When you paint an apple, the portrait of that apple does not
differ significantly from the portrait of any other apple. But with
the human being, that's not so."
For art historian Pierre Schneider, this truism explains the
difficulty modern artists have with portraiture. It is therefore
key to what may be the most striking Matisse exhibit to open in
Paris since the last one Mr. Schneider conceived in 1970.
"Visages decouverts" (at the Mona Bismarck Foundation through
Sept. 7) brings together more than 100 faces drawn by Henri Matisse
during the last nine years of his life. The works range from
painstaking efforts in pencil or charcoal to rapid sketches, with
eyes and nose indicated only by fleeting brushstrokes.
Most are on display for the first time. Underpinning the show is
the contradiction between the abstract style Matisse had adopted
like a vow and the realism necessary to paint a likeness. "Matisse
was passionately in love with unity," remarks Mr. Schneider, "but
he wanted it to come from conflict."
When Matisse drew these faces (between 1945 and his death in
1954), he was virtually bed-ridden after a serious operation. A few
years earlier, he had shared with a friend his dream of "a second
life, in some paradise where I'll do frescoes." The operation gave
him that second life, and his well-known paper cut-outs, enormous
compositions in simple forms and bright colors, date from this same
But as though to counterbalance - or contradict - their purity,
Matisse also surrounded himself with the earthly, mobile fragility
of the human face. Photos of his bedroom show dozens of portraits
tacked up on the walls.
"The place was very alive," says Jackie Matisse Monnier, the
artist's granddaughter, a teenager at the time. "You saw the work
that was done yesterday and the day before, and when that came
down, the work that would be done tomorrow would take its place. It
was all quite spontaneous and fun."
Ms. Monnier, like other grandchildren and friends who caught the
artist's eye, was a frequent model. Eight pictures of her appear in
"I had red hair," she recalls. "It was voluminous and sort of
all over the place. But he made me pin it up behind my head; he
insisted. He did not want any of it showing. So all that was left
was my face."
Monnier describes long morning sessions, as her grandfather
labored with his charcoal, observing her, finding the lines of her
face, rubbing them out, moving them and rebuilding a little to the
left... "tricking himself," she says, "into getting to know the
model's features, so his hand could talk." Then would come the
fast studies, in pen or brush and ink. Matisse would have learned
the face by heart, like a musician, so "he could actually shut his
eyes and draw on a piece of paper without seeing the model,"
By the end, as his portraits drew near the unhampered forms of
oval, line, and dot, he would almost be in a trance. According to
Schneider, this process, this "journey, which leads him not only
from realism to abstraction, but also from conscious work to
unconscious work" is what fascinated him.
For her, the portraits are also psychological probes. "It's hard
to speak of psychology and art, but I really think in order to
'possess' the face, he needed to establish its psychological
identity for him." She walks over to a drawing hanging on the
kitchen wall in her stone farmhouse. It is one of the meticulous
studies, in charcoal. …