Corporeal Disenchantment or Aesthetic Allure? Henri Matisse’s Early Critical Reception in New York

Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 65)


When Henri Matisse’s artworks were first shown in New York between 1908 and 1912 at the photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s ultra-progressive art gallery, “291,” the images elicited a widely mixed response from their viewers.1 While many in the critical press expressed unqualified disdain at what they considered to be Matisse’s hideously deformed and contorted images of the female body, a small but highly influential group of art writers praised Matisse’s innovative ability to interweave the structures of the human body with the principles of abstract design. These opposing perspectives reflected a fundamental disagreement regarding Matisse’s depictions of the female nude, one that centered on the presence or the absence of the aestheticized figure. On the one hand, most critics felt that the artist had compromised the ideal of the nude by showcasing the corporeal excesses of the body. Yet on the other hand, a select group of reviewers applauded Matisse’s ability to traverse the boundaries between the visual and the carnal to merge the forms of the body with abstracted graphic structures.2 While such views reflect familiar ones in contemporary continental criticism, the American critical response seems to have taken an internally discursive form due to the self-localization around the Stieglitz shows.3


Female Body Critical Debate Figural Drawing Discursive Form White Sheet 
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  1. 1.
    In this paper I address only two of the three exhibitions of Matisse’s work held at 291, the 1908 and 1910 shows. A third Matisse exhibition was held in 1912 which featured 12 drawings and 12 sculptures. Edward Steichen provides a list of the sculptures featured in this third installation in a 1912 letter to Stieglitz, reproduced in Alfred H. Barr, Jr, Matisse: His Art and His Public (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951), p. 148. It should be noted that the critical reception of the 1912 exhibition was overwhelmingly negative. Writers commented almost exclusively on the hideousness and incomprehensibility of Matisse’s figures. I believe that a primary reason why this show was a critical and commercial failure was because, as solid and substantial three-dimensional forms, the sculpted “bodies” of Matisse’s artworks were at once too much like the viewers’ own and too little like the viewers’ own. That is, unlike the linear, two-dimensional works discussed in this paper, the sculptures were objects of mass and substance whose materiality made them inescapably “present.” In addition, Matisse himself offered an extensive theoretical explanation of his painting and drawing processes in his important 1908 statement “Notes of a Painter.” Things might have turned out quite differently if only Matisse had drafted a second statement entitled “Notes of a Sculptor”!Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The latter mode of critical discourse foreshadowed much of the laudatory rhetoric that would accompany Matisse’s artworks once they were widely celebrated in the United States by the later 1920’s. Yet as early as 1915, American critical discussions which privileged the decorative and the subjective aspects of Matisse’s art would become pronounced in the commentary which followed an important one-man exhibition of Matisse’s works held at the Montross Gallery in New York (January 20 to February 27, 1915). See, for example, Horace Holley, “The Background of Matisse,” The New Republic (February 20, 1915), pp. 74–76; Henry McBride, “Matisse at Montross,” New York Sun (January 24, 1915); and Willard Huntington Wright, Modern Painting: Its Tendency and Meaning (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1915), pp. 222–36. These discursive trends continued throughout the twenties as Matisse’s art became more widely accepted, and are clearly evident in the series of monographs published just prior to and in conjunction with Matisse’s 1931 retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. See especially Roger Fry, Henri-Matisse (New York: Weyhe, 1930); Henry McBride, Matisse (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930); and Alfred H. Barr, Jr.’s exhibition catalogue Henri-Matisse (New York: The Museum of Modern Art and W. W. Norton & Company, 1931 ). The trajectory of formalist rhetoric in the American critical reception of Matisse is the subject of a study I am currently undertaking.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In this paper I focus on the early American critical reception of Matisse. For an account of the major positions of contemporary French writers, see Roger Benjamin, Matisse’s “Notes of a Painter”: Criticism, Theory, and Context, 1891–1908 (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    While American audiences had been exposed to modernist reinterpretations of the body in the exhibition of Rodin’s figural drawings, that Stieglitz showed at 291 just a few months before the first Matisse show opened, the critical reaction to the latter was decidedly more hostile. There are several reasons for this discrepancy. Unlike Rodin’s drawings, Matisse’s images were not presented as working studies for sculptures or even necessarily for future paintings. Instead, the drawings and prints were exhibited as independent artworks intended to stand on their own aesthetic merits. Furthermore, critics generally acknowledged Rodin to be a master of modern art. Thus, his drawings were viewed as memoranda of the workshop which provided an intimate (if ultimately fictive), behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sculptor’s studio. Since critics accepted Rodin’s drawings as more or less working diagrams for sculptures, they assigned his sketches pedagogical value as technical studies. Matisse, in contrast, was identified not as a sculptor, but as the leader of a new movement in painting. As a result, his prints and drawings were held to more conventional standards of mimetic representation, and inevitably, were seen as irreconcilable with those standards. For an account of the critical response to Rodin’s drawings, see “The Rodin Drawings at the Photo-Secession Galleries,” Camera Work 22 (April 1908), pp. 35–41. See also Sue Davidson Lowe, Stieglitz A Memoir/Biography (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1983), p. 136; and Richard Whelan, Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1995), pp. 228–30. In March of 1911, Stieglitz showed 20 of Cézanne’s watercolors at 291. This exhibition was followed by a show featuring 83 drawings and watercolors by Picasso. The reviews of both exhibitions were reprinted in Camera Work 36 (October 1911), pp. 30–31, 47–54, and 65–66. Unlike Matisse’s works, critics found Cézanne’s watercolors to be delicate images constructed largely through hints and omissions. Thus rather than being powerful in their own right, critics found the watercolors weak and light. Furthermore, critics expressed a lack of understanding of Picasso’s cubist imagery, and accused the artist of lunacy and disorder.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    By engaging these critical issues, the American reception of Matisse itself exemplifies the ways in which representations of the human body could serve as a point of departure in early formalist discourses. As early as 1909, Roger Fry had associated the signifying power of abstract design with the conditions of corporeal existence, when he noted that aesthetic emotions are heightened when they are connected to the appearance of the human body. See Roger Fry. See Roger Fry, “An Essay on Aesthetics” (1909), in Vision and Design (New York: Times Mirror Company, 1974 ). Slightly earlier, Walter Pater had also commented on the link between erotic love and the aesthetics of abstraction in Gaston De Latour: An Unfinished Romance ( London: St. Martin’s Press, 1896 ).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Carolyn Dean’s comments were crucial in helping me to formulate this construct in relation to Matisse’s works.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    While the notions of sensory and contemplative pleasure are formulated in opposition to one another in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1791), these constructs were described as being coextensive in an aesthetic source closer to Matisse himself, in the writings of Charles Baudelaire. In fact, I believe that it is possible to view the conditions that Matisse’s artworks seem to establish for their viewers, a state which I have loosely characterized as that of the disembodied body, as a variation on a Baudelairean theme. In his essay of 1859–60, “The Painter of Modern Life,” Charles Baudelaire famously characterized the flâneur as a privileged figure who was at once able to be sensuously engaged with and intellectually detached from the subjects around him. This construction of the flâneur established a dual position in which the artist and viewer were at once situated “within” the phenomena they observed and yet remained “above” it at the same time.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” (1961) in Galen A. Johnson, ed., The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993), p. 144. Merleau-Ponty also discussed Matisse’s painting process in his essay “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence” (1956), in Signs,trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964), pp. 45–46. In this piece, Merleau-Ponty critiques a formalist discourse so detached that it loses sight of its iconographic subjects: “It is certainly right to condemn formalism,” Merleau-Ponty wrote, “but it is ordinarily forgotten that its error is not that it esteems form too much, but that it esteems it so little that it detaches it from meaning” (p. 77).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    John Elderfield has noted that this work was exhibited in both the 1908 and the 1910 exhibitions. See John Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), cat. 8, pp. 143, 253.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Barr has written that this drawing “is characteristic of a number of ink drawings which seem affected by pointillist destruction of continuous line.” (Barr, Matisse, His Art and His Public,p. 98).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    This drawing is one of seven figure studies by Matisse from Stieglitz’s personal art collection which entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1949, following the photographer’s death three years earlier. In addition, eight figure studies by Matisse were given to the Art Institute of Chicago that year. For a discussion of the place Matisse’s drawings occupied in Stieglitz’s art collection, see George Heard Hamilton, “The Alfred Stieglitz Collection,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 3 (1970), esp. pp. 378–79.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    This lithograph is now in the Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Based on contemporary critical commentary, published secondary sources, and my own conversations with Matisse scholars, it seems likely, if not entirely certain, that the lithographs Back View of a Nude with Necklace and Head of a Recumbent Figure,both of 1906, were exhibited in 1908. See James Huneker’s review of the 1908 exhibition in Camera Work 23, pp. 11–12; Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Matisse, His Art and His Public,p. 113; and Hahnloser, Matisse: The Graphic Work (New York: Rizzoli, 1988), p. 24.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Reproduced in Camera Work 23, p. 12. Regarding Matisse’s watercolor landscapes, Cary echoed the views of various French critics by noting that they “are examples of the theory of the decomposition of light pushed to its extreme limits and expressed with a kind of sophisticated naivete.”Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Reproduced in Camera Work 23, pp. 10–11.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Reproduced in Camera Work 23, p. 12.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Reproduced in Camera Work 23, pp. 11–12.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    In addition to Mather’s and Huneker’s support, one of the visitors to 291 was Florence Blumenthal, the wife of George Blumenthal, a prominent collector of Gothic and Renaissance art and a future president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After visiting the show, Mrs. Blumenthal purchased three of Matisse’s drawings from Stieglitz, all pencil studies of the nude, c. 1908–1909. The works include Seated Nude,a second Seated Nude viewed from the rear, and Standing Nude After acquiring the drawings, Mrs. Blumenthal presented them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they were accepted and subsequently hung. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. has noted that, with the exception of Matisse’s early academic studies which the French government purchased for its provincial museums, it is likely that these drawings were the first works by Matisse to enter a public museum. Thus, in 1910 Matisse became an artistic “presence,” via his nudes, at the most elite art museum in America. On the Blumenthal purchase, see Barr, Matisse, His Art and His Public,p. 115.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    In addition to staging the three Matisse exhibitions at his gallery, in August of 1912 Stieglitz devoted a special issue of Camera Work to Matisse and Picasso. This issue featured highly experimental verbal “portraits” of the artists by Gertrude Stein, as well as several half-tone reproductions of the artists’ works.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    For an account of Huneker’s life and work, see Arnold T. Schwab, James Gibbons Huneker: Critic of the Seven Arts (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1963).Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Slightly later, the British critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry would work along similar rhetorical lines when championing the Post-Impressionist artists. On this topic, see Hayden B. J. Maginnis, “Reflections on Formalism: The Post-Impressionists and the Early Italians,” Art History 19 (June 1996), pp. 191–207.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    The database at the Metropolitan Museum of Art simply lists this work as “Nude.” Barr describes the drawing as Seated Nude Leaning on Her Arm (Nu assis appuyé sur le bras),and dates the work c. 1907 (Barr, Matisse, His Art and His Public,p. 323). For a discussion of this drawing, see p. 98 of Barr’s text. This drawing and a recumbent figure of a male nude viewed from the rear were illustrated in Camera Work 32 (October 1910). Both works were retained by Stieglitz for his personal art collection and are now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Reproduced in Camera Work 30 (April 1910), p. 49.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Jean Puy’s remarks are quoted in Benjamin, Matisse ‘s Notes,p. 76.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Notes of a Painter“ was first published in La Grande Revue (25 December 1908). Georges Desvallières, chief art critic of the Grande Revue,briefly touched on this issue in his Introduction to the ”Notes.“ As Roger Benjamin has pointed out, Desvallières strategically compared Matisse to the Romanesque sculptors in order to combat critics who accused the painter of figural distortion. (Benjamin, Matisse’s Notes,p. 159.) For further comments by Matisse on the use of aesthetics as a means to interpret the body, see Sarah Stein’s notes and Max Weber’s recollections of Matisse’s school in Jack Flam, Matisse: A Retrospective (New York: Park Lane, 1990), pp. 97–100; and Jack Flam, Matisse on Art (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 42–44.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    For a discussion of Matisse’s drawing process, see Elderfield, The Drawings of Henri Matisse,pp. 49–50.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Frank Jewett Mather, Jr.’s remarks were originally published in the Evening Post and are reprinted in Camera Work 30, p. 50.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Sidney Colvin, “Tintoretto and the British Museum — I and II,” Burlington Magazine (January and February, 1910), pp. 189–200 and 254–61. Based on the Metropolitan Museum’s dating of Nude with Bracelets at c 1909, it is possible that this drawing was exhibited in both the 1910 and 1912 exhibitions.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Shortly after the publication of Mather’s review, Huneker himself praised these lines as “Pregnant sentences!” (Huneker in Camera Work 31 (July 1910), pp. 43–44.) Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, p. 146.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of the Holy CrossUSA

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