Matisse & Picasso

As a new exhibition makes clear, these friends and rivals spurred each other to change the course of 20th-century art

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Matisse, who often painted goldfish, was later described by a fellow student in Paris art classes of 1900 as seeing like a goldfish “who takes intense delight in the rainbow colors and forms visible through the distorting globe of his glass bowl, and who, if he could paint, would depict them without worrying about what they actually represent.” Picasso, on the other hand, insisted that he was painting directly from nature. “I always aim at the resemblance,” he told his friend the photographer Brassaï. In each case, the quotes are misleading yet true, because both artists were full of inconsistencies, and always ready to change what they—or other artists—had done before.


The two painters were well versed in the art of the past, and both were seeking ways to escape its influence when they met circa 1906. The meeting was arranged by the American avant-garde writer and expatriate Gertrude Stein, who, with her brother Leo, had daringly begun collecting Matisse’s new paintings when almost everyone else in Paris was laughing at them. As a writer, Stein was rearranging English syntax into new forms that seemed an outrage to all good sense. No wonder she loved Matisse’s defiantly crude figures and wild colors, affronting the canons of beauty and sensibility.


When the Steins first visited Picasso’s studio, they purchased 800 francs’ (roughly $3,000 today) worth of paintings—a huge sum for a painter who had burned his own drawings to keep warm in 1902 and was not much better off when the Steins showed up in 1905. Although Matisse’s and Picasso’s works were exhibited together in a small gallery in 1902, they had apparently not met. The Steins took Matisse to Picasso’s studio and invited both painters to their weekly salons. There the two artists could see each other’s paintings on the walls, among the Cézannes.


At the time Matisse and Picasso met, they seemed to have little in common. They were as different, said Matisse, as the North and South Poles. Matisse was born in a northern district of French Flanders in 1869, into a family and region steeped in the weaving of brightly colored textiles. He had gone to Paris to study law, later taking up painting on the sly, attending art classes before and after a day’s work as a law clerk. He was 22 years old when he determined to become an artist, ready to copy the old masters in the Louvre and keener still to capture Parisian life on paper and canvas.


Picasso was born 12 years later, in 1881, in the Spanish town of Málaga. His father was a painter, and the baby’s first word was said to be “pencil.” A child prodigy, he soaked up his father’s lessons. As biographer Patrick O’Brian writes, when Picasso’s father could teach him no more, he “handed his brushes over to the boy.” In 1900 Picasso was nearly 19 and ready for Paris. By then he could draw like Raphael and Ingres, but there were furies in him that demanded something else. “Academic training in beauty is a sham,” he once said. “We have been deceived, but so well deceived that we can scarcely get back even a shadow of the truth.”


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