri Manguin, gave him "a furious urge to paint" (quoted in ibid., p. 360).
The canvases that Matisse painted at Collioure in 1906 are more difficult to categorize than his work from the previous summer, although they uniformly retain the vivid, non-naturalistic color of that inaugural Fauve season. He produced fewer landscapes than he had in 1905, choosing to focus instead on figure-painting and still-life. In both genres, his work is characterized by a polarity between vigorously modeled and boldly flattened forms. The former reflects his study of Cézanne and his contemporaneous engagement with sculpture, while the latter bears witness to his interest in "primitive" art and his mounting impulse toward abstraction. Nature morte au pélargonium (fig. 3) and Les oignons roses (fig. 4), for instance, depict similar arrangements of objects--four pink onions, Algerian pottery, one of Matisse's own sculptures--but with strikingly different formal means. Nature morte au pélargonium is more naturalistic, with a strong sense of fluid, atmospheric space; the perspective of the table suggests a single viewpoint, while the cast shadows indicate a unitary light source. In Les oignons roses, by contrast, the objects are simplified and flattened like those in a child's drawing. They are placed in an abstract, intangible space, unrelated to a specific viewpoint and without light or shadow. In other still-lifes from 1906, such as Les tapis rouges (Musée de Grenoble), Matisse combines elements of the two different formal modes: a Cézannesque composition and vividly three-dimensional drawing, integrated with planes of bright color and flat patterning. Notably, Matisse chose not to send his most radically stylized and simplified painting of the summer, Le jeune marin II (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), to the 1906 Salon d'Automne, and he did not show Les oignons roses publicly until 1908, by which time his bold, decorative style was firmly established. Not yet sure of his destination, he even tried to pass these two canvases off to his friends in Paris as the work of a postman from Collioure, though the painter Jean Puy at least (so the story goes) was not fooled.
The year 1907, when the present still-life was painted, marked the consolidation of Matisse's position as the leader of the Parisian avant-garde (although Picasso, who painted Les demoiselles d'Avignon that summer, was close at his heels). The day after Matisse returned from Collioure in late February, he was approached with a contract by the critic Félix Fénéon, who had recently become the artistic director of the prestigious Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. Although Matisse did not formally sign with the gallery until 1909, he began selling works to them at this time, and at excellent prices, explaining to Manguin, "I trust the firm of Bernheim will prove the definitive solution for the modern school, and Fénéon its picture vendor" (quoted in ibid., p. 393). At the Salon des Indépendants in March, Matisse--for the third time in eighteen months--scandalized the public, bewildered the critics, and stopped the art world in its tracks, this time with Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra (Baltimore Museum of Art). He then promptly returned to Collioure, where he would remain from late April until early September (with a break mid-summer to visit Leo Stein at his villa in Florence and to study the Italian Primitives). Although he continued to vacillate at Collioure between a sculptural, Cézannesque style (not surprising, given the reverence that the master of Aix had received since his death the previous fall) and a simpler, flatter, more decorative mode, it was the latter that would definitively triumph in his work by the end of the year.
The present painting demonstrates the results of Matisse's tireless aesthetic exploration during this critical period of transition and consolidation. It depicts a lush bouquet of vibrantly colored, late-spring flowers, including bushy magenta peonies and spindly purple irises, arranged in a low vase painted with blue and white squares. Matisse had begun to include cut blossoms in his still-lifes the previous summer, a procedure that provided him with a broad range of organic shapes and patterns that could be played against the solid, geometric forms of vases, tables, and other inanimate objects. In Les Pivoines, the peonies retain a sense of three-dimensionality, bursting out of the vase with all the vigor of spring, while the tall stems at the top of the composition are flattened against the background plane like boldly patterned wallpaper, a pictorial conceit that would underpin the masterful Harmonie rouge the next year (fig. 5) and would prove a seminal influence on Bonnard's still-lifes of the following decade (fig. 6). Although the table in Les Pivoines recedes unambiguously into depth, the rear wall itself is de-materialized into a cascade of color, freely brushed with vigorous, gestural strokes that anticipate the work of the Abstract Expressionists--most notably, Hans Hofmann (fig. 6), who studied in Paris at exactly this moment (from 1904 until 1908) and absorbed Matisse's influence so successfully that Clement Greenberg later claimed "that in America in the 1930s one could learn Matisse's color lessons better from Hofmann than from Matisse himself" (quoted in Hans Hofmann, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, 1990, p. 13).
In addition to its vivid, unfettered palette, another noteworthy feature of Les Pivoines is the sheer variety of brushwork that Matisse employs on a single canvas. The table is articulated in thick, heavily impastoed slashes that underscore its structural solidity. The left-hand portion of the background is painted in flat patches of vermillion, gold, and dark green; the right half, in contrast, is rendered in free, ebullient strokes of blue, sea green, and lavender, applied more densely near the bottom and more loosely toward the top. In several of Matisse's floral still-lifes from 1906, he had positioned the vase beside a window, and there is a residual sense in Les Pivoines of a contrast between light (on the right) and shadow (on the left). The space as a whole, however, remains abstract and intangible, as in the contemporaneous Bouquet d'asphodèles (Museum Folkwang, Essen), in which a shaft of light on the rear wall is reduced to a flat, geometric form that produces no cast shadows or atmospheric effect. When Richard Diebenkorn, who repeatedly acknowledged Matisse's profound influence on his own art, saw the extraordinary collection of the master's paintings at the Hermitage in 1964, it was this same sort of spatial ambiguity that he highlighted in his response to the experience, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, with its flat floral patterning, its vertical division of the canvas into two discrete zones (nominally indoor and outdoor), and its reduction of conventional markers of atmosphere and depth into a series of abstract color planes (fig. 8). Moreover, it was these very pictorial advances that would give Matisse the means of challenging Cubism in the years to come (fig. 9). Flam has concluded:
"The duality in Matisse's work--the flat and the sculptural, the decorative and the felt, the intangible and the tangible--appears to have taken on a special significance in relation to the work of Cézanne, who had been his guiding light for nearly a decade, and Picasso, who was beginning seriously to challenge Matisse's position as the leader of the Parisian avant-garde... At the end of 1907, Fauvism (which had only recently been named) and Cubism (which had not yet been given a name) were perceived not as opposing systems but rather as different possible responses to the art of Cézanne. The central issue, that of abstraction and the redefinition of pictorial means by which painting could be made an autonomous art, was explored in two complementary directions... [In Matisse] the animate and the inanimate, the linear and the planar, the flat and the three-dimensional are brought together in such a fashion that they create a new way of seeing the world" (op. cit., pp. 216 and 232).
(fig. 1) Matisse with his wife Amélie and daughter Marguerite at Collioure, 1907.
(fig. 2) André Derain, Portrait d'Henri Matisse, 1905. Tate Britain, London.
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Nature morte au pélargonium, 1906. The Art Institute of Chicago.
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Les oignons roses, 1906. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.
(fig. 5) Henri Matisse, Harmonie rouge, 1908. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.
(fig. 6) Pierre Bonnard, Intérieur avec des fleurs, 1919. Sold, Christie's, New York, 4 May 2005, lot 6.
(fig. 7) Hans Hofmann, Jardin d'amour, 1959. Private collection.
(fig. 8) Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965. Collection of Susan Parrish Land.
(fig. 9) Henri Matisse, Arums, iris et mimosas, 1913. Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.