BMA shows dozens of Matisse's drawings of his daughter

Matisse's Marguerite: Model Daughter

Through Jan. 19, 2014 at Baltimore Museum of Art

Today, when parents want to brag about their kids, they do so in obscenely long Facebook statuses. Cellphones also play a big role in sharing those snapshots of little Tyler napping in his Superman costume, Jake in his new glasses, and Catie at an honors ceremony at her school. The drawings in Matisse's Marguerite: Model Daughter, on view at the BMA through Jan. 19, play a similar role, as if a dad were to whip out a sketchbook full of little drawings of his kid. Only, that dad is one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. This exhibition presents over 30 drawings and studies by Matisse that depict his daughter. These drawings of Marguerite function not only as endearing portraits; they also illustrate a relationship between Henri and Marguerite, as artist and model/daughter.

Marguerite was the daughter of Henri Matisse and former model and mistress Caroline Joblaud. Henri assumed custody of Marguerite, and he and his wife, Amelie, raised her. Marguerite was basically brought up in Matisse's studio, partially due to a childhood bout with diphtheria, which caused further health problems and kept her from attending school. Since she was always around, she was often the subject and inspiration for Matisse's work. As this exhibition shows, sometimes her role in a composition is straightforward. In the numerous studies for "Marguerite Reading," for example, it's simple enough; she sits at a table, engrossed in a book. In other works, she plays a complementary role with another model, as in "La Toilette," in which she appears as the young girl with the black ribbon around her neck holding up a towel for a woman after a bath. The drawings span about 40 years, showing not only how Marguerite gradually ages in the drawings, but how her age actually fluctuates; in some drawings, when she would be a teenager or in her early 20s, Matisse has made her look much younger. There's something to be said for the idea of the portrait being a dialogue between the artist and his subject, but here we can also make associations with a parent holding onto his child's innocence and youth.

Many of these drawings are studies for paintings, which are only included in miniature on accompanying labels. For "Marguerite Reading," there are several studies: two sheets of paper devoted entirely to head studies (crossed-out line drawings, proportion guides, and all), a sketch of her sitting at a table, and a small color study. It's a bit of a tease to have all of that build-up and to not be able to see the actual final painting, which is in a private collection, informed by these studies. While some may be displeased by the fact that some 80 works by Matisse from the BMA's collection are on tour until October 2014, this show is a prime example of why it's necessary for institutions and collectors to lend work from their collections to other institutions. This could have been a far more engaging exhibition had the BMA been able to show the actual paintings instead of tiny reproductions.

There are three works that tie the whole exhibition together, and that also might sway those who are less appreciative of Matisse's skill set. One of these pieces is a small oil painting, a square about 6 inches, titled "Marguerite," dated 1916. It's hung next to a crayon portrait of her from around the same time. The description next to the drawing says it "may appear effortless" but the way Matisse simplified and captured the gesture of her pose with just a few lines is actually quite complex. The painting stands out as more naturalistic than much of Matisse's work and demonstrates his knowledge of color in the way, for instance, that a pale orangey-yellow brushstroke next to a ruddy purple brushstroke can articulate the planes of the forehead. On the opposite wall, an etched self-portrait also demonstrates his skill as a draughtsman, with fine crosshatching to depict his face and body. The hands are not as rendered as the rest of the body, contrasting with the artist's steadfast gaze toward the viewer. These works, along with a more fleshed-out charcoal portrait study of Marguerite in the adjacent room, are anchors in the exhibition, providing ballast for the rest of the more illustrative, pared-down drawings.

Much of the exhibition feels like a hodgepodge of extra stuff, from Matisse's portraits of Marguerite's son Claude Duthuit, drawings of the Cone sisters, correspondence between Marguerite and Etta Cone, and two of Marguerite's own paintings. This is all auxiliary and anecdotal information that adds to what we've gleaned from the first room of portraits of Marguerite. The letters between Marguerite and Etta Cone illustrate Marguerite's lasting devotion to and belief in her father and his work, while the two paintings (and the anecdote given on the placard-once, someone mistook Marguerite's paintings for those of her father, which upset her so much that she destroyed her paintings) give a glimpse at certain pressures she may have felt as the daughter of a famous artist. While it's all moderately interesting, it also feels like filler.

There are two Matisse camps: One really doesn't care for him, thinks his work is too simplistic and easy; while the other is invigorated and refreshed by his loud colors and gestural line work. By showing mostly line drawings, this exhibition highlights Matisse's focus on the gesture, his decisive, singular marks, and his desire to "make a picture" instead of a naturalistic portrait. For those who don't need convincing, this exhibition tells an interesting story about Marguerite's life through her father's perspective. For those on the other side, it doesn't rise above quaint drawings of Henri's daughter, and falls short of its potential.

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