Matisse as Printmaker

A new exhibition sheds fresh light on the artist’s creative process.

Henri Matisse (1869–1954) was 20 years old when his mother gave him art supplies to help him pass the time as he recovered from a bout of appendicitis.

From that simple gift sprang a lifetime passion: “From the moment I held the box of colors in my hands, I knew this was my life,” he later said of the life-changing gift. And that wasn’t the only gift she gave him; Matisse’s mother also told him not to follow the rules of art but instead allow his emotions to dictate his painting.

Thanks to that box of paints and her rebellious advice, Matisse produced a body of painted works best known for their exuberant use of color and fluidity. He also created notable sculptures, drawings, and collages—as well as some lesser-known prints.

Many of these prints are on display at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum (CFAM) on the Rollins College campus from through March 16, 2014. The exhibition, Matisse as Printmaker: Works from the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, showcases examples of every printmaking medium used by the artist, including 63 etchings, monotypes, aquatints, lithographs, linocuts, and two-color prints.

The exhibition, an extension of a national tour that is made possible at CFAM by the sponsorship of Bessemer Trust, gives viewers a unique opportunity to see a relatively unexplored aspect of Matisse’s oeuvre. “What’s remarkable about this exhibition is that it opens our eyes to another side of Matisse,” notes Ena Heller, the Bruce A. Beal director of CFAM. “We always think about him, first and foremost, as a colorist, so often his graphic work—especially his black-and-white graphic work—does not get the same kind of attention.”

Organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, the collection provides an entirely fresh view of Matisse’s work and creative process. As guest curator Jay Fisher writes in the exhibition’s catalog, “Printmaking was Matisse’s primary means of demonstrating to his audience his working process, the character of his vision, and the way his drawing transformed what he observed.”

Nadia with a Serious Expression, 1948
Lift-ground aquatint
Image: 13 9/16 x 10 15/16 in.
Sheet: 22 1/4 x 14 3/4 in.
Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation (1411 - 104005)
© 2013 Succession H. Matisse/Artists
Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy American Federation of Arts Nadia with a Serious Expression, 1948 Lift-ground aquatint Image: 13 9/16 x 10 15/16 in. Sheet: 22 1/4 x 14 3/4 in. Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation (1411 - 104005) © 2013 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy American Federation of Arts “Seeing the exhibition, we understand the richness of Matisse as printmaker—and it’s telling that among some 900 prints he made in his lifetime, only two are in color—and the textural and tactile beauty of his works,” Heller says. “We look at them and we don’t miss color, and that’s hard to achieve. At the same time, his prints reveal much about his process as an artist—there are a number of works that have different versions, and you see how he’s working out pictorial issues with every new version.”

One can see the evolution of his vision as Matisse adopted new techniques. The majority of his prints involve serial imagery, so that the viewer can witness each phase of the creative process as Matisse took a subject from the literal to the abstract. He used printmaking as an extension and enhancement of his drawing, the foundation of his oeuvre.

Working steadily on prints from 1900 until his death in 1954, Matisse also used printmaking as a way to get more of his work into the hands of collectors. Using the printing press he had installed in his studio, he frequently created impromptu portraits of family and friends; many of his prints were produced in editions of 25 or 50. By producing such a steady supply of high-quality prints over more than a half-century, Matisse was able to disseminate a large body of work, helping to solidify his reputation as one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

Marie-José in a Yellow Dress (III), 1950
Color lift-ground aquatint (black with four colors)
Image: 21 1/8 x 16 7/16 in.
Sheet: 29 15/16 x 22 1/4 in.
Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation (1454 - 104051)
© 2013 Succession H. Matisse/Artists
Rights Society (ARS), New York
Courtesy American Federation of Arts Marie-José in a Yellow Dress (III), 1950 Color lift-ground aquatint (black with four colors) Image: 21 1/8 x 16 7/16 in. Sheet: 29 15/16 x 22 1/4 in. Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation (1454 - 104051) © 2013 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Courtesy American Federation of Arts Among the notable prints on display at CFAM are Matisse’s first engraving, a self-portrait from the turn of the 20th century that was influenced by Rembrandt; a series of unusually large Seated Nudes created from 1924 to 1925; and the only two color prints ever produced by Matisse: The Dance and Marie-José in a Yellow Dress. The collection also includes Heller’s personal favorite, Large Odalisque with Bayadère Culottes from 1925.

It’s a significant collection that highlights the importance of printmaking in Matisse’s development as an artist. “This exhibition brings together superb examples of every printmaking medium that Matisse used during his career,” Heller says. “It’s a complete survey of his printed work, and the impressions are very high quality.”

For more information about CFAM and this exhibition, call 407-646-2526 or visit cfam.rollins.edu.