Matisse and Picasso

The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship


By Jack Flam

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Matisse and Picasso achieved extraordinary prominence during their lifetimes. They have become cultural icons, standing not only for different kinds of art but also for different ways of living. Matisse, known for his restraint and intense sense of privacy, for his decorum and discretion, created an art that transcended daily life and conveyed a sensuality that inhabited an abstract and ethereal realm of being. In contrast, Picasso became the exemplar of intense emotionality, of theatricality, of art as a kind of autobiographical confession that was often charged with violence and explosive eroticism. In Matisse and Picasso , Jack Flam explores the compelling, competitive, parallel lives of these two artists and their very different attitudes toward the idea of artistic greatness, toward the women they loved, and ultimately toward their confrontations with death.




The Story of Their Rivalry and Friendship



This book takes a fresh look at the relationship between Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, two artists who dominated the art of the twentieth century. It is different from other books on the subject in that it deals with their rivalry and friendship as a continuous story, from the time they first moved into each other’s orbit in 1905 until they died. It explores the various ways that Matisse and Picasso inspired and challenged each other, and shows how their responses to each other’s work often had a determining effect on the directions their art took. As will be seen, the work of each would have been less rich without the constant presence of the other to provoke him and to pressure him toward fresh paths.

I also pay a good deal of attention to the ways their personal affairs affected their art and their interactions with each other. I want to give the reader a sense of these two extraordinary individuals as men as well as artists, and to situate their art in the context of their lives. I am aware that this is a potentially dangerous area, especially with regard to men like Matisse and Picasso, whose work defied the stable codes and narrative subjects of traditional art and was meant to be open and ambiguous, even at times intentionally inconclusive and contradictory. This aesthetic makes their art particularly resistant to the kind of interpretive paraphrase that is often necessary to relate a work of art to an artist’s life and makes the whole enterprise somewhat risky. But I believe it is a risk worth taking, because the common practice of discussing their works as if they had set out to solve abstract sets of formal or art-historical problems distorts the art at least as much by draining away some of its reason for being.

In modern painting, there are fewer conventionally agreed-on meanings than in traditional art. As a result, the latent or private content of a work often becomes part of its public or manifest content. This situation is especially true of Picasso, because so much of his work is clearly autobiographical. In fact, the private meanings in his works have been so much written about that they have become part of their public meaning. With Matisse, the situation is different. His subjects tend to be more neutral than Picasso’s, and his art is structurally so much more open that—simply in pictorial terms—specific readings are more difficult to discuss. And because Matisse was uneasy about the possibility of his work revealing more about himself than he wanted to make known, he actively resisted interpretation. Actually, it seems he wanted to have it both ways. On the one hand, he told the poet André Verdet that he believed a work of art was “the emanation, the projection of self. My drawings and my canvases are pieces of myself. Their totality constitutes Henri Matisse.” But at the same time, he also insisted that his art had virtually nothing to do with the events of his life, as if the “self” he was speaking of existed on a higher plane than the mere man. This dichotomy I am willing to grant, for his view of art was a transcendent one. But as will become apparent in the following pages, Matisse’s work, though not autobiographical in the same way as Picasso’s, is more directly related to the events in his life than one might suppose.

Crucially, both Matisse and Picasso were primarily painters of women, and the erotic plays an important part in the work of both artists. With Picasso, the role that specific women played in his art is taken for granted, and the division into periods that is commonly used in the discussion of his work is often coordinated with the main woman in his life. It is a cliché, but like many clichés it holds a good deal of truth. Those women did affect his art in distinct ways, both as subjects and in terms of style, and he seems to have used them as catalysts for change.

Among other things, they spurred Picasso to reflect on himself. A vast range of lived experience is encompassed by his art—from his romantic, youthful pictures of poverty and sexual longing to the harrowing pictures of old age and death that he painted during his last years. During three-quarters of a century, Picasso’s art reflected many aspects of his personal life and referred to much of the disquiet of the world around him. He had enormous natural gifts and a temperament that prodded him to try virtually anything, no matter how outrageous. He would stick pieces of newspaper or oilcloth in his pictures; he would make sculptures out of spoons or scraps of wood; he would get his friend Julio González to weld together pots and colanders and scrap iron and call it sculpture. In the 1920s, madly enamored of a beautiful and very young woman—a woman whose very existence he would keep secret for many years—he would paint her nude body with all the orifices in full display, and with her anus more prominent than her vagina. The relative abstraction of the rendering allowed people to pretend not to notice, but there it was—almost an open declaration of his sexual preferences. No wonder the Surrealists loved him so. André Breton illustrated the first part of “Surrealism and Painting” entirely with Picasso’s works, and the Surrealists considered him one of their most important acquisitions, after a fashion; although Picasso stayed close to the group for years, he never became a card-carrying member of the movement. He was not by nature a joiner. It would take an organization as large and lethal as the Communist Party to get him to become one.

Compared with the direct, narrative character of so much of Picasso’s art, Matisse’s painting and the language we feel we must use to describe it are relatively esoteric—despite the simplicity of his imagery. The subjects of Matisse’s paintings are often neutral, but the way they are painted often raises them to the realm of the metaphysical. This engagement with the metaphysical rather than the social is, by the way, one of the things Picasso took away from his early acquaintance with Matisse; and as we shall see, it had no small bearing on Picasso’s Cubism. But given the intense visuality of Matisse’s painting, and the difficulties involved in describing it, it is not surprising to find that during most of their lifetimes, in comparisons between the two, Matisse was bound to suffer. Whereas Picasso seemed deeply engaged with the contemporary world and with history in the making, Matisse seemed to ignore the political and social issues in the world around him.

With Matisse, little differentiation has been made between his private and public selves, and as a result his art is held to have had no direct relation to his private life. But a number of women played important roles in relation to Matisse’s art. As with the main women in Picasso’s life, each of Matisse’s women affected his style as well as his imagery. During the years between 1925 and 1940 in particular, part of the artistic rivalry between Matisse and Picasso was acted out as a kind of duel that revolved around the depictions of some of these women.

RATHER THAN BEING ORGANIZED in terms of periods of stylistic development, this book is organized in terms of the artists’ responses to three aspects of life that we to some degree all share. The first has to do with establishing one’s identity and making the most of one’s abilities and limitations. For an artist, this study of self always involves the overriding question, Am I really capable of being a great artist? The second has to do with how one relates emotionally to the people around one—one’s family, one’s sexual partners, the handful of people whom in the course of a lifetime one really loves. For an artist, the overriding question here is, Am I capable of overcoming my own self-absorption and really loving someone else? The third has to do with whether, in the face of physical decline, it will be possible to continue to act effectively in the world, and with what sort of courage one will finally face extinction. The overriding question here is, Can I continue to work and grow and wring meaning from the confrontation with my own death?

Although this book does not set out to follow a specific theoretical model, my thinking about how artists deal with the various phases of their careers has benefited from the useful discussion of “Poetic Crossing” that Harold Bloom develops in the coda to his study of Wallace Stevens’s poetry. Simply stated, Bloom posits three “Crossings,” each of which involves an artist’s dilemma in “confronting death, or the death of love, or the death of the creative gift, but in just the reverse order.” These three crossings correspond to phases that are especially germane to the careers of both Matisse and Picasso. Although they were a dozen years apart in age, they seem to have passed through them at around the same time—partly as the result of global historical events, including two world wars, and partly because of an odd congruence of personal circumstances.

Each artist played an important role in how the other defined himself in relation to these three crossings. For example, between 1906 and 1918, Matisse produced some of his greatest works. But his sense of “election” as a great artist was to some degree called into question—and in a way deferred—by Picasso’s achievement. During the 1920s and 1930s, the strategy each man brought to the subject of love was profoundly affected by his awareness of the way the other was treating it. And during the last decades of Picasso’s life, his awareness of Matisse’s achievement seems to have provoked him to measure himself against the past masters, as if to allay doubts about the lasting value of his work.

THE MORE ONE LOOKS at the works of these two exceptional artists together, the more engaging, and mysterious, they become. When their works are studied together, a kind of synergetic effect is created, and indeed the work of one makes the other’s work look stronger—as if each artist is in some way more complete when his works are considered along with those of the other. This relationship is something both men seem to have understood. Throughout their lives, from the first time they met, each recognized that the other would somehow be the main presence that he would have to reckon with. For a half century, they spurred each other on to do things that might not have been possible without the other, like top-level athletes who set the pace for each other. “All things considered,” Picasso remarked, “there is only Matisse.” Matisse, for his part, said, “Only one person has the right to criticize me, that is Picasso.” And more than once, both of them were reported to have said something to this effect: “We must talk to each other as much as we can. When one of us dies, there will be some things that the other will never be able to talk of with anyone else.”


As an artist, a man has no home in Europe save in Paris.


On the fourteenth day of April 1900, the Paris World’s Fair opened to an excited public. The fairgrounds covered some 547 acres, making it the largest ever in Europe. Two of the most popular exhibitions, at the Château d’Eau and the Hall of Illusions, involved spectacular displays of electricity. There were also elaborate presentations of colonial cultures, most notably from Africa and the South Seas, and a panorama that re-created part of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The various nations had their pavilions along the quai d’Orsay on the left bank of the Seine, and a bridge named for Alexander III of Russia was built to join the pavilions on the Left Bank with those on the Right Bank, which included two newly built “palaces” for art, the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, just off the Champs-Elysées.

At that fair, a talented eighteen-year-old Spanish artist named Pablo Ruiz exhibited a painting called Last Moments, an accomplished narrative in an academic realist style, which portrayed a dying girl surrounded by a priest, a nun, and her family. Ruiz had never been to Paris, but before the year was out he planned to go there to see his painting in the company of his close friend Carles Casagemas, with whom he shared a studio in Barcelona. In Paris, as Vicente Huidobro would later write, “You are at the door of the century. You have the key to the door in your hands.”

Just a few months earlier, while the stone and cast-iron Grand Palais was being built, a thirty-year-old artist named Henri Matisse had been hired to paint garlands for the scenery on the Trans-Siberian Railway exposition. The work was backbreaking and tedious, and after a few weeks he took ill and was fired. He, too, had submitted a painting to the fine arts section, but it was refused. Matisse at the time was married and had two children. His six-year-old daughter Marguerite had been born to another woman five years before Matisse married his wife, Amélie, who generously adopted and lovingly cared for her. Their son Jean was just a year old. By the time the World’s Fair closed at the end of the year, the Matisses had a second son, Pierre. Dirt poor, they were supported partly by Matisse’s father and partly by the hats that Amélie Matisse made and sold.

Whereas Ruiz was considered one of the most talented artists in Barcelona, the gifts of his friend Casagemas were of a decidedly limited nature. But in Paris, this distinction didn’t count for much, and neither man made much of an impression. Ruiz and his friend did, however, meet some interesting women, and Casagemas fell madly in love with Germaine Gargallo (née Florentin), who though born in Montmartre was part Spanish and spoke the language. She liked Casagemas well enough, but although they slept in the same bed, it was with a good deal of frustration, as the poor man’s sexual potency was even weaker than his artistic talent. When he and Ruiz returned to Barcelona, they still shared a studio. Casagemas was writing frenzied love letters to Germaine and drinking so much that Ruiz was glad to see him leave for Paris the following February.

But when Casagemas saw Germaine, she explained to him that they had no future together. Casagemas decided to return to Spain and invited his small circle of mostly Spanish friends to a farewell dinner at a local restaurant. There, after everyone had drunk a good deal of wine, he pulled out a revolver, aimed it at Germaine, and fired. He missed. Then he put the revolver to his temple and blew his brains out.

The sudden death of Casagemas deeply affected Ruiz, who by the middle of the year had begun to sign his work with the name of his mother rather than his father: Pablo Picasso. During the next year or so, Picasso painted several pictures that touched on the death of Casagemas, including a large pseudo-religious painting called Evocation, in which Casagemas is represented with his arms stretched out in a Christ-like gesture, ascending to Heaven on a white horse. There he is greeted by a trio of prostitutes dressed only in colored stockings—mocking both the Christian Trinity and the pagan Three Graces. This is when Picasso began to paint primarily in melancholic, deep blue tonalities. His paintings often depicted human suffering in a tender, even sentimental way, although they sometimes had a very sharp edge.

Many of Picasso’s paintings from this period are autobiographical in that they record the ongoing discovery of the world by a talented and alert young man who is especially sensitive to themes dealing with sex, friendship, and poverty. Later, when he became the most famous artist alive, this autobiographical aspect of his work would come under microscopic scrutiny, and a number of his works would be revealed to have quite specifically private meanings. In some cases, such as La Vie of 1903 (Fig. 1.1), the public and private meanings have become so intertwined that it is virtually impossible to separate them.

FIGURE 1.1 Picasso, La Vie, 1903. 197 x 127.3 cm.

In La Vie the young man at the left resembles Casagemas, and the woman next to him bears the likeness of Germaine, the woman for whom he committed suicide. A number of studies for the painting have survived, and in these—as well as in the first sketches on the canvas itself—Picasso represented himself as the nude young man, standing in what is clearly an artist’s studio, and the space where the woman and child appear was occupied instead by an elderly bearded man. Picasso seems to have associated Casagemas’s sexual impotence with his friend’s failure as an artist, and in the original conception for the painting he appears to have been wrestling with his sense of guilt, not only in relation to the dead Casagemas—Picasso was Germaine’s lover both before and after Casagemas’s suicide—but also in relation to his own father. Don Jose Ruiz, also an unsuccessful artist, is evoked by the person of the bearded old man. The drama of guilt and redemption that seems to underlie this painting is thus suggested both publicly, in the clear allusions to Adam and Eve and to the Madonna and Child, and privately, in relation to the traumatic instances represented by Casagemas’s suicide and Don Jose’s “death” as an artist.

Another level of biographical meaning is suggested by x-rays of the painting, which reveal that it was painted atop Last Moments of 1899, the deathbed scene Picasso had exhibited at the Spanish Pavilion at the 1900 World’s Fair. Although it has been said that Picasso overpainted the earlier large picture simply because he could not afford canvas at this time, it seems more likely that painting over Last Moments had important personal significance for him. That painting, done in an academic narrative style, was meant to commemorate the death of Picasso’s sister María de la Concepción—called Conchita—in 1895. At the time of Conchita’s illness, the thirteen-year-old Picasso swore that if she were to live, he would give up painting forever. So even though her death was a terrible emotional blow to him, it also gave him permission to continue as a painter. Picasso was deeply superstitious, and this sanction must have produced an enormous feeling of guilt. Painting over Last Moments seems to have been part of a complex act of obliteration and conciliation, in which he attempted to exorcise his lingering sense of guilt by conflating on a single canvas his feelings of responsibility for the deaths of Conchita and Casagemas. Even at this early stage, painting was a form of magic to him.

In 1903, Picasso’s overpainting La Vie on top of Last Moments was also a way of disavowing his earlier anecdotal, academic style of painting. His later contempt for La Vie, which he characterized as “awful,” reflected not only a rejection of its sentimentality but also his continued uneasiness with the charged and ambivalent feelings involved in its creation.

MATISSE’S EARLY CAREER FOLLOWED a very different trajectory. Less obviously gifted and certainly less precocious than Picasso, he had first studied law and then spent years as an art student. He remained at the academic École des Beaux-Arts for six years, then studied in a series of private studios where he drew from the live model with dogged persistence. In the years immediately following the 1900 World’s Fair, he struggled with poverty, with a financial scandal that almost landed his in-laws in jail (they were unwittingly implicated in their employer’s fraudulent financial scheme), and with a good deal of public indifference toward his work. During that time, he worked his way through the different modes of vision employed in nineteenth-century avantgarde painting, starting with the Impressionists and then moving on to Seurat, van Gogh, Gauguin, and especially Cézanne, who was to remain the greatest and longest-lasting source of inspiration to him. As early as 1899, Matisse made great sacrifices in order to buy a small but powerful Cézanne, Three Bathers, and he was the first of the younger avant-garde artists to absorb the radically new kind of pictorial thought that Cézanne’s painting embodied. Cézanne was, as Matisse said, “a sort of god of painting.”

DURING THE FIRST YEARS OF THE CENTURY, the paths of Matisse and Picasso crossed several times, though the two men apparently never met. They both showed at Berthe Weill’s gallery early in 1902, and their works were hung together for the first time in a group exhibition at Weill’s that June. Both also showed at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, who was Cézanne’s dealer and from whom Matisse had bought his Three Bathers. Picasso participated in a two-person exhibition at Vollard’s in 1901, and Matisse had his first one-man show there in 1904. Both artists had small followings during those years, but until 1905 neither attracted a great deal of attention, and neither could count on loyal or influential collectors for support.

In 1905 this situation began to change. That February, Picasso participated in a three-person show at the Galeries Serrusier on the boulevard Haussmann, for which the influential critic Charles Morice wrote the catalogue essay. A few months later, Picasso’s new friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, published two deeply appreciative review-essays about his work. Referring to the pervasive melancholy associated with Picasso’s Blue Period works, Apollinaire noted that although “It has been said of Picasso that his work bears witness to a precocious disenchantment,” the opposite was true: “Everything enchants him, and his incontestable talent seems to me to be at the service of a fantasy that justly blends the delightful with the horrible, the abject with the refined.”

That same spring, when Matisse exhibited the Neo-Impressionistic Luxe, calme et volupté at the Salon des Indépendants, he was singled out by the critic Louis Vauxcelles as “the leader of a school.” For the summer, Matisse went to Collioure on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border, where he was joined by his younger colleague André Derain (who was barely a year older than Picasso). There Matisse began to paint more freely and with brighter colors than he had before. Mixing an emotional intensity inspired by van Gogh with the abstract sense of space that he so admired in Cézanne, he began to formulate the bold kind of chromatic near-abstraction that would be associated with the first avant-garde movement of the new century: Fauvism. (The French word fauve means “wild beast.”)


On Sale
Aug 4, 2008
Page Count
296 pages
Basic Books

Jack Flam

About the Author

Jack Flam is Distinguished Professor of Art and Art History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He has written extensively on nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American art and his books include Matisse on Art, Matisse: the Man and His Art, 1869-1918, and Les peintures de Picasso: Un théâtre mental. He lectures internationally and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Senior Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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