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11.

The North and South Poles of Modern Art: Picasso and Matisse

In spring 1906, Matisse was exhibiting at both the Salon des Indépendants and the Galerie Druet in the Faubourg St-Honoré. One of the more enterprising and inspiring dealers, Druet had run a popular bistro (patronized, among others, by Rodin) before setting up as an artist’s photographer and instituting the ‘Druet process’, the production of large, handsome photographs taken to record an artist’s paintings. Matisse’s one-man show at Druet’s opened on 19 March, the day before the vernissage of the 1906 Salon des Indépendants. Larger than his earlier show at Vollard’s, it included some sixty works from the past decade but, despite the placard of brightly coloured sailing boats he had painted for Druet’s window to advertise the exhibition, it attracted little attention, its only reviewer warning the public against this ‘meretricious showman’. Druet took the long view, investing 2,000 francs in a stock of Matisse’s latest work. Vollard promptly followed, purchasing work for a total of 2,200 francs.

To the 1906 Salon des Indépendants, Matisse had submitted only one painting, La Joie de vivre, the large Arcadian work painted in Collioure he had not been ready to exhibit in 1905. With this painting, he caused a sensation. Nothing quite like it had been seen since Vollard had exhibited Cézanne’s Three Bathers (one variant of which Matisse had purchased in 1899). Signac had already seen La Joie de vivre (in January) and delivered his own verdict – Matisse had clearly ‘gone to the dogs’. To him, the painting demonstrated nothing so much as Matisse’s effective break with divisionism. In fact, the new painting clearly revealed the extent of his technical innovation, signalling his definitive departure from the conventions of illustrative art and a bold move towards abstraction. Though, at this point in his life, Matisse showed no particular interest in the theatre, one distinctive feature of the painting is its resemblance to a stage set, consisting of ‘multicoloured flats arching over a vista of yellow ground to a backdrop of horizontal blue sea and violet pink sky’. The figures are posed like dancers, composed in groups that look choreographed.

Relatively new to the Parisian art scene was the wealthy Russian collector Sergei Shchukin. In Moscow, he lived in the grand Palais Trubetskoy, where the walls were lined with works of art. He had been collecting modern art for eight years, starting with the Impressionists; first Monet and Renoir, then van Gogh. More recently, he had acquired works by Gauguin, which, had he displayed them, would have shocked his associates in Russia, so he kept them discreetly out of sight. He had noticed Matisse’s work when he first came to Paris and, by 1906, already owned a few of his paintings. He had seen the show at the Galerie Druet by the time he saw La joie de vivre at the Salon des Indépendants and asked Ambroise Vollard to introduce him to the artist. During the next decade, Shchukin was to become not only Matisse’s main financial backer but also a friend whose ambitious artistic taste and judgement he trusted and came to rely on. That relationship would soon bear fruit; in the meantime, however, it was not Shchukin but Leo Stein who purchased the painting.

Perhaps Shchukin’s appearance on the scene – or, equally likely, the Steins’ – had been responsible for Vollard’s major acquisition of 1906. He had always particularly admired the eye-catching colours and bold lines of Derain’s and Vlaminck’s landscapes of the borders of the Seine. A new generation of painters was rapidly emerging and, alongside them, some powerful new buyers. Though always careful, Vollard realized he needed to stay active in the face of emerging competition. He had been daring in acquiringImpressionist works when there was little interest in them, and successful with the works of Bonnard, Vuillard and Maurice Denis by ignoring those who had advised him to be cautious. More recently, he had been equally successful with van Gogh and Cézanne. Among the new young painters now beginning to emerge, there were bound to be new prospects, and he was prepared to take the occasional gamble. In February, he visited Vlaminck again, this time at his home in the village of Rueuil, where the artist had moved with his family, who welcomed Vollard and made a place for him at their table. He accepted the offer of a cigarette, as did Vlaminck’s little daughter, who lit up, coughed, took a deep breath, then another drag.

‘How old are you?’ Vollard asked her.

‘Seven.’

‘And you’re already smoking?

She turned aside. ‘What’s it got to do with you, you old geezer?’

Her father seemed delighted.

Vollard selected forty-eight works, for which he paid Vlaminck twelve hundred francs, and promised to purchase everything he subsequently produced. He then went to Chatou to visit Derain, where he bought the entire contents of his studio, again with the exception of the one work which Derain insisted on keeping: the copy of the painting by Ghirlandaio he had made in the Louvre, in his student days. On the proceeds, Derain was able to spend the entire summer in the Midi, including a period in L’Estaque, where Cézanne had worked. For Vlaminck, in particular, the sale of his works was life-changing. He immediately left the house where he had been living and set up home – by himself, for a while – in the bois de la Jonchère, in the middle of the forest. Though he kept his local pupils, he resolved to have as little as possible from now on to do with other painters, ‘frightened of any revelations and hints which might have made me doubt the value of my painting; it would have been too distressing to find that, after all, I might have made a mistake’. He seldom went to exhibitions, feeling exposed by seeing his own work on display. He spent the rest of the year painting landscapes throughout the valley of the Seine, liberated from worry for the first time in his adult life, enjoying, at least from an artistic point of view, ‘undoubtedly the happiest and most fruitful period of his whole career’.

Finally, in spring 1906 came the long-anticipated meeting of Picasso and Matisse. They were introduced by the Steins, who took Matisse and his daughter, Marguerite, now aged ten, up to the Bateau-Lavoir to see the portrait of Gertrude. As they made their way up the hillside through the lanes of Montmartre, people stopped to stare at the curious-looking group: the tall, lanky, golden-haired brother and his stout, bohemian-looking sister, both dressed in brown corduroy and wearing the distinctive, ‘Grecian’ leather sandals they now wore all the time, designed by Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond and inspired by a frieze on a Grecian vase in the British Museum. Matisse was, of course, no stranger in Montmartre. His nickname around the rue Laffitte was ‘the doctor’ because of his gold-rimmed spectacles and the frock coat and neat cravat Amélie insisted he always wear in town. In Montmartre, he was not a popular figure. Since his success at the previous Salon d’Automne, posters warning artists of the hazardous effects of lead paint had been defaced by graffiti and now warned against the effects of Matisse – the work, it was assumed, of one of the Picasso bande. (André Salmon vehemently denied this.) At the Bateau-Lavoir, the visitors were received by Picasso, Fernande and a very large dog.

Fernande’s first impression was that there was ‘something very pleasing about Matisse . . . he really looked like a grand old man of art’. She guessed his age at forty-five (she was adding ten years). She thought he seemed to be hiding behind his thick spectacles, and that although he talked incessantly he gave nothing away. He was dauntingly articulate, exuding self-assurance as he spoke persuasively about his work. She felt herself in the presence of an astonishingly lucid mind, ‘precise, concise and intelligent’. She also suspected he was probably ‘a good deal less simple than he liked to appear’. She realized that he and Picasso were already being pitched against each other as the two most promising painters of the time. Whether or not (as Picasso later claimed) both knew this from the start, Leo encouraged them to think so, although in Fernande’s private opinion neither of them was actually the best painter in the Fauves style. She reserved that particular accolade for Derain, who, as she recalled it, had been the first to earn the soubriquet from Vauxcelles. As for what Picasso thought, ‘Matisse talks and talks,’ he told Leo. ‘I can’t talk, so I just said oui, oui, oui . . .’ As personalities, they had nothing in common, as Matisse quickly discerned. ‘As different as the North Pole is from the South Pole,’ he would say, when talking about the two of them.

Shortly after the openings of both the Druet and the Indépendants shows, Matisse left Paris for his first ever visit to North Africa, dropping off his luggage in Collioure (in anticipation of his return) and his family in Perpignan before travelling on to Algiers. On the way back, he broke his journey at Marseilles to visit an exhibition of tribal artefacts from the French colonies before returning to Collioure for the remainder of spring and summer. While he was there, his work was shown (in May) with the Modern Art Circle of Le Havre, newly founded by Charles Braque, father of Georges. In Collioure that summer, Matisse painted three new portraits, a self-portrait of himself in striped mariner’s jersey (Autoportrait, 1906, Collioure) and a portrait in two variants of a local boy, a work he called The Young Sailor. One of these, with oval head and almond-shaped eyes, could have been a caricature portrait of Picasso. The other, with a more square-shaped jaw and black curly hair, bore a passing resemblance to Georges Braque.

In April, Michael and Sarah Stein travelled to San Francisco, where they still had property, following the devastating earthquake of 18 April. They took with them two canvases by Matisse. This would be the first time his works had been seen in America. Matisse’s work struck the Steins’ fellow citizens, no less than his own fellow Frenchmen, as ‘gross, mad, monstrous products of a diseased imagination’, reactions which did nothing to deter Sarah Stein. Later that year, she purchased the portrait of Madame Matisse entitled The Green Line, La Gitane and other works exhibited at Druet’s, together with at least four more works by Matisse. When she departed for America in April 1906, she left her other significant new purchase behind for safe keeping at 27, rue de Fleurus – the seven-feet-high painting by Picasso from his Rose Period, Boy Leading a Horse, which Vollard had dismissed as worthless.

Sometime during 1906, Picasso painted Leo Stein’s portrait, depicting him, in the style of Goya and using his new palette of earth colours, as a venerable old man with sparkling eyes and a long, golden beard. Portrait of Leo Stein was among the last works in the style to which Leo, Vollard and Fernande all longed for him to return. That April, Vollard paid an unexpected visit to the Bateau-Lavoir. He gave Picasso two thousand francs in exchange for virtually his entire output of recent work.

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