In 1908, when Henri Matisse exhibited in Paris thirty paintings, sculptures and drawings representing his work of the previous eight years, a disgruntled critic complained of the artist’s "unhealthy state of mind, overworked by search and ambition." If only he’d realized what was coming. Just three years earlier Matisse had burst into notoriety as the most radical of the Fauves, or "wild beasts," of painting; the 1908 exhibition showed that the 38-year-old artist was ready to take stock of his work without false modesty, the better to push forward into new terrain. His sense of accomplishment and his restlessness could hardly be disentangled. "I do not repudiate any of my paintings," Matisse declared in his "Notes of a Painter," published a few months later, "but there is not one of them that I would not redo differently, if I had it to redo."
Where most observers saw madness and aggression in Matisse’s work, his one great early defender among the critics, Guillaume Apollinaire, saw a "Cartesian master." "We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or extremist undertaking," Apollinaire argued. "Matisse’s art is eminently reasonable." The poet was being sly, knowing as he did that to be reasonable, or rather to put one’s reason into practice, can be a most extreme undertaking. And Matisse was just as crafty when he claimed, in implicit contradiction to Apollinaire, to disdain intellect as a guide to painting: "I believe only in Instinct." True, Matisse is the most intuitive of painters, yet to express his instinct cost him immense intellectual as well as physical labor. "Often behind one of these works," he explained to a Catalan journalist, "a dozen more have been undergoing evolution, or, if you wish, involution, from objective vision to the sensationalist idea that engendered it." Matisse’s insight, if it has been precisely transcribed, is extraordinary. It would have been more conventional to assume that art begins with sensation and is gradually elaborated to construct an "objective vision." But Matissean vision is just the opposite, moving from objectivity to sensation, or rather (and here comes a curious oxymoron) to a "sensationalist idea," apparently a sort of intellectualized sensation. It’s as if, in Blakean terms, one were to start from experience to achieve innocence.
Matisse’s paintings can appear to have taken form effortlessly. Their timelessness is akin to that of the icons that stunned the painter when he visited Russia in 1911—"the true source of all creative search," he declared. Of course, the frank evidence of multiple revisions observable on the surfaces of most of them tells us that this sense of ease is deceptive. Readers of Hilary Spurling’s biography of the painter can easily come away from it thinking of the artist as an absolute kvetch: high-strung and anxious, a reckless workaholic on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Of the 1906 painting The Gypsy, he later observed that it "shows the energy of a drowning man whose pathetic cries for help are uttered in a fine voice," while the mural Music (1910) he described as "an immense effort which has exhausted me." Of the glorious 1912 still life Basket of Oranges, later purchased by Picasso and now on view in Chicago, he told Françoise Gilot, "It was born of misery." When a painting happened to achieve an unexpected success he took little pleasure in it, seeing the work as just "the beginning of a very painful effort." A confirmed atheist—except "when I work"—he would use the Lord’s Prayer as a mantra to calm himself down. And yet as his friend the writer and socialist politician Marcel Sembat observed, "He has no wish to offer other people anything other than calm."