Henri Matisse is a true world-class artist, and his Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line, depicting his wife, Amélie Matisse, is a masterpiece of twentieth-century portraiture and one of SMK’s ten main highlights.
SMK owns one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of Matisse outside of France. Around World War I, Copenhagen was home to two major collectors of Matisse, and the paintings brought to Denmark during this period would form the basis of SMK’s important collection.
Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line is a major work of art because it demonstrates how a painting can become hugely, powerfully expressive with very few, simple devices. The strong contrasts in colour, a typical feature of Matisse’s paintings from the beginning of the twentieth century, are instrumental in giving this small painting (40.5 x 32.5 cm) its great visual strength.
‘The picture was probably painted in the autumn of 1905, following Matisse’s return to Paris after having spent the summer in the fishing village of Collioure in the south of France. While there, he and his friend André Derain threw themselves into ever-wilder painterly experiments, seeking to release colour from its descriptive function, allowing it to act as an independent force,’ says chief curator and senior researcher Dorthe Aagesen. Indeed, the year 1905 sees Henri Matisse get his major breakthrough, partly due to the works painted that summer in the company of André Derain.
While Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line has many features that are instantly recognisable from the real world, it is not a naturalistic depiction of the artist’s wife. Matisse does not seek to paint what he sees as accurately as possible and is not concerned with displaying specific aspects of his model or with creating a psychological portrait. Nor is the painting about the relationship between him and his wife; rather, it seeks convey an inner experience. The green line dividing the face into two halves, a cold and a warm one, contributes to a plane-like effect that makes the portrait mask-like and abstract.
‘Every brush stroke is very deliberately placed, and the painting is a good example of how you can experiment with the portrait format. It illustrates how one can manipulate and control meaning, how to stage things, and also shows the impact of what you don’t tell. That offers useful perspectives on our use of images today,’ says Dorthe Aagesen.
Stein and the Danish collectors
In addition to being an important masterpiece of portraiture, the painting also has an interesting story. It first came into Danish ownership right after World War I. At that time, Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line was bought by the businessman Christian Tetzen. His collection was dissolved in the 1920s, but he kept this particular portrait right until his death in 1936, and SMK bought it at the sale of the estate.
The other major Danish collector of Matisse during the period was Johannes Rump, who bought several works from the Christian Tetzen-Lund collection. The majority of the museum’s collection of French art was donated by Rump.
Before arriving in Denmark, the painting was part of the famous Stein collection in Paris. From 1905 up until World War I, American art collector Michael Stein, his wife Sarah, and Michael’s siblings Gertrude and Leo Stein built important collections of paintings from Paris, exhibiting them in their private homes.
‘Photos of Michael and Sarah Stein’s flat show us that the painting was quite prominently hung in their living rooms. It would have been well known in its own time and stands among the works that helped build up Henri Matisse’s reputation,’ says Dorthe Aagesen..