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From Volume to Surface: A Tale of Two Portraits

Woman with a Hat” (1905) by Matisse and “Portrait of Misia Sert with Lap Dog” (1907) by Renoir depict two similar subjects but are remarkably different from each other. If one did not know the execution dates, it might be assumed that Renoir’s work predates Matisse’s by a few decades. However, this is not the case. Renoir still belongs to a certainly glorious generation – that of the impressionists – but one that is now surpassed. A similar fate will also befall Claude Monet, destined to “survive” until 1926.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat (Femme au chapeau), 1905, San Francisco,
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

What makes Matisse’s portrait irreducibly modern? The work is not abstract. It represents a woman, as does Renoir’s portrait. But in Renoir, what stands out is the emphasis on “volume“. Misia Sert, we can say, has her own body and weight. We can feel the softness of the couch on which the woman is sitting, and we can also perceive the gentle weight of the little dog. With some effort, we can even sense the woman’s tender care to prevent the dog from waking from its sleep. In short: in Renoir, painting continues to be a “window” onto the world and what is outside of us: nature, cities, animals, people, and historical events.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Portrait of Misia Sert with Lap Dog (Jeune femme au griffon), 1907, Philadelphia, Barnes Foundation

The same does not happen in Matisse’s portrait. Its modernity lies precisely in renouncing illusion. Instead of volumes, Matisse prefers the surface. The canvas of the painting no longer has to “open up” to signify what is around it and, together with the artist, claims its autonomy. Art seems to redeem itself from the subjugation to nature and perspective rules. Matisse achieves this “liberation” of art through colour. A colour that does not delve deep into the painting (there is no depth in it, in fact) but, one might say, almost explodes on the observer’s eyes. A colour that has a primitive power – what colour originally was: colour and nothing else – and wild (fauve), as recognized by the critics of the time.

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