Stepping into the sun

With the saturated light of St. Tropez and ‘The Terrace,’ Matisse opened up

Matisse painted “The Terrace,’’ which includes the hunched figure of his wife, Amelie, wearing her favorite Japanese robe, a year after he considered laying down his brushes for good. Matisse painted “The Terrace,’’ which includes the hunched figure of his wife, Amelie, wearing her favorite Japanese robe, a year after he considered laying down his brushes for good.
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / January 18, 2011

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This sun-drenched, mysterious picture, tucked away in the freshly refurbished Yellow Room of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, is one of the two most important paintings by Henri Matisse in Boston. The other is “Carmelina,’’ his electrifyingly direct nude in the Museum of Fine Arts. Both were painted just before his breakthrough Fauvist years.

I’d gladly take either home with me. But “Carmelina’’ was painted in Paris, at Matisse’s studio at the Quai Saint-Michel. Its light is still northern — which is to say partial, provisional, permanently under threat.

“The Terrace’’ was painted a year later in St. Tropez, where the light is so intense and pervasive that it came to represent, for Matisse, something approach-ing a spiritual and sensual absolute.

The Gardner’s picture registers the force of the onslaught of light and color on the hypersensitive nerves of Matisse. But, with its turquoise shadows cloaking the hunched and hauntingly self-absorbed figure of Matisse’s wife, Amelie (she is dressed in her favorite Japanese robe), it retains a private, almost secretive quality. It is as if the artist were still hiding in the shade, hesitating, savoring the moment before finally opening his arms to the sun.

Matisse was staying in St. Tropez that summer with the anarchist and neo-Impressionist painter Paul Signac. The previous year, Matisse had suffered a breakdown, and was on the verge of laying down his brushes for good. But in 1904, things started to turn around for him. He made a few sales, was given a show by Ambroise Vollard, and met Signac, who encouraged him — as he had encouraged many artists before Matisse — to come down to St. Tropez to paint.

With Amelie and his son, Pierre, Matisse traveled there in July.

The influence of Signac on Matisse is easy to see in the pictures Matisse painted shortly after “The Terrace’’ — especially the famous “Luxe, Calme et Volupté,’’ which adopts Signac’s Divisionist style.

But Signac was influential in other ways, too. He was an anarchist revolutionary. And yet, unlike the socialists, he wanted to protect art’s independence from political imperatives. “The anarchist painter is not he who will exhibit anarchist paintings,’’ wrote Signac, “but he who . . . will struggle with all his individuality against bourgeois and official conventions.’’

Signac was convinced that the “new art’’ would be harmonious and well-ordered, that it would stimulate pleasure and tranquillity in the hearts and minds of those who saw it. To Matisse, for whom creativity had hitherto involved such lurching passions and spiritual crises, this was probably the best thing he could have heard.

“These canvases,’’ wrote Signac, “which restore light to the walls of our urban apartments, which enclose pure color within rhythmic lines, which share the charm of Oriental carpets, mosaics and tapestries: Are they not also decorations?’’

The sentiments are uncannily close to those expressed by Matisse in his hugely influential “Notes of a Painter’’ four years later. To me, they suggest not that Matisse was apolitical or a slave to sensuality, as is so often claimed, but that he saw tremendous, world-altering potential in the combined forces of personal expression and beauty. Looking at the impact he had on the 20th century, who could doubt him?

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


Henri Matisse

At: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. 617-566-1401.