A Century of American Art Inspired by Matisse

Ever since his first exhibition in the United States in the early 1900s, Matisse has continued to inspire artists across America. Until June 18, the Montclair Art Museum (New Jersey) is presenting an exhibition highlighting Matisse’s lasting impact on American modern art. France-Amérique had a chat with Chief Curator Gail Stavitsky to discuss the French painter’s far-reaching influence on American art.

France-Amérique: First things first, how did Matisse’s work spread throughout the United States?

Gail Stavitsky: Matisse had his first American one-man show in 1908 at Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 in New York. He set the stage for innovations in terms of color, line, and form, and quickly became known as an innovator and a revolutionary. American artists were quick in picking up on his innovations and adapting them. The earliest work in our show is by Walter Pach [1883-1958], who spent some time among the Parisian avant-garde. His landscape On the Arno (1907) offers a very early interpretation of Matisse’s style. The exhibition proves that American art did not wait until the 1940s and the advent of abstract expressionism to become relevant. Americans already had a sophisticated understanding of modern art very early on.

Is there one example of an American artist’s interpretation of Matisse that you find particularly fascinating?

I am fascinated by Morton Livingston Schamberg [1881-1918]. The use of bold, blue outlines, non-naturalistic color, and simplified forms in his 1912 portrait of Fanette Reider, Study of a Girl, is very Matissian. But you would never mistake it for a Matisse. Instead, Matisse’s complex and multifaceted works make for a wide array of inspirations. Some of his techniques, such as the cutouts that he pioneered in the last years of his life, inspired American artists such as Robert Motherwell [1915-1991], a member of the New York School, and Eric Carle, the 87-year-old author and illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Artists were not slavishly copying Matisse. He was a liberating model.


Morton Livingston Schamberg, Study of a Girl (Fanette Reider), 1912.
© Williams College Museum of Art

In the present day, do we still see areas where Matisse’s influence is particularly visible?

Absolutely. In his work, California-based conceptual artist John Baldessari [born 1931] appropriates a theme that is very common in Matisse’s work: the goldfish bowl. It is both a metaphor for the artist’s studio — the fish looking out of the glass bowl, and the artist looking out of the window into reality — and a symbolic self-portrait of Matisse, who had red hair as a young man. Baldessari blows up the subject of the goldfish bowl and creates eight different versions, which he calls Eight Soups in reference to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. Depending on whether artists are appropriating Matisse’s subject matter or adapting aspects of his style, there are many different characteristics of his work that American artists have used in highly original ways, as far back as 1907 and up until today.