This is a virtual facsimile of a joint publication by HARRY N. ABRAMS, INC. in association with POCKET BOOKS, INC., published in the POCKET LIBRARY OF GREAT ART, New York, 1953. Second hand copies are available on the net through a variety of booksellers. is a good search source. I have included most of the reproductions, omitting only a few of the black and white images which exist without comment at the end of the book. The book is important for a number of reasons, among them the fact that Matisse wasn't as highly regarded as Picasso at the time of writing, but was held in high regard by Greenberg, himself. It also contains Greenberg's accounts of individual paintings, something rare in Greenberg's ouvre, as are reproductions of artists' work. Greenberg distrusted reproductions for all he good reasons.

When possible, I've added more accurate images than the originals, but color reproductions now as then often bear little relation to the original works of art. If anything, this is complicated on internet image banks where new distortions are added in scans taken from book illustrations. Accuracy is too often sacrificed for brilliance. Whenever possible, consult the original.

-- Terry Fenton



Plate 1. Self Portrait, 1919. Oil.

(1869-    )


text by



Plate 2. STUDY OF A WOMAN, 1936. INK.

HENRI EMILE BENOIT MATISSE was born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis in northern France on December 31, 1869, the elder of two sons, and grew up in the nearby town of Bohain-en-Vermandois. Intended for the law and eventually his father's grain business, he went to high school in St. Quentin, then to the University in Paris, returning afterwards to St. Quentin to clerk in a law office. Though bored by the law, he felt no particular inclination for anything else. While in Paris, he tells us, he had "had no desire to visit any of the great museums, or even the annual salons of painting."

Then, in his twentieth year, after an attack of appendicitis and during "a fairly long convalescence spent in Bohain, on the advice of a neighbor and following his example, I copied the chromo models (colored reproductions) in a box of paints my mother bought me. My work, already pretty remarkable, must have contained something of my emotion." Matisse had found his calling. Frightened a little, he says, by the thought that it was too late to turn back from art now, he "plunged into work 'head down' on the principle I had heard all my young life expressed in the words 'Hurry up!' Like my parents, I hurried to work, pushed by I know not what, by a force I am aware of today as alien to my life as a normal man."

At twenty-two Matisse went back to Paris to study painting. Four years of enlightened academic training brought him the beginnings of conventional success. But in 1896, while on a painting trip with another young artist, he was struck by how much more light his companion got into a picture by use of Impressionist color than he could with his old master's palette. In another few months he had joined the avant-garde; and by 1900 he had become, thanks to a capacity to reflect on his art and draw conclusions from his own doubts and hesitancies, leader of the most adventurous of the younger painters in Paris.

Plate 3. STUDY OF A NUDE, 1953. Ink.

When they showed together at the Salon d'Automne in 1905 their shrill color scandalized the public, and Matisse became notorious overnight as the apostle of "extremism" in art. His group, more important perhaps for what they opened up at that time than for what they finished, has gone down in history as the "Fauves," or Wild Beasts.

In 1898 Matisse had married Amelie Payayre of Toulouse and by 1902 he was father of two boys and a girl. Money remained for some years a problem only partly solved by the little millinery shop his wife ran. A first one-man show in the gallery of the famous Ambroise Vollard in June, 1904 had brought neither sales nor attention, but after the 1905 Autumn Salon his fortunes began to pick up, and by 1908 he was fairly comfortable. Like Picasso, however, he had to wait until the boom in modern art in the 1920s to become a rich man.

Plate 4. STUDY OF A NUDE. 1936. Ink.

* * *

The story of modern painting is not that of a flight as such from the imitation of nature, but rather of the growing rejection of an illusion of the third dimension. Matisse's responsibility in this has been greater probably than any one other artist's, yet none has tried harder to save this very same illusion.

The old masters had shaded with many gradations of dark and light to make their forms look solid, which gave their pictures a predominantly gray, brown, or blackish cast. Manet, in the 1860s, wanting to enhance black and gray as colors in their own right, skipped many of the customary gradations of shading, thus sharpening the contrasts between dark and light, and shape and shape. Color, no longer muffled under so many neutral tones, came through more flatly and vividly. This gave the Impressionists their cue. They saw prismatic colors in shadows as well as in lighted areas, and rendered them with dabs of raw color. These well-nigh excluded dark and light effects. But whereas Manet had weakened the illusion of depth and solidity by abrupt contrasts, the Impressionists did so by extremely blurred ones. Cézanne, seeking to restore this illusion, divided every form into flattish planes which he shaded with bright Impressionist color used according to "warmth" and "coolness" ("warm" hues like red, orange, yellow seem to come forward; "cool" ones like blue, violet, green, to recede); but this method only made depth and solidity more ambiguous.

Plate 5. TAHITIAN LANDSCAPE. 1935. Ink.

Flatness calls attention to surface pattern and the other decorative, or abstract, aspects of painting. In these Gauguin and Van Gogh saw a way of expressing emotion with greater immediacy. And so they exaggerated the brightness of their colors, simplified and distorted their drawing, and in general stressed the surface pattern at the expense of a realistic illusion of depth. Though Matisse owes more in the long run to Cézanne than to these two artists, it was their example which persuaded him that art need no longer be a faithful rendering of nature. Nature was still the stimulus, but the main object now was to state the intensity of the artist's response to it as directly as possible. Directness was achieved by brilliant color contrasts and an emphatic pattern whose effect did not depend so much on resemblance to the model as on a sensuous appeal to the eye, like that of ornament or decoration.


By saturations of the in tensest and flattest color, Matisse has given the decorative impact of the picture surface a force it never had before. Yet he has also tried to retain at least a minimum of the three-dimensional illusion, for he wants to keep some contact with the appearance of nature. Unlike Cézanne, he does not try to reconcile these conflicting aims in each painting, but alternates from phase to phase, or even from picture to picture, between a flat and a more realistic approach (as the separate comments to follow on the color plates will try to make clear in more detail). This may account in part for the unrounded, fragmented, almost disjointed impression made by the total body of Matisse's work.

Plate 7. SEATED MODEL. 1939. Charcoal.

But more fundamentally, it is because Matisse has never been able to come to rest in any one solution, no matter how successful, to the problems of flat painting. In this constant questioning of his own work -- which has gone on just as much during periods of supposed relaxation -- we recognize the type of the great modern artist. That Matisse strove for serenity and at times condescended to elegance and erotic charm ought not deceive us as to the doubts underneath -- or as to the frequent loftiness of the results.

Plate 8. DOOR TO THE CONFESSIONAL. 1951. Carved wood
Chapel of the Rosary, Vence.