The Magazine

Better with Age

The creative impulse improves as well as declines.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By DAVID GELERNTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The catalog and curators don’t tell us much about Matisse’s unique color genius, but the paintings tell us everything. He is famous for his ability to use black as a hue, but his greatest virtuosity is reserved for green. No color has a greater range of separable nuances; and the hardest of all colors to use isn’t black but plain, bright, kindergarten green. Which is an oddly shocking color: You can buy large assortments of pastels from many leading makers and discover not one plain, bright green in any of them. Matisse is one of the few painters in history who uses this color effectively. Like van Gogh, Degas, Stuart Davis, and de Kooning, he prefers opaque color. In his greatest paintings (nearly all of them late), the colors tend to be laid on with hardly any variation within a color zone. These habits of opacity and uniform color-zones made it natural for him to work in cutouts, cut sheets of uniformly colored paper pasted together and painted in gouache (opaque watercolor).

Often his best paintings have separate zones of internally harmonious color pulled together by a louder, more dissonant color triad of black plus two dissonant tones. Interior with an Egyptian Curtain (1948) has a pink/peach/amber and a lemon/soft green/soft blue zone set off by a trumpeting curtain in black, crimson, and bright green—a color nightmare in itself, but gorgeous when it is braced up by beds of softer color. The famous Large Blue Dress (1937) has slate-blue, white, soft green, and pink set off by a brilliant chord of black, lemon, and warmish red. Bowl of Apples on a Table (1916) has a harmonious group of ambers, oranges, pinks, and white-yellows lit up by a brilliant blare of verdigris, pink, and black. In the exhibit, it is paired with a similar painting called Apples (1916). But Apples lacks the pink/verdigris dissonance and seems blandly halfhearted as a result.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers