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French Realist painter Edgar Degas once commented that ‘drawing is not what you see but what you must make others see.’ This statement may have held true for Degas, but it is certainly accurate of the drawings of Henri Matisse. Though he is known primarily for the cut-outs produced later in his life, Matisse produced a wealth of drawings in a variety of formats. These drawings, despite being the most stylistically simplistic of his works, exhibit as much nuance and artistry as his fully realised paintings and deserve their own share of Matisse’s spotlight.


What really underlies my interest in sketches and drawings is the counterbalancing of simplicity and complexity. The drawings, such as those above, are almost achingly simple in their construction. ‘Tête, Marie José’, left, is especially fascinating to me because of the brush visibly running out of paint. Because of this, you can trace the direction and perhaps even the order of strokes, bringing the viewer that little bit closer into the process. It is rushed and quick and feels fundamentally cursory, but the image is not abstract or devoid of meaning. The artist has plucked out details he deems to be important to the composition, though nothing more. By examining the very contents of the drawing, we can gain insight into what the artist prioritised and considered primary in transcribing what he could see.

What is apparent from Matisse himself is that they are not intended to be entirely fulfilled visions. With regards to his drawings, he once commented that ‘I have always considered drawing not as an exercise of particular dexterity […] but as a means deliberately simplified so as to give simplicity and spontaneity to the expression, which should speak without clumsiness, directly to the mind of the spectator’ (via henri-matisse.net). This shows that, in the artist’s mind, these drawings were the most direct and uninhibited mode by which to convey an image to a spectator whilst retaining the essence of the artist’s own perception.

A valuable example of this in Matisse’s work is his drawings of Nadia Sednaoui. In the summer of 1948, she agreed to sit for him in a series of works completed in charcoal and ink [source]. Here is her photograph and a couple of Matisse’s studies of her:


It has been reported that Nadia and her mother saw very little likeness between Nadia and the drawings, which apparently delighted Matisse immensely [source]. Though it can be argued that these drawings are not entirely faithful to her likeness, nor consistent in their portrayal, it is clear that this fidelity may not have been the aim of the works. Instead, lucidity of artistic expression may have been held at paramount importance in the process.

This is what I find so compelling about preliminary sketches and loosely-styled drawings; the artist is less constrained by form as they are in painting or in any other format requiring more refinement of technique. Instead, the very base level of expression is shown, presenting the bare bones of the artist’s style and perception without the fleshing-out. In other words, this is the crux of their message. I like to think of it as an x-ray of the elaborated works; this is foundation upon which they build and expand.

As with any preliminary work, Matisse produced multiple studies of the same subject from a range of perspectives. Almost any photo taken of one of Matisse’s many studios shows collections of series pinned onto the wall next to each other, almost like a high-art spot the difference. It is evident from this that the drawings were as much about style as they were presenting an uninhibited image of expression.

matisse studio - the-swimming-pool-01

Matisse’s dining room at the Hôtel Régina, Nice, 1952. Photo: Lydia Delectorskaya. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse

In the case of Matisse, his experimentation with cut-outs later in his life (below) tends to overshadow his other works. In a similar way to his drawing, they represent a vision. They highlight the role of the artist as an conduit, a middle-man, between the real world and the viewer, showing them different ways of seeing the world around them. Although his drawings represent his simplest and loosest manner of working, when examined thoroughly they can prove to be the most vital of all his output, in every sense of the word.


What do you think of Matisse’s drawings, or modern art in general? Love it or hate it? Let me know in the comments!

Bella x