Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

The French artist Henri Matisse is primarily identified with Fauvism, the early-twentieth-century avant-garde movement characterized by expressive use of non-representational color. His work was first shown in New York by Alfred Stieglitz, who mounted exhibitions of his drawings, watercolors, prints, and sculptures at his 291 gallery in 1908, 1910, and 1912. [1] But when the Armory Show presented thirteen of his most vibrantly colored paintings to a broad audience, viewers were overwhelmingly shocked, surprised, and threatened. The primitivism, distorted forms, erratic color, and crude technique of Matisse and his fellow Fauves seemed like a deliberate step backward, “wanton perversity” in the words of one critic. [2] Writing in The International, reviewer J. Nilsen Laurvik aptly summarized the critical response: “It was a long step from Ingres to Matisse, but a very short step from Matisse to Anger.” [3]

Antagonism to Matisse’s work peaked when the Armory Show traveled to its Chicago venue. On April 17, 1913 a group of students at the Art Institute held a mock trial for “Henry Hair Mattress.” Charging him with “artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general esthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title,” he was found guilty and sentenced to death. [4] Although the students planned to burn Matisse in effigy, instead they set ablaze copies of his “monster pieces,” including Le Luxe II, Goldfish and Sculpture, and Blue Nude.

[1] These exhibitions included just one painting—Nude in a Wood (1906), lent by the artist George Of, which was shown in 1908. Of had purchased the painting from Galerie Druet in Paris in 1907 and also lent it to the Armory Show. See Janet C. Bishop, “Sarah and Michael Stein, Matisse, and America,” in The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, Janet C. Bishop, Cécile Debray, and Rebecca A. Rabinow, eds., exh. cat. (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2011), 133.

[2] “Ultra Moderns in a Live Exhibition at 69th’s Armory,” New York Evening Mail, February 17, 1913, 8.

[3] J. Nilsen Laurvik, “New Paths in Art, Apropos: The International Exhibition of Art,” The International 7, no. 4 (April 1913): 88.

[4] “Cubists Depart; Students Joyful,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 17, 1913, 3.

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