WHITTIER — The first thing visitors see when they enter the just-opened Henri Matisse exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is black-and-white film of the master drawing his grandson’s portrait.
It’s hardly the main attraction of “Matisse: Masterworks from The Baltimore Museum of Art” — that is certainly the vibrantly colored canvases in the galleries beyond, shown here alongside the artist’s sculptures, prints and drawings, most of them collected over the course of four decades by sisters Claribel and Etta Cone. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to watch the film, an excerpt from François Campaux’s 1946 documentary.
Sitting almost knee-to-knee with his subject, Matisse glances back and forth between the boy’s face and a sheet of paper clamped to an easel. Holding a long piece of charcoal in his fingers, Matisse executes a quick, sketchy portrait, refining the details of his grandson’s hair and jacket collar as he goes.
The film cuts and suddenly there’s a blank sheet of paper in front of Matisse again. His chalk is worn down to nub. In this version, the portrait is reduced to its essentials: an arch for an eyebrow, an “L” for a nose and a single chalk line, drawn without pause, that starts at top of the boy’s head, curves underneath his chin and ends with a parenthesis describing the boy’s left ear.
Combine that fluid, elegant line with a vivacious sense of color and you have one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. The Cone sisters from Baltimore recognized that early on.
The sisters came from large German-Jewish immigrant family that earned its wealth in the grocery business and later expanded that fortune in the textile industry. (High-end denim aficionados will have heard of North Carolina’s Cone Denim, founded in 1891 by the two eldest Cone children, brothers Moses and Ceasar.) Claribel and Etta lived comfortably, regularly traveling to Europe where they purchased the art that decorated their Baltimore apartments.
They’d met and befriended the author Gertrude Stein, then a medical student, in Baltimore, and later visited Stein and her brothers Michael and Leo in Paris. The Stein trio provided Claribel and Etta an education in modern art, and in 1906 they introduced Etta to Matisse.
While they both admired his work, Etta was the more fervent collector, and she continued to build the collection after Claribel died in 1929. Etta lived another two decades, donating her entire 3,000-piece collection, including more than 500 artworks by Matisse, to The Baltimore Museum of Art.
When they first met Matisse, a gentlemanly Frenchman who kept his beard neat and dressed in three-piece suits, the artist was working through the influence of the Impressionist painters he admired, like Cézanne and Gauguin. His use of bright, unnatural colors to convey emotion in his paintings put him at the forefront of the short-lived Fauvist movement.
In these selections from the Cone collection, we glimpse Matisse’s work from just a few years earlier, around 1900, and the shift in his carefully composed still-life paintings from muted, natural tones to the more vivid colors preferred by the Fauves. There are several small bronze sculptures from this period, as well, and they show Matisse translating his fluid line into three dimensions. As lively as his drawings, the rough-looking sculptures are like studies; he captures the sinuous line of a woman’s tilted hips, but leaves her withered arm unfinished.
This is all a prelude to Matisse’s work in the ’20s and ’30s, when his work became increasingly popular among collectors. The Cone sisters snapped up many of his nudes posed in fantasy Middle Eastern or North African settings, soothing and sensual pictorial environments that freed him to experiment with color and patterning.
These are beguiling paintings, often of interior spaces decorated in riotously patterned textiles, tiled floors and Eastern props. Instead of a space depicted with realistic depth, we get a flattened picture plane where texture, color and silhouetted forms all compete for attention.
One of the highlights of the show, “Large Reclining Nude,” combines all of those elements into a visual jazz solo of syncopated colors and patterns. The pink, curving limbs of Mattise’s statuesque model are contrasted against the blue-and-white windowpane pattern of the chaise lounge on which she’s reclining.
It was hardly an improvisation: Matisse documented its six-month evolution in photographs he sent to Etta Cone that show it moving steadily away from realism and toward abstraction. Intensely reworked, the final version somehow remains vivid and alive.
Less than a year after it was finished, the painting was en route to Baltimore. Etta couldn’t resist.
Matisse: Masterworks from The Baltimore Museum of Art
WHEN: Through May 18
WHERE: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Ave. S.
INFO: artsmia.org, 870-3000