BALTIMORE | Henri Matisse, the French painter known for his vivid colors, is being represented in black and white for two more weeks at the Baltimore Museum of Art. This comprehensive exhibition of 170 works refreshes the typical view of Matisse through one of the least known sides of the artist’s career, his printmaking.
The monochromatic images — only two are rendered in bright hues — often appear slight compared to the artist’s color-saturated canvases, but they help to illuminate the themes and variations over his career. The exhibit is valuable in tracing Matisse’s progress, as he worked through art history to develop his own style and confidently disperse flat and open shapes across the page.
The artist used his prints like drawings to study the female figure in different poses, such as a reclining or an upside-down nude. His gestural markings reveal the economical structure underlying his imagery, which assumes fuller modeling in his paintings.
Unlike Pablo Picasso, Matisse was not deeply engaged in the techniques of printmaking — all of which are well explained in the exhibit. He used what was available and concentrated his creation of multiple images to short periods throughout his career.
Despite these limitations, Matisse was prolific. The artist made about 830 prints plus additional images for books to circulate his ideas and sustain American collectors’ appetite for his work with less expensive alternatives to his paintings.
In 1950, four years before his death, Matisse gave complete sets of the impressions to each of his three children. The Baltimore exhibit is partly drawn from the holdings of the artist’s youngest son, Pierre, whose New York-based foundation tapped the American Federation of Arts to organize and circulate a traveling show of about five dozen prints.
Curator Jay Fisher expanded this packaged exhibit at the Baltimore venue by adding about 100 more prints and books, plus a few paintings and sculptures for comparisons, from the museum’s Cone Collection. These holdings came from Baltimore sisters Claribel and Etta Cone who were huge supporters of Matisse during the first third of the 20th century.
The significant size of the Cone Collection led the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation in 2007 to pledge a gift of 85 prints to the Baltimore museum. Forty-eight of these, mostly images made during the years before the artist’s death, are on view in the exhibit for the first time.
In combining these resources, Mr. Fisher has organized a rare retrospective of Matisse’s prints over 50 years of his career. The chronological survey starts in 1900 with the artist’s owlish self-portrait, a drypoint inspired by Rembrandt’s prints. Figural woodcuts outlined in rhythmic lines follow to recall Vincent Van Gogh’s agitated drawings and further emphasize Matisse’s embrace of the past.
A standout among these early experiments is “The Large Nude” of 1906. The abstract figure is modeled like a sculpture, the result of Matisse’s reworking of the image directly on the lithographic stone. It is both polished and prescient, suggesting the artist’s later cubist paintings and reclining bronze nudes.
Matisse didn’t immediately develop this strong direction on paper, but temporarily abandoned printmaking to concentrate on painting for the next few years. Taking up lithography again in 1913, he explored naturalistic female poses with the immediacy of a sketch.
One series captures the studio model in stop-action like candid photographs, moving from three-quarter views to close-ups of torso and back. Another grouping studies variations on a single crossed-leg pose.
Interest in recording such quick observations led Matisse to investigate another technique called the monotype. The most striking of these, a nude cropped into a narrow format, was made by drawing on an ink-covered plate to expose white lines against a black field. The plate was printed only once to create a unique impression.
Bolder versions of such light-colored figures on black appear toward the end of the exhibit in linoleum cuts from 1938. The soft material provided the perfect foil for Matisse’s sinuous lines, as expressed in the flowing tresses of a female portrait.
These prints follow an outpouring of etchings, some shaded like charcoal drawings, from the late 1920s and ‘30s. Many depict models dressed in Moroccan-style garb, called odalisques. Posed in richly patterned interiors, the scenes of sultry women were often duplicated in prints and paintings.