The Lasting Influence Matisse Had on Richard Diebenkorn’s Artwork

The great American painter owed a luminous debt to the French Modernist

Even at the end of his career, Diebenkorn saw Matisse as an inspiration. “It’s almost as though Diebenkorn did what Matisse would have done if he’d kept painting,” Bishop says. Left: Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916; Right: Diebenkorn’s Window, 1967. Left: The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University © the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation
Though the two artists never met, Diebenkorn saw himself “working in Matisse’s legacy,” says Janet Bishop, co-curator of the “Matisse/Diebenkorn” exhibition. Left: Matisse’s 1905 Femme au Chapeau (Woman With a Hat); right: Diebenkorn’s Seated Figure With Hat, 1967. Left: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, bequest of Elise S. Haas; © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., gift of the Collectors Committee and Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Rubin; © the
One of Diebenkorn’s first in-depth experiences with Matisse’s work occurred in Los Angeles in 1952, when he encountered Goldfish and Palette,1914 (left) in a traveling retrospective. It inspired him to create Urbana #6, 1953 (right). Left: the Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift and bequest of Florene M. Schoenborn and Samuel A. Marx; © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, museum purchase, Sid W. Richardson Foundation
Diebenkorn saw Matisse’s View of Notre Dame,1914 (left) at the 1952 retrospective. His Ocean Park #79, 1975 (right) uses a color palette and geometric style that echo Matisse’s work. Left: The Museum of Modern Art, New York © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Right: Philadelphia Museum of Art, purchased with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts © the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation
Left: Matisse's Notre Dame, a Late Afternoon, 1902. Right: Diebenkorn's Ingleside, 1963. Left: Collection Albright-Knox, Jr. Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr. / © Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York; Right: Grand Rapids Art Museum, Museum Purchase / © The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

Richard Diebenkorn was a Stanford junior in 1943, when an invitation to lunch at the Palo Alto home of Sarah Stein, Gertrude Stein’s sister-in-law, changed his life. Art lined every wall, but it was the dozens of works by the monumental Modernist Henri Matisse (1869-1954), whom the Stein family had befriended and patronized in Paris, that drew him in. “Right there I made contact with Matisse, and it has just stuck with me all the way,” recalled Diebenkorn (who died in 1993 at age 70). Though they never met, Diebenkorn saw himself “working in Matisse’s legacy,” says Janet Bishop, co-curator of the “Matisse/Diebenkorn” exhibition, opening in March at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Seeing Matisse’s bold colors and brushstrokes (Notre Dame, a Late Afternoon, 1902) next to Diebenkorn’s radiant abstract landscapes (Ingleside, 1963), Bishop says, “it’s almost as though Diebenkorn did what Matisse would have done if he’d kept painting.”

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This article is a selection from the March issue of Smithsonian magazine