"For Me It Is Always New": Matisse's View of Notre-Dame
From 1894 to 1907 and again beginning in late 1913, Matisse rented a studio on the quai Saint-Michel. His windows overlooked the Seine and provided an uninterrupted view of Notre-Dame Cathedral to the right. In his numerous representations of the vista, Matisse often deepened the perspective to include a glimpse of his own building. This approach is readily apparent in the 1902 Notre-Dame painting. The two larger 1914 paintings (Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller-Stiftung, Switzerland, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York) have subtler indications—vertical lines representing the window's edge. The blue-toned painting even includes a few dark curves to suggest the reflection of Matisse's balcony railing in his windowpane.
Matisse's pictures of Notre-Dame are not a series per se, at least not in the way that Claude Monet methodically depicted some thirty views of the façade of Rouen Cathedral during his two visits to that city in 1892–93. For Matisse the view was part of his daily life. "I never tire of it," he said. "For me it is always new." The two larger paintings of 1914 underscore issues that engaged Matisse in that year: means of representation, the role of color, and the question of what constitutes a finished canvas.
Interior and Exterior Space
Interior with Goldfish and Goldfish and Palette were painted in Matisse's fourth-floor studio at 19, quai Saint-Michel. To the right he could see Notre-Dame Cathedral and to the left, the Pont Saint-Michel and the police headquarters on the Île de la Cité. In Interior with Goldfish (1914), the placement of the goldfish jar in front of the window accentuates the transition from the hushed domestic space to the buildings outside, washed with late afternoon light. The arrangement underscores Matisse's interest in windows as passageways between interior and exterior spaces. The curve of the jar's waterline is repeated in the arch of the bridge, just as the curve of the jar's rim is echoed by the bowed plant fronds that lead the viewer's eye to the steps of the distant quay.
A few months later, in autumn 1914, Matisse painted Goldfish and Palette this time zooming in on his subject in order to more fully explore the interior space. A sketch of the composition sent to a friend depicts the artist seated next to the central table. Matisse camouflaged his presence as he reworked the painting. The white parallelogram at right represents the artist's palette (his thumb is shown sticking through the hole). The two angular forms underneath indicate his bent legs.
The Light of the Room
In a 1914 interview Matisse explained, "When I paint, I see [my subject] in relation to the wall, in relation to the light of the room in which it is enclosed, in relation to the objects that surround it." In these three still lifes, Matisse juxtaposed a variety of surfaces and textures: transparent water-filled vessels; fruit, flowers and foliage; and one of his sculptures, Reclining Nude I (Aurora) of 1907. In Goldfish (1912), Matisse used pink paint and vertical bands to evoke light washing over the goldfish jar. The yellow flowers in the center of the bouquet appear partly dematerialized; even the sculpture glows with warm highlights. Several years later, Matisse repeated the still life's tripartite horizontal structure in Sculpture and Vase of Ivy (1916). He employed an almost prismatic range of colors to convey the sensation of light passing through the glass càntir, a Catalan drinking vessel with two spouts. When he painted a variation of the still life (1916–17), he stepped back from it to add vertical emphasis. Once more, lighting is a dominant component. Matisse included a glass tabletop, which shimmers with the window's reflections.
Laurette was the first professional model with whom Matisse worked over a prolonged period. She posed for him for six or seven months in 1916–17, a period of intense creativity that resulted in some fifty pictures of her. Her presence was instrumental in reorienting Matisse as he abandoned the restrictions inherent in painting in pairs and fully embraced larger series.
Little is known about Laurette. Clearly she was self-assured and provocative. Matisse's younger son remembered her standing naked at the open window during her modeling breaks, ignoring the stares from police officers stationed across the Seine. Matisse's elder son, Jean, fell madly in love with her. During her sessions with Matisse, Laurette posed in a variety of textiles from his extensive collection: black lace mantillas, turbans, and North African gowns. In these three paintings she is shown in a green gandoura, a Moroccan robe traditionally worn by men.
In a 1936 interview, Matisse posed a rhetorical question, "Why should I paint the outside of an apple, however exactly? What possible interest could there be in copying an object which nature provides in unlimited quantities?" He obviously had wondered the same thing two decades earlier while creating this pair of paintings. In his opinion, a "picture is formed by the combination of surfaces, differently colored, which result in the creation of an 'expression.'" In short, Matisse was just as concerned with the backgrounds of these paintings as he was in depicting the fourteen apples on the pedestal table. During the mid-1910s he would sometimes divide his backgrounds, painting each half a separate color. This approach is seen in both Apples (1916) and Meditation (Portrait of Laurette) (1916–17). In addition, he tended to use black when he reached an impasse. "Before, when I didn't know what color to put down, I put down black. Black is a force: I used black as a ballast to simplify the construction."