In conjunction with the exhibition Matisse: In Search of True Painting—on view December 4, 2012, through March 17, 2013—Curator Rebecca Rabinow discusses Matisse's and several other artists' paintings of the seaside cliffs in Étretat, France.
The dramatic cliffs of Étretat inspired generations of French artists, including Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet. In 1920, Matisse positioned himself as the heir to this tradition with three identically sized canvases in which he explored the effects of subtle stylistic differences.
Images in order of appearance:
Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). Large Cliff—Fish, 1920. Oil on canvas; 36 1/2 x 29 in. (92.7 x 73.7 cm). The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland
Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). Large Cliff—Two Rays, 1920. Oil on canvas; 36 5/8 x 29 in. (93 x 73.7 cm). Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, Bequest of R.H. Norton
Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). Large Cliff—Eel, 1920. Oil on canvas; 35 7/8 x 28 3/8 in. (91 x 72 cm). Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Gift of Ferdinand Howald
The Cliffs of Étretat, France, ca. 1906. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Gustave Courbet (French, 1819–1877). The Étretat Cliffs after the Storm, 1870. Oil on canvas; 52 3/8 x 63 3/4 in. (133 x 162 cm). Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926). Fishing Boats Leaving Étretat, 1886. Oil on canvas; 26 x 31 7/8 in. (66 x 81 cm). The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
Auguste Renoir (French, 1841–1919). Still Life with Fish, 1916. Oil on canvas; 15 3/4 x 19 3/4 in. (40 x 50 cm). Musée National de Picasso, Paris
© 2012 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, for all works of the artist
Rebecca Rabinow: Matisse used his painted canvasses as tools so that he could compare one against another. Here, we see three related paintings of exactly the same size. They were all painted in Étretat, a small town on the Normandy coast. It's an area that Courbet had visited in 1870 and painted a very famous painting, of which Matisse was aware. And Monet had come in the eighties and nineties. They had been attracted to the unusual rock formations of the cliffs.
We think that Large Cliff—Fish was painted first of the three. It's more naturalistic. The bottom half of the composition is a little unusual. There's a pile of seaweed; the fresh catch of the day are arranged on it. I think that when Matisse painted this, he he did it in homage to his friend Auguste Renoir, who had died just a few months earlier. Over the past two years, Matisse and Renoir had become quite good friends and after Renoir died, Matisse was allowed free rein of Renoir's studio. And there, he saw scores of still life of fish.
Two Rays and Eel, on the other hand, are more stylized, as if Matisse is painting them in order to explore the effects of subtle differences. In Two Rays, there are curved lines that create a sense of receding space and emphasize the textural details, while in Eel, it's flatter and there's a straightened shoreline. These two works were exhibited together in 1920, to great acclaim. But when Eel was shown at The Metropolitan Museum of Art the following year, Matisse was criticized for his modern interpretation of this very traditional scene.