When Henri met Albert: A tale of two museums

Matisse and Barnes: A tale of two museums

6 minute read
Barnes displayed Matisse's 'La Danse' (detail above) in 1932, then gratuitously dissed it.
Barnes displayed Matisse's 'La Danse' (detail above) in 1932, then gratuitously dissed it.
Nice, France

Think the Barnes Foundation. For a devotee of Henri Matisse (1868-1954), that shrine to Impressionism in Philadelphia comes readily to mind when I visit the artist's eponymously named museum here. In many ways, the Musée Matisse, founded in 1963 with donations by Matisse's family and with works earmarked by the artist himself, could well be considered a book-end to Albert C. Barnes's more inclusive pantheon of modern art greats.

On one hand is the Philadelphia-based museum, the world's finest one-stop bully pulpit of Impressionism, an amalgam of an elite cadre from Cezanne (69 works), Modigliani (16), period Picasso (46) to Matisse himself (59), who was an erstwhile associate of the insatiable American collector. On the other is Matisse's equally single-minded effort here, showcasing the early-20th-Century genre, filtered through Matisse's own unrivaled lens of sharply focused color, light and line. The result: A rich, solipsistic journey through the artist's lifespan.

Both museums, finally, are construed as houses of worship (though in keeping with more conventional religious practice, admission to the Matisse chapel here is free, funded by the French state, the city of Nice and by private donations).

Provincial villas

Some comparisons are superficially interesting. Both galleries are located in provincial capitals. The Matisse Museum is located in Nice's Cimiez neighborhood, an affluent residential area in the hills overlooking this otherwise Cote d'Azur resort city. Until its recent relocation to Philadelphia's downtown (due to open early next year), the Barnes was even more remote, fixed in its original home in suburban Merion, Pa.

In addition, both museums are located in villas, more like private homes of grandees than public spaces for artistic treasures. The Matisse, at least, still is— housed in the Villa des Arènes, a 17th-Century home of local plutocrats. Its setting is bucolic, set among Roman ruins and a 17th-Century Franciscan monastery. The Barnes Foundation's original museum collection filled a Merion villa designed by Paul Cret and attached to Dr. Barnes's living quarters.

Significantly, both the Matisse Museum and the original Barnes were conceptually crafted as singular private domains. The Barnes, of course, was driven by the vexing but brilliant vision of its namesake, the fabulously wealthy patent medicine inventor. Matisse himself, his widow, Amélie Matisse-Parayre, and their children were instrumental in creating their family memorial here. The museum includes, on two floors, scores of works in oils, engravings and decoupages. (Happily, it excludes all the crazy-quilt presentation gimmicks that Barnes favored).

Philadelphia, en route to Tahiti

That said, an even greater twinning— an almost co-sanguine bloodline— between the two institutions can be argued, given Matisse's professional and personal relationship with the irascible Barnes and the artist's intimate knowledge of the Barnes venue in Merion. Enter son Pierre Matisse.

In 1930, Pierre was operating an art gallery in New York. Father Henri, en route to Tahiti (in search of sunlight for his palette and inspiration for his métier), stopped by. Matisse was on another mission as well, as a judge at the prestigious Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh.

That second journey providently involved a side trip to the Barnes Foundation, where Matisse was welcomed with open arms by Dr. Barnes in full flower and at his vitriolic best. (Barnes attempted to sabotage a lunch date that Matisse had with a Philadelphia grande dame on the same day of their meeting. Barnes hated all grande dames. Actually, he hated anything grande).

Although their meeting was truncated (Matisse, in the end, was hauled off to the swank luncheon after all), the artist and collector hit it off. Barnes spoke fluent French. No intermediaries were necessary.

Mural commissioned

Their liaison was also fortuitous in that Barnes on the spot commissioned his new associate (the megalomaniacal Barnes would probably think of him simply as a minion) to contribute a mural to the museum's courtyard. The result, of course, was the iconic La Danse. (Early studies are on display here in Nice).

The languid La Danse, an archetype of Matisse's interpretation of line and figure, actually comes in two completed versions. The first is at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. That's the one that couldn't fit the dedicated wall space in Cret's villa in Merion.

Instead of tinkering with this work, Matisse just created another. Well, not just. The effort was time-consuming and arduous. In keeping with his character, Barnes had no sympathy for the artist, though Matisse readily admitted that the error in measuring was his alone.

One more thing: Though he allowed the masterwork to be installed, Barnes cattily made it known that he actually didn't like La Danse.

Barnes's judgment on Matisse

This rejection of Matisse's mural, so soon after its installation, was at best odd. (OK, not for Barnes). Only a few years later, in 1933, Barnes and his putative mistress, Violette De Mazia, wrote what may still stand as the most definitive (and seemingly sympathetic) treatise of Matisse and his oeuvre.

Despite the authors' apparent good will toward Matisse, their 500-page book, The Art of Henri Matisse, published by the Barnes Foundation Press, often serves more as a paperweight than a readable analysis. (On doctor's orders, bite-sized samples are recommended). La Danse is never mentioned in the book. Ouch!

Barnes' dissing of Matisse was probably for the best, since it allowed the artist to escape the toxic atmosphere that Barnes had created in correct art circles in Philadelphia and New York. (Barnes had no shame. In the 1940s, he hired, then fired, the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell as a foundation instructor. Russell sued the litigious Barnes for breach of contract, and won).

Glories of Nice

Nice, not surprisingly, was a more agreeable venue. Matisse moved here in 1916, and, for the most part, was a resident ever since. He came in search of light, a warming glow that still washes over the azure-colored ocean of the Baie d'Anges and the Promenade des Anglais.

In a sense, Nice is more than simply a museum Mecca. The city is more like a Matisse mosaic, a patch-quilt of his former residences, all of which still stand: From the Hotel Beau Rivage on the Avenue des Etats-Unis, overlooking the Mediterranean; to 1 Place Charles-Felix, where Matisse installed new windows in his top-floor studio. The artist never lived at Villa des Arènes. From 1938 he lived nearby at the still-elegant Le Regina, a former hotel that had been converted into apartments. (They still are).

Two men, two memorials

In 1954, Matisse, 85 years old, died and was buried in a secluded spot in the Cimiez cemetery not far from his museum. His widow, Amélie, joined in him in the sepulcher in 1958.

The horizontal stone slab is modest, citing only the Matisses' names and birth and death dates. On top are numerous commemorative doodads, pinecones, stones and memorial messages. I left mine.

Appropriately enough, Barnes has no memorial— other than his museum, of course. The only official recognition of his death was the flag draping of a suburban Philadelphia firehouse. His body was cremated.♦

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