Wanda de Guébriant has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
In Pierre au cheval de bois, Matisse depicted his youngest child Pierre, who was then almost four years old, holding his favorite toy, a wooden horse he called 'Bidouille.' It is a disarmingly pleasant domestic scene, almost like a casual snapshot. The artist had been hitherto little disposed to revealing his inner feelings in his canvases, but here he expresses surprisingly personal emotions of joy and contentment in the simple pleasures of family and home. Indeed, this painting tells of the fortunate outcome of an extraordinary story. In 1902-1903 Matisse overcame, through sheer strength of will, an almost ruinous string of adversities, and in 1904 he set forth to undertake a new phase in his art. Painted in early 1904, Pierre au cheval de bois shows Matisse poised near the brink of the radical breakthrough, in the following year, would result in his revolutionary Fauve canvases.
Alfred H. Barr, Jr., called the years 1902-1903 Matisse's "dark" period (in Matisse: His Art and his Public, New York, 1951, p. 49), in reference to the conservatively somber tonalities that he adopted in his paintings during this period, in an effort to make them more attractive to buyers. With the 1998 publication of Hilary Spurling's The Unknown Matisse (op. cit.), we now have a more thorough understanding of the personal and family difficulties that the artist faced during this period, which proved to be very "dark" indeed. In May 1902 the Humbert scandal broke--Frédéric and Thérèse Humbert had for years leveraged their extensive business dealings against a non-existent legacy, and fled Paris only hours before their fraud was uncovered. Armand and Catherine Parayre, the parents of the artist's wife Amélie, both worked for the Humberts, and were implicated in the scandal. Their home, Amélie's hat-shop and Matisse's studio were searched by police. When the Humberts were finally detained that December in Madrid, Armand Parayre, then 60 years old, was also arrested and imprisoned for more than a month. Amélie's health suffered and she was forced to close her business, from which the artist's family derived necessary income. Matisse was forced to take the role of family spokesman and defender. Finally, in early 1903, in order to escape from unrelenting public scorn, and to lighten the burden of stress and financial hardship that had overwhelmed his family, Matisse closed his Paris studio at 19, quai de Saint-Michel and took Amélie and their three children to live with his parents in Bohain-en-Vermandois, in his native region in northeast France. This desperate move marked the "low point" in their tibulations (ibid., p. 250).
Later that spring Matisse moved to a house in Bohain away from this parents, who increasingly disapproved of his choice of a career and criticized his inability to properly support his family. Here he made his studio, which he depicted in one of his best works of this period, L'atelier sous les toits (fig. 1). "Dark" it was--Barr described it "as original in conception as it is disconsolate in atmosphere (op. cit., p. 50). In July they moved to Lesquielles-Saint Germain, some distance away. On 15 July Matisse wrote to Simon Bussy, a friend and painter, "My work more or less satisfies me. I am aware of continual real progress, more suppleness of execution than in the earlier studies, and a return to the soft harmonies and close values that will certainly be better received by collectors. The various cares, small and large, more small than large, which life has already given me a good share of, and the responsibility that I've decided courageously to accept, combined with the pittance that our calling brings in, had almost made me decide to quit painting altogether" (quoted in J. Flam, ed. Matisse: A Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 41).
Spurling has estimated that during this period Matisse counted on supporting his family with an income that amounted to little more than the yearly wages of a local day laborer.
In August 1903, the Humberts' trial took place in Paris, resulting in their conviction. It became clear that Amélie's parents were unwitting and blameless employees in the Humbert scam, but they had been devastated by their sense of having been misled and betrayed, as had countless others who had dealings with the Humberts. Amélie's health, however, was on the mend, and in the hope of re-opening her business, she, Matisse and Marguerite (the artist's eldest child, whose mother was Caroline Joblaud) returned to Paris in the fall of 1903. Until they re-established themselves and could afford to bring the entire family together, however, their oldest son Jean would remain with Matisse's parents in Bohain, and young Pierre would stay with his maternal aunt Berthe Payarye in Rouen.
Then in October or November, a final crisis in this terrible year occurred. Pierre fell ill with bronchial pneumonia. In July 1901 Marguerite had barely survived diphtheria and typhoid fever. Toward the end of the year Matisse wrote Bussy, "I'm afraid this may end badly. My wife has just left for Rouen to nurse little Pierre, who is my last-born. He is three years old" (quoted in H. Spurling, op. cit., p. 268).
There was great relief and joy, then, as Pierre eventually recovered, and around the turn of the year returned with his mother to rejoin the artist and his sister in the small family apartment and studio at 19, quai de Saint-Michel. During this time Matisse was at work on Carmelina (La pose du nu) (fig. 2), a balanced composition executed in the muted tonal values that the artist had favored in Bohain. Spurling has noted that Pierre took a strong dislike to his father's Italian model, who tried in vain to win over the boy's affections. Perhaps Pierre was jealous of the attention she received from his father in the studio; in any case, it was soon his turn to pose, and in the early months of 1904 Matisse painted Pierre and his toy horse Bidouille.
Matisse carried over some of the sienna and ochre hues of Carmelina into his painting of Pierre in the family apartment, but more significantly, he expanded his tonal palette to include stronger reds and greens, as well as pale blues and pinks in the tablecloth, and an admixture of blue and rose to create the violet color of the cyclamen. Color contrasts, rather than closely harmonized tones, prevail--not least of which is the striking use of substantial, stark white accents in Pierre's face, his toy horse, and in the very center of the picture, the white paper wrapping around the bouquet. Matisse also made use of a compositional device seen earlier in Carmelina: a mirror is present in both paintings, seen here propped on the easel in the upper right, to the side of a large armoire. In both paintings we catch a glimpse in the mirrors of the artist at work; in Pierre's painting he appears as a dark, ghost-like silhouette, probably standing with a window behind him. The guitar on the wall also featured in two paintings done in 1902-1903, La guitariste, in which the artist posed his wife in a toreador costume, and in a second version in which a standing bearded man, similarly attired, strums the instrument.
The most notable accessory, as time would tell, proved to be the tablecloth, which is the first appearance in Matisse's work of a blue and white cotton textile known as the 'toile de Jouy' (fig. 3). Louis Aragon wrote that Matisse spotted it in 1903 somewhere on the Left Bank, near the Carrefour de Buci, while riding a bus. "It proved to be a crucial ally in his struggle to demolish the ancient canons of perspective, tonal values and three-dimensional illusion" (D. Szymusiak, "A Balance of Forces," op. cit., exh. cat., The Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, p. 81). Matisse used the 'toile de Jouy' in numerous paintings, perhaps most famously in Harmonie rouge La desserte, 1908 (formerly owned by Sergei Schukin; The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).
The painting Pierre au cheval de bois is a Janus-faced work. It looks backward to retain some of the most viable aspects of the Bohain-Paris period of 1902-1903, such as Matisse's increasing adeptness at constructing form and space through the use of color. But, more significantly, in freeing up color, it faces forward as well, to the paintings of later 1904 and 1905. It is a pivotal painting in the continuity of imagery, color and technique during this period. In July 1904, Matisse, his wife and Pierre traveled to Saint-Tropez where they spent the ensuing two and a half months, working in close proximity with the neo-Impressionists Paul Signac and Henri Edmond Cross. Matisse experimented with divisionism, in which he purified his use of color still further; paintings such as Golfe de Saint-Tropez (fig. 4) show the artist on the very eve of Fauvism. By now the "dark" period in Bohain had become a fading memory, and the sense of affirmation and contentment that we witness in Pierre au cheval de bois would prove to become a hallmark of the artist's work, accompanied--finally and after long, hard struggle--by growing and well-earned fame.
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse, L'atelier sous les toits, 1903. The Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. BARCODE 23668287
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Carmelina (La pose du nu), 1903-1904. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. BARCODE 23668294
(fig. 3) Toile de Jouy, French 19th century printed cotton fabric.BARCODE 23668386
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Golfe de Saint-Tropez, 1904. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.BARCODE 23668300