A new aspect of AboutTown

Today we introduce a new beginning - a new thread on this blog that we're calling "Innocent Bystander," in which Portland Phoenix art reviewer Ken Greenleaf will muse on various aspects of the local art scene and, as in this entry, meditate more deeply on particular aspects.

On the painting Pont St. Michel by Henri Matisse at the Portland Museum of Art

By Ken Greenleaf

Not long ago I was at the Portland Museum of Art in the upper galleries. I had spent some time looking at Matisse’s rough little early painting  Pont St. Michel, from about 1901, and had moved on to others when I overheard a conversation about the painting. “I think it would be better if we could get farther away from it,” said one of the viewers. As it happened, it was hanging in narrow space and there was no question of getting any distance.

That painting is a special favorite of mine. It is a little rough looking, to be sure, but it’s good to consider its times. Before he painted this in 1900 or 1901 Matisse had been studying at first with Bouguereau and then with Moreau for some six years and was considered to be one of Moreau’s rising stars. He had an earth-tone palette and careful attention to detail. His habit had been to go to the Louvre and copy difficult paintings to develop his technique. One summer, though, he went to Belle-Ile in Brittany and fell in with the colorful and well-off Australian painter John Peter Russell, who had been a friend and admirer of Van Gogh and who loved the paintings  of Monet. 

Matisse was converted. He began using primary colors, hanging out with Pissarro, and looking at Monet. His friends thought he was crazy, his girl-friend left him, his family despaired of him, he gave up his chance to show in the prestigious salons, lived in penury and worked single-mindedly toward some unknown goal. By 1900 he had married, visited and painted in the bright light of Corsica, seen Turner paintings in London, and had pawned a piece of his new wife’s jewelry to put a down payment on a small Cézanne painting. When Pont St. Michel was painted he still had four of five years of artistic and financial difficulties ahead of him. A few people had faith in his work, but mostly the public and critics scoffed at it or questioned it, not unlike the folks who I overheard recently in Portland.

Those people were respectful, though, knowing what Matisse became. He was on his way to painting ‘The Red Studio’ and ‘The Piano Lesson’  and the other great landmarks of 20th century art, and we have the benefit of hindsight when we encounter this difficult  little picture. It’s a waypoint in Matisse’s difficult struggle to make something that was truly new and truly his own, and that changed the way we experience art.

We can look at it up close just fine.

I am indebted to ‘The Unknown Matisse,’ the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s wonderful two-volume biography for these illuminating details.

_by Ken Greenleaf
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