Art: Matisse During Wartime

When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, World War II officially began. France and Great Britain declared war on Germany, but by 1940 the Nazis controlled half of the French state with its puppet government in Vichy, run by Marshall Philippe Pétain. At the time of the invasion, renowned artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) had recently separated from his wife of forty years and was planning to vacation to Brazil with his assistant Lydia Delectoroskaya. Upon meeting Pablo Picasso in Paris before his departure, he discovered the full scope of the invasion, and was shocked to hear of the failings of the French military against the Nazis. He cancelled his travel plans and after a lengthy sojourn through several towns in the south of France, he retreated to the resort town of Nice in the unoccupied zone, where he remained for most of the occupation. His experiences during the war, which included his divorce, forced relocation, and a debilitating illness, led to significant shifts in his artistic output, both in subject and technique.

During the Nazi occupation artists were under constant scrutiny and threat, forcing many to either flee the country or get in line with the new regime. When first “purifying” their own country, Nazi leaders examined all of Germany’s art holdings and declared most Modern artists “degenerate.” Their work was belittled in exhibition and sold off to foreign buyers at offensively low prices. In their methodical invasion of neighboring countries, art continued to play an important role in molding new territories into appropriate Germanic nations. Hitler’s loathing for avant-garde artwork and the significance he attributed to forging a new, respected Germanic culture were strong forces in the Nazi Party’s handling of art in France. Anything considered Jewish, Marxist, and/or decadent was often destroyed, or seized and sold to help fund the Party’s mission.

Artists like Marc Chagall fled to New York City to escape persecution, while others like Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain (two of Matisse’s fellow-Fauves) accepted invitations to tour Germany as part of a propaganda program. Still others fled to the unoccupied zone like Matisse, avoiding the heavy censorship and potential arrests experienced by those who remained in Vichy France. Matisse received several offers to emigrate to the United States and save himself from possible persecution- Mills College offered him a teaching position and Varian Fry came forward extending his Emergency Rescue Committee resources- but refused every opportunity. In a letter to his son Pierre, he famously posited, “If everyone who has any value leaves France, what remains of France?” (quoted in Cone, Artists Under Vichy). This sentiment reflects his belief in the French state, and in his own significance within French culture. While remaining in the country left him in danger of Nazi scrutiny, as well as severe supply shortages and bomb threats, he felt that departure would be an act of betrayal to his country in its time of need.

music-1939.jpg!HDHenri Matisse: Music, 1939. via WikiPaintings

Under the Vichy government salons and exhibitions continued to be held in Paris, including a revival of Fauve art, and due to the business end of art production there was less censorship than with literature- though now any artist who wished to show work had to prove themselves free of any Jewish background. Though sequestered in Nice, Matisse was “a vivid if distant presence in Paris” (Cone, Artists Under Vichy), showing works in several salons and group shows throughout the war years. Most major museums had emptied their galleries and stored their treasures in secret locations throughout the French countryside to protect them from Nazi looting. The leading trends in artistic output and discussion had shifted to more traditional, anti-decadent stances due to the influence of the Nazi presence. Soon after the armistice, a branch of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry was erected, “which had the duty, among other tasks, of keeping the French press and art worlds under surveillance… [while] social events designed to attract a ‘certain’ French and pro-German literary and artistic intelligentsia were planned.” (Cone, Artists Under Vichy). Several pro-Nazi French writers and artists worked to make scapegoats out of prominent Modern artists like Picasso and Matisse, in defense of conventional values and rusticism in art. As Jack Flam notes, “Under the Nazi occupation, the French reactionaries were coming out of the woodwork and blaming the ills of the world on modern art” (Flam, Matisse and Picasso).

Matisse first took refuge in Nice during World War I, advised to seek warmer climates by his doctor. The quaint town, situated along the Mediterranean Sea, offered the painter bright colors and charming views to incorporate into his work, and he stayed for much of the 1920s and 30s. In 1938 he moved to a room in the Hotel Regina in the Cimiez neighborhood of Nice, a palace formerly used by Queen Victoria, and this change signified the start of the final stage of his life. He was known for being fairly apolitical, and during this time he “avoid[ed] making ripples” (Yve-Alain Bois, Matisse and Picasso). As the war raged on throughout Europe and his peers in the occupied zone suffered increasing subjugation, Matisse continued to paint feverishly, but found his travel options and visitors dwindling as it dragged on. Thematically his work shifted to reflect his more concerned and threatened world perspective, but generally he retained his optimistic use of color and impassioned view of nature.

still-life-with-a-magnolia-1941.jpg!HalfHDHenri Matisse: Still Life with a Magnolia, 1941. via WikiPaintings

As the war progressed, the artist’s subjects and technique moved further into abstract experimentation. His 1941 painting Still Life With a Magnolia is just one of many still lifes he painted between 1940 and 1941, most of which involved an arrangement of flowers and shells. All of the objects seem to hover in an undefined space painted a bold orange-red. There is no attention to light, shadow, or three-dimensionality, and the close cropping of the composition disguises any space-describing element. Still Life With Magnolias became the standard by which Matisse would judge his later paintings, as he propelled himself forward into more abstract, flatter forms. The thick outlines and vibrant background color are not new for his by-now substantial oeuvre, but its complete lack of a clear setting is. Without any sort of line delineating a surface or background, Matisse’s objects are devoid of context and can exist outside of the confines of reality. This juxtaposition of recognizable object and unknown space is a theme he pushes further and further in his later works until eventually the object and space are both abstracted and simplified.

In January of 1941, Matisse underwent an operation in Lyon for intestinal cancer. His doctors were unsure if he would even survive, given his age (72) and the danger of the procedure. He pleaded with the surgeon “Give me the three or four years I need to finish my work.” Though the operation left him “a virtual invalid for the rest of his life” (Watkins, Matisse), with hindered mobility and the need for constant care from nurses and assistants, he felt he had been given a second chance at life and aspired to push his art into unexplored realms so that his problems with image-making could be rationalized. With his country’s struggles under the Nazi occupation compounded with his own crippling health issues, Matisse chose to take a more optimistic view than some of his more politically and socially critical peers (specifically Picasso). Much of his work of this period continues to display his passion for nature, beauty, and color, with dazzling hues and swooping shapes often arranged playfully, reflecting his desire to seize what time he had left and give all that he can to the world.

Matisse-Woman-GrenobleHenri Matisse: Thèmes et variations, 1941. via Arts Everyday Living

Due to damage in his abdomen, he was only strong enough to hold himself erect for short periods of time. He developed special processes for working in his bed, with help from assistants like Monique Bourgeois (later Sister Jacques-Marie), and continued to work from the model as well as from his imagination and memory. To paint, he set up a desk-like contraption that hung over his lap and held a small canvas propped up in the back by his workbox. This state of incapacitation also encouraged him to pursue new means of creation. Though he continued to paint throughout the 1940s, Matisse felt inhibited by the medium. In 1941 he embarked upon a series of 158 line drawings, seeking to “recapture that inventive spontaneity present in the long process leading up to a painting” (Watkins, Matisse). The rapidity and sparseness of strokes necessary for line drawings spoke to his interest in simplification. With this approach he could more effectively capture the essence of an object or figure, with none of the apparent hindrances of light, color, dimensionality, or setting.

He remarked in 1939, “My line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion. The simplification of the medium allows that. And at the same time, these drawings are more complete than they may appear to some people who confuse them with a sketch. They generate light; seen on a dull day or in indirect light they contain, in addition to the quality and sensitivity of line, light and value differences which quite clearly correspond to color” (quoted in Watkins, Matisse). In these works, the absence of color and well-roundedness sap the image of its grounding in realism, with each feature boiled down to a white area loosely encircled in thin black lines.

November of 1942 saw the invasion of the free zone by German troops in reaction to the Allies landing in North Africa. All of France was now under Nazi control, and the war was closer than ever to Matisse’s seaside home. In 1943 he left Nice following rumor of Allied attack in the region, and moved to the nearby commune of Vence. That same year he exhibited with a salon for the first and only time during the war after “he was openly begged to do so, in support of young artists feeling deserted by their elders” (Bois, Matisse and Picasso): the Salon d’Automne with other former Fauves. In these later years of World War II, the artist hit upon the final synthesis of his own aesthetic and technical experiments with his gouache cut-outs.

911007Henri Matisse: Verve, 1937. via Galerie Michael

He had been testing the application of cut-paper collages for years, often using them as a means to organize the composition for a painting. He had created preparatory cut-out sketches for The Dance II in 1932, a mural commissioned for the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The first stand-alone cut-out work was the cover of the first issue of Verve magazine in 1937. Verve‘s publisher, the Greek art patron Tériade, encouraged Matisse to continue working with this technique, and eventually they began working together to publish his book of cut-outs, Jazz. In 1941 the publisher wrote to the artist concerning his concept for a book focusing solely on color, saying “It would be wonderful, because just now, when everything is becoming harder, it seems to me to be the right time to do the most difficult things. Paper is scarcely to be had and is of poor quality… A year ago, when we thought that we could only save what we could carry, I took the booklet with me with the samples of the La Fleche inks from which you had personally cut pages. And I now think less reverently you can find lovely colours. The Colour of Henri Matisse, The Book of Colour by Henri Matisse, what a wonderful special edition for Verve!” (quoted in Henri Matisse: Drawing With Scissors).

This book, begun in 1943 but not released until 1947, represents all Matisse had been increasingly attempting to realize in painting. His efforts to capture the bare essence of his subjects and completely merge form and color are finally combined in this new technique, as he can literally cut the color itself into the desired shapes, effectively drawing with his scissors. Thematically the books focuses on a range of topics, with images set against hand-painted lines of text- mostly personal notes the artist wrote to himself while working. Several pictures reference theater and the circus, while others call up memories of his trip to Tahiti a decade prior, as seen in various stylized natural shapes. As he progressed, the work became more abstract and varied, with “contemporary history- the experiences of World War II and the political persecution of his family- also reflected in coded form in many a motif” (Henri Matisse: Drawing With Scissors). This technique gave him a new freedom of expression and was easier to work with in bed (while his assistants painted different sheets of paper according to his color specifications).

cut-outs-3.jpg!HalfHDHenri Matisse: Codomas, 1943. via WikiPaintings

cut-outsHenri Matisse: The Destiny, 1943. via WikiPaintings

The cut-outs were a major breakthrough in his work, forging the link between his recent tendencies toward abstraction and his earlier Fauve paintings. They allowed him to express his positive memories of the circus, Tahiti, and other experiences in a daring and challenging medium, while simultaneously incorporating his contemporary trauma and fears through somewhat subtler motifs. His work on Jazz, and the subsequent works which the cut-out technique affected, was a form of introspective retreat as well as mental therapy that encouraged and strengthened him through the war years.

Matisse’s position and political leanings during the war have often been debated among scholars. He seemed keen to just continue his work during the occupation, and showed little apparent interest in becoming involved with the greater context of the war and Nazi infiltration. His participation in a 1937 exhibition of French art in Berlin organized in tandem by the Nazi and French governments, which featured Branch of Lilac (1914), a piece from his studio, again brings his political views into question. It is unlikely that this was any kind of pro-Nazi act, but rather perhaps a less vested interest in where his works were being shown, and a lack of understanding of the full extent of the exhibit’s anti-foreigner and anti-Jew aspects. Like many artists and intellectuals, he kept a low profile during this time, severely limited by his illness and fairly isolated by his location. He took part in several interviews during this period, but generally relegated the discussion to his work and artistic perspective.

However, he did speak out against the persecution of some of his peers and family members. He was “particularly repelled by the vile trip taken to Berlin by his ex-Fauve acolytes (Vlaminck, Derain, Friesz) under Nazi patronage” (Bois, Matisse and Picasso).When French artists (including Vlaminck) eager to give in to Nazi influence assaulted Picasso’s standing and spread rumors concerning his entry into a mental asylum, Matisse responded with outrage: “This is revolting!…. He lives with dignity in Paris, works, does not want to sell and solicits nothing. He took upon himself all the dignity that his colleagues have abandoned in such an unbelievable way” (quoted in Bois, Matisse and Picasso). In 1944, his ex-wife Amélie and daughter Marguerite were arrested for their involvement in the French Resistance, which was a great shock to him. Amélie was imprisoned for six months, while Marguerite was tortured by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp- luckily she was able to escape from the train en route to the camp and take shelter in nearby forests. Matisse appealed to friends and connections in Paris to help his family members avoid a tragic fate, and it is acknowledged that his intervention likely helped Amélie.

matisse_icarusHenri Matisse: Icarus, 1944. via

Throughout the war years, Matisse continued to engage himself in explorations of color and form, seeking to epitomize his notions of beauty. Surrounded by external suffering and incapacitated by his own internal disease, he chose to turn to art as therapy. It is both an escape and a show of hope, with the belief that he was meant to share his gifts in order to make the world a more beautiful place. His imagination and creative drive seem limitless, as he worked feverishly even during the course of his crippling illness and the onset of old age. The experiences of several decades’ worth of painting culminated in works of this period, as he stripped away many of the decorative embellishments from the Fauvist years and pared down the complexity of his compositions, often becoming more introspective in his subjects and approach. While working on his cut-outs he wrote to a friend, “What I did before this illness, before this operation, always has the feeling of too much effort; before this, I always lived with my belt tightened. What I created afterwards represents me myself: free and detached.”



Olivier Berggruen and Max Hollein, eds. Henri Matisse: Drawing With Scissors, Masterpieces from the Late Years. Prestel, 2006.

Yve-Alain Bois. Matisse and Picasso. Flammarion, 1998.

Christie’s Lot 18 / Sale  7599: Jeune fille en robe blanche, assise près de la fenêtre.

Michele C. Cone. Artists Under Vichy: A Case of Prejudice and Persecution. Princeton University Press, 1992.

Michele C. Cone. “Matisse and the Nationalism of Vichy, 1940-1944.” Artnet Magazine.

Jack Flam. Matisse and Picasso: The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship. Westview Press, 2004.

Xavier Girard. Matisse in Nice: 1917-1954, trans. Saron Hughes. Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Lynn Nicholas. The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War. Vintage, 1995.

Nicholas Watkins, Matisse. Phaidon Press, 1992.

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