Contemporary Portraits. Fourth Series.

Author: 
Year: 
1923

Rating: ***

Harris' Contemporary Portraits are biographical sketches, of people that he knew, or pretended to have known. They vary in quality, both of writing and accuracy, and contain the usual Harrisian mixture of insight and hogwash.

Here, as a taster, is one of the better and more interesting Portraits, of Henri Matisse and - at second hand - Renoir. (My thanks to Edgar M. Ross for his permission to reproduce this text which is out of copyright in the U.S. but not in the U.K.)

HENRY MATISSE AND RENOIR, MASTER PAINTERS

It was in 1911 or 1912, in Roger Fry's memorable exhibition in London of the French Impressionists and Cubists, that I first saw a nude by Matisse - a girl's figure. At first glance it looked crude, badly drawn; then I noticed that the bare outline gave a sense of weight, and suddenly I saw that the drawing which seemed like a child's drawing was, in fact, masterly in simplification, suggesting everything; full of meaning, just because of what it left unsaid. The Cézannes had already made a great impression on me, and, meeting Bernard Shaw, I found that he shared my feeling, was impressed as I was impressed; certain landscapes of Cézanne were astonishing; a Tahitian, nude too, of Gauguin - a brown girl thrown face downwards on the white sheet of a bed, like a famous Manet, and almost as striking, I thought. Time and again I returned to study this Cézanne or that, and nearly as often I went to the Matisse for the astounding craftsmanship of the drawing. The other day I heard that Matisse was in Nice: I called on him, and told him how I admired his work. He met me cordially, took me up to his studio, showed me his latest sketches, and we talked - chiefly painting - for an hour or more.

"The Music Lesson" Scan courtesy of Mark Harden (www.artchive.com)

Henri Matisse does not look his fifty years of age: a man of middle height, strongly built, with square shoulders; a well-featured face, noticeably broad and high forehead; round grey eyes; sparse hair; short, thin beard, and small moustache-all reddish auburn tinged with grey; he is neatly, conventionally dressed. No portrait here, I admit, because there is no predominant feature - Matisse's face does not suggest his talent - he looks a healthy, well-to-do bourgeois. Our talk was cut short by a girl, clearly the model whose figure Matisse had used in a dozen of the drawings and paintings scattered about. I took my leave; but as he pressed me to call again soon, as he would be going to Paris in a short time, I called again two or three days later, and we had another talk - this time more personal, intimate.

His entire sincerity impressed me; there was no pose in him, no affectation, he was all given to his work.

"Did you reach the mastery quickly?" I asked, "or had you a long apprenticeship?"

"My life's story," he said, "is very uneventful: I can tell it very shortly. I was born on the last day of 1869 at Chateau-Cambresis (Nord). My parents, well-to-do shopkeepers, wanted me to be a lawyer, and from eighteen to twenty-two years of age I honestly tried to be an attorney's clerk at St. Quentin. But there was a school of embroidery on cloth founded by Quentin de Latour in the town, and I was so attracted by painting and drawing that I got up every morning, even in winter, and from 7 to 8 o'clock attended the classes. At length my parents consented to let me give up law and go to Paris to study painting. A painter in St. Quentin knew Bouguereau and Gabriel Terrier, and it was to Bouguereau that I went on reaching Paris. A curious choice for me - eh?" Matisse went on, laughing, "unexpected, eh? I stuck it nearly three months and then resolved that I was too old for their teaching. I left them and went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, and copied the antiques while the light lasted, naturally the old Greek sculptures. There I had the good luck to meet Gustave Moreau, who was kind enough to open his workshop to me, where I drew every morning from living models."

"Did Moreau teach you much?" I asked.

"Nothing," replied Matisse; "no one ever teaches us anything, and Moreau was too literary; they don't see things as we painters do. In the afternoons I went to the Louvre and copied the Chardins and Poussins and Raphaels:I'll never forget Fragonard's 'La Leçon de Musique,'or Chardin's 'La Pipe' or 'La Raie' or 'La Pyramide des Fruits,' or Poussin's 'Narcisse' or 'Bacchanale,' or Raphael's Portrait of Balthazar Castiglione, or Philippe de Champagne's 'Dead Christ.' I can show you a reproduction of my copy. All the copies I made at this time were bought by the French Government and sent to provincial museums. For instance, my copy of the 'Chasse' of Annibal Carracci is in the Hôtel de Ville at Grenoble. I only mention this to show that I was a diligent and rather a successful student. I really loved copying masterpieces. Unlike most artists," Matisse went on, "I like reproductions of my work: the more you give, the more there is in the reproduction."

"I see," I cried; "I had not thought of that."

But my true pleasure came," Matisse continued, "on leaving the Louvre, when I used to hurry to the rue Lafitte to Durand Ruel's shop, where I could gaze my fill at the Cézannes and other Impressionists, and so complete my view of the growth of art right up to our day.

"Some fifteen years ago now, a group of young artists got together and asked me to come and correct their work:they were nearly all gifted) so I consented, and soon the school grew to sixty or more, and took too much of my time and thought. I came to understand that I was wasting my time in helping others, that every artist has to stand on his own feet and learn his own lessons, and that I, too,must for the future concentrate on my work and leave others to their own inspiration. Since then I have, I think, done better. Now, from time to time, I have the joy to believe that this or that piece of my work has real stuff in it, and may endure. That's heaven for the artist.

"Besides, I have the pleasure to know that my work is appreciated more and more widely, and now makes life easy to me and my wife and my three children, whom I love, and who love me. And so I regard myself with reason, I think, as a happy man, though I have more than one shirt," and he laughed, gaily, charmingly.

A little later I asked Matisse to dinner: he replied that he never ate at night, but he'd be glad to come in after dinner. When he came, I naturally wanted to know why he did not eat dinner. "For ten or twelve years now," he said, "I have found the mid-day meal enough. It's a pleasure to eat when you're hungry," he went on; "I love my dinner in the middle of the day and eat like an ogre, and get a little siesta afterwards and digest it all. But if I eat again at night, I feel heavy and soon awake with a nightmare. I go to bed at ten and get up about six, partly because I want all the light I can get. I've almost perfect health," he continued, "better now than when I was twenty. One must learn how to live. I drink very little, usually put water in my wine or take a glass of beer; no spirits, no excess of any kind." Matisse had practical wisdom and that astonishing French moderation that uses without abusing all the pleasures of life - a wise man and a great workman! Several times in talking he illustrated some peculiarity of painting with musical examples.

"You love music?" I asked, at length.

"Yes, indeed," he replied, "it's my one recreation. I play the violin," he added; "have always played it from childhood; but as I grew to some mastery in my art, I wasn't satisfied to play my violin so badly. A master musician told me that if I practised for a year I'd get the comparative skill I wanted, so once I took lessons for a year and often played six hours a day, and, as a result, I am able now to please myself by my playing, and sometimes my friends."

My admiration of Matisse grew, the more I knew of him, so at length I turned the talk to the strange development of the painter's art that has taken place as a result of studying Kakemonos and Japanese prints and, above all, the marvellous Chinese paintings. To my delight, I found that Matisse had gone to London, and knew the wonders of the British Museum. "A poet," he said simply, "showed me there all the marvels of the Chinese masters: it was the revelation to me of a new world. All barriers of race and time broke down before the realisation forced in on me that these Chinamen a thousand years ago saw our problems and solved them much as we are solving them."

"We have the record," I could not help breaking in, "of one Chinese master, 1700 years ago, who said he did not want a mere representation of life, but longed to paint the rhythm of things; a more philosophic Rembrandt."

"I understand," said Matisse, "but I love life, love to find beauty everywhere; mere beauty -"

"What about the younger painters in Paris?" I broke in, "the Cubists, so-called, and -"

"Oh, I'm too self-centred," cried Matisse, "too much occupied with my work. I have enough to do for twenty years yet. Monet is still doing lovely things at Giverney; he's strong as a tree; he eats and drinks, takes his coffee and a glass of old brandy afterwards, like a young man; and works, works as well as ever; some of his latest things are among his best - ";

"Oh, you painters," I cried, with a touch of envy, "you are the darlings of the gods."

"How do you mean?" cried Matisse; "we have no advantages that I can see."

"First of all, your art I" I exclaimed. "It's the only art of universal appeal; the Chinaman, or jap, or the Negro in the heart of Africa, takes pleasure in a painting, understands more or less of its beauty and power. But we men of letters are prisoned among our own race. If they dislike us, and the mass is sure to dislike whoever does good new work (he nodded), we have no other appeal. Whistler, rejected in the United States and in Great Britain, sold a picture to the Luxembourg, got hung in Paris and praised, when still a youngster, by the French, and so managed at long last to impose himself. Great writers are not so fortunate."

"I see what you mean," replied Matisse, "and I'm fain to agree with you, though the disabilities of the writer never occurred to me before. We painters are favoured; but we can make the road up hard enough, if we want to. My masters were Cézanne and Renoir. I never met Cézanne, I regret to say; but four years ago I got to know Renoir at Cagnes, and he made a profound impression on me."

RENOIR

"Ah!" Matisse went on, enthusiastically, "I've not told you of Renoir. Did you know him?" (I shook my head.) "His life was a long martyrdom: he suffered for twenty years from the worst form of rheumatism, the joints of his fingers were all immense, calloused, horribly distorted. He could only hold the brush between his thumb and forefinger, high up, for the finger was powerless, and all the inside of his right hand was seamed with wounds and cuts, distilling blood and pus that had to be washed and attended to every little while. At the bottom of his back was a great running sore that went some five inches up the vertebra, and had to be washed out every few hours with disinfectants. And yet he worked on gaily, full of high spirits and charming wit. For years before the end he had to be carried up and down stairs, could only sit a little while in one position, then had to be lifted and put in another; but he weighed nothing; he had wasted to a mere handful of bones. One could pick him up in one hand quite easily; his eyes held all the life of his body, his eyes and his tongue and his poor twisted, deformed, bleeding paw."

"And he still did beautiful things?" I asked.

"All his best work," replied Matisse gravely; "as his body dwindled, the soul in him seemed to grow stronger continually and to express itself with more radiant ease,"

"John Quinn in New York," I remarked, "has flower-pieces of his that are miracles of beauty - "

"But his nudes," Matisse broke in; "the loveliest nudes ever painted: no one has done better - no one. Often he would complete one in an afternoon; but his last work he kept by him for over a year. It is his masterpiece, one of the most beautiful pictures ever painted."

"Torso of a Woman" Scan courtesy of Mark Harden (www.artchive.com)

",And the.theme?" I asked.

"Two young girls naked on a bank of flowers," Matisse continued: " 'God's best works,' Renoir used to call them, 'His supreme achievement.' I know nothing more beautiful. His sons are going to give it to the State, though they were offered two hundred and fifty thousand francs for it when Renoir died a couple of years ago, and they are not rich. Oh, Renoir was a marvel! If you could have seen that little wizened manakin with the lambent eyes, and the picture growing in heavenly beauty at every touch; if you could have seen him and heard him talk - sadly neverl He would tell of the girls he had kissed - the best thing in life - he would cry; and, dying, he enjoyed a smutty story, and would tell one with superb verve when Death had already his hand on his shoulder and his hours were numbered. He used to love to tell stories of the earlier painters, his friends, especially how Harpignies used always to liken himself to a poireau (leek) : white above, but vigorous green below.

"And quite at the end, when I used to fear to call, thinking the blinds would be drawn, Renoir was at his best. Once when he squirmed with pain, and the brush dropped from his hand, I cried to him: 'Why torture yourself? You have done so much, Master! You may well be satisfied.' He turned to me, and the smile spread from his riotous eyes over his face: 'The pain passes, Matisse; but the beauty remains. I'm quite happy, and I shall not die till I have completed my masterwork. Yesterday I thought it was finished, that I could not put on another brush-stroke to better it, but la nuit (and he made a grimace of remembered pain) porte conseil (the night brings wisdom); and now I see that three or four days' more work on it will give it a deeper touch. I shan't die till I've given my best.' And he laughed delightedly and went on with his work; the attendant had to lift or lower the picture every little while at his request, as he could only paint just in front of his hand. I've always felt," Matisse continued, with tears in his voice, "that recorded time holds no nobler story, no more heroic, no more magnificent achievement than that of Renoir; dying in agony, yet determined to put all the loveliness of desire and all the beauty of nature, all the sweet joy of living into one deathless scene as a possession of men for ever, a blessing without alloy - "

As Matisse spoke, the picture was etched, so to say, in my very soul; the poor dying master with his bleeding hand, the symbol of his artistry and all it had cost him, and beyond and above this, the sacred enthusiasm, the deathless endeavour, that would conjure beauty out of suffering and make loveliness immortal.

Selected editions: 
Publisher: 
Brentanos
Year: 
1923
Format: 
small 8o
Country: 
US
Pagination: 
9-318
Binding: 
Cloth.
Notes: 
Publisher: 
Grant Richards
Year: 
1924
Country: 
UK
Binding: 
Cloth.
Notes: 
The essay Lord Curzon and "The Souls" is omitted from this edition.