The Essence of Life: Henri Matisse’s Striking Portraiture

Henri Matisse

Portraiture was a vital strand of Henri Matisse’s art, one that he wrestled with tirelessly throughout his career. One of the primary goals he pursued was the simple, yet elusive ability to capture the essence of a character with the deftest of marks, a concept it took him a lifetime to uncover. “A portrait is a quarrel,” he argued, as he spent years working and reworking the same surfaces over and over, hoping to unearth the most basic elements that would define the undefinable. It wasn’t until his later years that he truly understood how to achieve the enigmatic, spiritual quality of his subjects, with a deceptively simple language of fluid, descriptive lines.

Portrait of Marguerite, 1906, image via Wiki Art

Portrait of Marguerite, 1906, image via Wiki Art

 

African masks had a profound impact on Matisse’s portraiture. He was especially fascinated with their angular, simplified shapes and exaggerated facial features, which he brought into his own portraits. But he was also attracted to the deeper emotional resonance of tribal masks, which tapped in to ancestral or mystical forces beyond the visible eye. In his delightfully simple Portrait of Marguerite, 1906, Matisse conveys his young daughter’s wide-eyed innocence with the flattened black contours of an African carving, while the 1916 Portrait of Sarah Stein, transforms his sitter’s head into a ghostly, mask-like form, while sharp black lines define the structure of her head.

Portrait of Sarah Stein, 1916, image via Wiki Art

Portrait of Sarah Stein, 1916, image via Wiki Art

 

Struggle was also a fundamental element of Matisse’s journey around the human face, and in his portraits on paper he often left working lines which tracked his overworking and corrections. This constant back-and-forth battle made being a subject or muse for Matisse an arduous and sometimes painfully time-consuming process, one which Matisse alluded to in his portrait of his wife Amelie, Portrait of Madame Matisse 1913, referring to the work as “the one that made you cry, but in which you look so pretty.”

Portrait of Madame Matisse, 1913, image via Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Portrait of Madame Matisse, 1913, image via Aesthetic Realism Foundation

 

By the 1930s Matisse was gradually uncovering the loose, fluid lines that would define his career, distilling his understanding of portraiture down to its barest of structural bones. In Drawing, Head of Woman, 1945 and Drawing, Large Head, 1949, Matisse moves beyond the confines of traditional likeness, capturing these anonymous models instead with spirited, elemental freedom. Writing about the mystical, undefinable forces at play in these works, he observed, “Recording the model’s features reveals feelings often unknown, even to the very diviner who has bought them to life.”

Drawing, Head of Woman, 1945, image via Detroit Art Review

Drawing, Head of Woman, 1945, image via Detroit Art Review

 

Drawing, Large Head, 1949, image via Detroit Art Review

Drawing, Large Head, 1949, image via Detroit Art Review

 

This amazing article written by Rosie Lesso.


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