Being An Artist at The Phillips Collection

Matisse_studio quai

Henri Matisse, Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916. Oil on canvas, 58 1/4 x 46 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1940.

What is it like to be an artist working at The Phillips Collection? I tackle this question not because I claim to be an artist—far from it, in fact; I see myself more as a cultural sociologist than an artist—but because over the last month or so of working here, I have been inspired to create more than ever before. More to the point, over the next few weeks, the Phillips is exhibiting works by artists employed at the museum and I wanted to take a moment to think about how we are all affected by working amongst great art.

It is a traditionally held dictate that visitors to a museum shall passively engage with the art. Walk up to it silently, contemplate subject and color for a moment, then move on to the next piece. Here at the Phillips, however, the environment is such that one cannot help but become intimately attached to the works hanging on the walls. They become old friends, and we move from passive engagement to something more ambiguous and often awkwardly articulated. The works of art become inspiration. They pop up in dreams and motifs in our own work. Moreover, most of the museum guards have an artistic bent which allows for conversation about and active engagement with the art, and who among us does not feel a tinge of joy when we come across the many troops of school children discussing pieces and creating their own art in response? Personally, I have become obsessed with Henri Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel. It is currently on view on the second floor of the original Phillips house in a small gallery just past Renoir’s Luncheon of the Booting Party. The painting’s size in this room makes it imposing and all consuming. It is as if you are transported into that studio space with its soft light. It has sparked in my work a new interest in color and pattern, as well as an impulse to incorporate other art forms such as music into my otherwise purely visual creations.

It is impossible to remain passive in a museum like the Phillips. You are constantly confronting works in a personal way and they in turn intimately confront you. Being an artist working here is like gaining the ability of osmosis as the creative urge seeps into your veins. All I can say is, after a day’s work within this museum, I cannot wait to get back to my canvas and paints.

Dominique Lopes, Director’s Office Intern

 

“Look on the model with respect…”

Henri Matisse, Untitled (Seated Nude), ca. 1908

Matisse on models: “I depend entirely on my model, who I observe at liberty, and then I decide on the pose which best suits her nature…. And then I become a slave of that pose.” Henri Matisse, Untitled (Seated Nude), ca. 1908. Ink on paper, 10 5/8 x 8 1/4 in. Gift of Marjorie Phillips, 1984. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

Proving that no occupation is un-strikeable, nude models in France are threatening a strike for better wages and job benefits. Despite the many languid figurative works that may imply that nude modeling is nothing more than draping one’s body over a chaise, even those sessions can be plenty challenging. John Sloan, in his treatise Gist of Art (1939), offers this insight into the artist/model exchange:

The important thing to bear in mind while drawing the figure is that the model is a human being, that it is alive, that it exists there on the stand. Look on the model with respect, appreciate his or her humanity. Be very humble before that human being. Be filled with wonder at its reality and life. There is a human creature that lives and breathes and feels, a thing with a mind and character of its own—not a patchwork of light and shadow, color shapes.

Sometimes when I come into the classroom I look at the model and see that she is shivering with cold or suffering in some difficult post she is trying to hold too long. You look up at her and back at the paper, tick-tock, back and forth—all you are looking for is some detail of the appearance of the figure.

Spotlight on Studio, Quai Saint-Michel

Henri Matisse, Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916. Oil on canvas, 58 1/4 x 46 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1940

Henri Matisse, Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916. Oil on canvas, 58 1/4 x 46 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1940

Weekday Spotlight Talks at the Phillips are an ideal way to spend some quality time with a particular work in the permanent collection and can often lead to new insights into composition, materials, and the artist’s intentions. Last month, our Teacher Programs Coordinator Meagan Estep led a small group of visitors in discussion about Henri Matisse’s Studio, Quai Saint-Michel (1916), currently on view on the second floor of the Goh Annex.

Meagan began by asking about the group’s initial impressions of the painting. Visitors were largely struck by Matisse’s use of two-dimensional shapes (particularly the flattened table) alongside three-dimensional shapes (such as the two chairs that show perspective in the room). Aside from these technical aspects of his composition, visitors also remarked on the absence of the artist in the scene. A nude model reclines on a sofa and a canvas sits upon one chair, yet the chair directly across from the canvas (where the artist would sit) is conspicuously empty. The consensus among the group was that Matisse’s composition not only depicts a reclining nude but also documents his workspace and artistic process as it is unfolding.

Upon close inspection, the group also noticed an area of cracked paint just above the reclining nude. This subtle detail is visible in person but wouldn’t necessarily be apparent in a reproduction of the work online or in print (just another example of the new discoveries that are possible when visiting artworks in person). Meagan revealed that the Phillips conservators have studied this cracked area closely and discovered that Matisse reworked this area with additional layers of paint. The cracking occurred because one of the earlier layers did not dry completely before the artist painted over it with a faster drying paint. The cracks mirror the curves of the woman’s figure, suggesting she was originally placed slightly higher in the composition. It is thought that Matisse’s lack of effort to disguise this and other changes was intentional, to allow the evolution of the composition to be part of the experience of the work. Therefore, the conservators have left it as (perhaps) Matisse intended.

Elizabeth Kachavos, Marketing Intern