Philadelphia, the muse of Matisse
Learn the French painter's trajectory in the city and how the exhibition 'Matisse in the 1930s' at the PMoA opened the doors for local artists.
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When French painter Henri Matisse turned 60 on Dec. 31, 1929, his career seemed to hang by a thread. Matisse was suffering from a deep artistic crisis, slump, self-doubt, and serious financial problems tied to the Great Depression. Some art critics assumed that his life as an artist was culminating and his work was the final link in the chain of bygone impressionism.
That is until Sept. 27, 1930, when his career had a new resurgence. That morning, Matisse visited the Philadelphia suburb of Merion for the first time. There, he received a prestigious commission that marked a milestone for his art on an international scale. The collector Alberto C. Barnes commissioned him to paint a large-scale mural for the main room of his foundation: the triptych of The Dance.
Matisse accepted the commission with the sole exception - the mural was done from his apartment in Nice, on the Mediterranean coast of southern France. Breaking with the traditional technique of fresco, this mural was not painted directly onto the wall but was worked from a distance using three large canvases to harmonize perfectly with the architecture of the Barnes Foundation. The mural took over two years to complete; mailed to Mr. Barnes during the spring of 1933. While Matisse remained thousands of miles from Pennsylvania, The Dance was placed above three French doors and under three curved arches that decorate the main room of the foundation to this day.
In 2012, the Barnes Foundation decided to move its facilities from Merion to Center City in Philadelphia. Fortunately, Matisse devised The Dance as a portable mural — very in tune with the muralist movement of the 20th century. However, how were they going to move the mural if it had been made specifically for the foundation room at Merion? Easy, Barnes decided to make an exact facsimile of the original room, considering the sun’s orientation through the French doors and replicating the space in size and shape.
His first exhibitions in the city
Matisse's first exhibition in Philadelphia was at an art gallery in Center City during World War I, in mid-1916, and while his son was serving in the French army — an event that marked him significantly on a personal level. There, they exhibited a group of modernist artists, including some works by Matisse.
In 1947, Matisse was part of another group exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMoA). This show included about eight paintings by Matisse that came from gifts or bequests from collectors Samuel and Vera White, William and Lisa Norris Elkins, R. Sturgis Ingersoll, Henry P. Mcllhenny, and Bernice M. Mcllhenny. Overall, the exhibition featured approximately 200 19th- and 20th-century paintings, drawings, and prints from various Philadelphia collectives.
A year later, PMoA exhibited the artist's works for a second time, this occasion hosting the first and largest Matisse retrospective in the United States. This exhibition included 271 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and illustrated books, including a large body of works selected and presented by Matisse himself, who was already in his 80s. The retrospective was organized by Henry Clifford, the museum's curator at the time, and featured an original text by Matisse that formed part of the exhibition catalog.
According to an article published by The New York Times on April 4, 1948, announcing the retrospective at Philly, despite his advanced age, Matisse was still "painting with great verve" and "developing."
"He is one of the truly towering figures of the modern movement, and perhaps Picasso alone can rival him," the writing continues, referring to the constant artistic competition that existed between Matisse and Picasso.
Once again, the PMoA honored the master of post-impressionism and color. As recently as October 2022, PMoA opened “Matisse in the 1930s,” an exhibition that offered a broad chronological study of the painter's artistic career during the 1930s and the years closing the decade — marked by a severe artistic crisis and placing Philadelphia as the epicenter of his muse. The exhibition was on view through January 2023 and included Matisse's best-known and rarest paintings, as well as sculptures, drawings, prints, illustrated books, documentary photographs, and short films.
For the PMoA, the Matisse exhibition has been one of the most attended in recent years. According to an article published by the Philadelphia Business Journal, “Matisse in the 1930s” attracted about 135,000 visitors, a figure the museum had not reached since 2015.
“Matisse was here from the beginning”, said Matthew Affron, curator of modern art at the PMoA. “Beyond the Philadelphia connection, the creation of the Barnes mural pushed him into a decade of extremely interesting and ceaseless experimentation in his art. He kept testing himself even after he broke through that he had succeeded in finding a new path to lay new foundations for his art. He never stopped self-questioning and produced a decade of innovative work, and that we thought was worth it.”
Affron said the selection of works for this exhibition presented the classic Matisse — the lover of color and light — but also a free, intrepid, and experimental Matisse. A Matisse unafraid to try and play with different artistic media. A Matisse that few knew: the master of drawing.
"His drawings, especially in the 30s, were central to his way of pushing ahead the way he's thinking about his art. That was one of the revelations of our exhibition. And what it means is that this is an artist who is too complex to boil down to just one simple idea," added the curator.
That same creative freedom that inspired Matisse also inspired a group of five contemporary Philadelphia artists commissioned to create five murals in five weeks, taking the "Matisse in the 1930s" exhibition as their starting point. Kathleen Eastwood-Riaño, Lauren Whearty, Buy Shaver, Sierra Montoya Varela, and Raymond Saá were the artists selected through a collaboration between PMoA and Mural Arts.
Of the five artists selected, two spoke with AL DÍA about the importance of Matisse in their careers and experiences as artists of Latin American origin.
Raymond Saá: The Song
When artist Raymond Saá was just learning to draw in his student years, he always sought inspiration from Matisse's paintings. Thus, he continued through time and traced each of Matisse's artistic facets, with papercut being the most recent technique with which Raymond most identifies.
"I've been growing up with Matisse my whole life. Matisse is a huge inspiration," he confessed.
In preparation for his mural, located at 321 South St, Saá was inspired by Le Chant, a fireplace mural created by Matisse in 1938 under the commission of Nelson Rockefeller. Upon seeing the work again at PMoA, Saá was drawn to the shades of green, pink, red, and especially black.
Through stitching colorful paper patterns and placing black as the background of the piece, as Matisse did in Le Chant, Saá achieved a creative version of the work, which he called, The Song.
For Saá, the technique of sewing has a very special place in his art. As he recalls, he grew up watching his mother, who emigrated from Cuba to the city of Miami, working on her sewing machine on the kitchen table.
"Some of my earliest memories are like laying my mom's feet with her foot on the pedal of a sewing machine. Sewing it kind of brings me close to my mom," he said.
Saá is completely convinced that he inherited his love of the arts from his mom, with whom he visited museums, galleries, and outdoor exhibits from an early age. One of the art shows they enjoyed most was the famous "Surrounded Islands Biscayne Bay," a 1983 project in Miami's Biscayne Bay that involved unfurling 6.5 million square feet of floating pink fabric. Raymond and his mom volunteered during the installation of the "pink islands" in the 1980s.
During his early years as a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Saá always took advantage of the free bus ride to the Philadelphia Museum of Arts. Every semester, he took the same trip to get inspired by the greatest artists, specifically the French painter Marcel Duchamp. What he never thought was that 18 years later, he would be collaborating with the museum he visited so often.
"The opportunity to do a project with the museum [PMoA] is just unbelievable," assured Saá.
Currently, the artist is noted for his collage and papercut art. As recently as April of this year, the artist closed his exhibition "Tin Tin Deo" at Pentimenti Gallery. The name of the exhibition was inspired by a song that rose to stardom in 1951 under Afro-Cuban jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
Saá was born in New Orleans but spent his entire upbringing and adult life in Miami. He now lives in New Jersey with his wife and son, where he also teaches art. The artist earned an M.F.A. from Parsons, New York, and studied at the New World School of Arts in Miami and the Kunstakademie, Germany.
Sierra Montoya Barela: Sunday Morning
The first painting artist Sierra Montoya Barela did was with her maternal grandfather when she was just a child. She still doesn't forget that together they painted a landscape of New Mexico, where her family is from.
"I was always raised to be very proud of where my family comes from and my heritage," Sierra shared.
However, her grandpa was not a painter. Although he did enjoy art in his spare time, Sierra's grandfather worked ten years as a miner in Idarado Mine, Colorado. This dangerous mine was a significant employer in the area in the post-World War II years and operated at limited capacity until 1979.
"My grandpa always liked doing woodworking, painting, carving into leather, and all kinds of crafts. But it was for fun because he was working in the mines, which is a really hard laborer's work," she said.
Over time, and with the support of an arts-loving family, Sierra pursued her passion to become a recognized artist in Philadelphia — where she has lived for the past four years — and internationally. Her focus is painting, ceramics, and interior design.
Like Saá, Matisse's work is a key part of Sierra's career as an artist.
"I have always loved Matisse's work. He is one of the great painters of all time," she said.
As soon as she received the invitation from PMoA and Mural Arts to create the mural located at 749 S 4th St — Sierra went about devising the piece using the color palette Matisse used in his paintings as inspiration. Bright colors such as yellow, blue, green, and red bring life to the mural, which she called Sunday Morning.
In addition to drawing inspiration from Matisse during the 1930s, Sierra experimented with her own style, adding personal elements that distinguish her as an artist. From this creative mix, Sierra painted the potted plant, the cut lemon, the gridded tablecloth, and the plate of pancakes served on the table. The piece represents the ideal breakfast everyone would like to have on an early Sunday morning when the pace of the day is slower and tranquility stands out.
"Sunday Morning feels like you have the time to eat breakfast and sit down with family or whoever. I think this is an idyllic breakfast. For me, Sunday Morning feels like the scene you think of when you're plotting, like a TV show, and they're going to have breakfast on a Sunday morning," Sierra explained.
Sierra was born in Denver, Colorado, and works as a product designer for Urban Outfitters. In 2015, she earned a BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Matisse is going around the world
After “Matisse in the 1930s” was presented from Oct. 19 to Jan. 29, 2023, in Philadelphia, the exhibition moved to the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris, where it will remain until May 29. The exhibition will then travel to the Musée de Matisse in Nice from June 23 to Sept. 24.