BALTIMORE — Unlike Michelangelo, Henri Matisse wasn’t known for painting miracles. But in 1945, he sketched the one he witnessed.
The French modernist had only one daughter, Marguerite, who acted as his model, muse and manager. She was imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1944, tortured and interrogated for aiding the French Resistance. Matisse, then in his 70s, assumed she would be killed. But Marguerite managed to escape during transport to a death camp and returned to the South of France in 1945, where her father lived and worked during the final years of his life. When she arrived, Matisse, overcome with shock, turned to paper to express his joy: he sketched, then obsessed, and then sketched some more, producing the final two works of his daughter — one straightforward, the other abstract — that depict Marguerite upon her return from an earthly hell, an event that Matisse called “a miracle” in a letter to his son Pierre.
This miracle now hangs in Baltimore Museum of Art for “Matisse’s Marguerite: Model Daughter” on view until Jan. 19. The first charcoal drawing depicts a frail, ghostly woman, which was lightly sketched and then purposefully rubbed off on another sheet of paper to transfer the image. The second work is a more abstract rendering of a strong and spirited Marguerite, the figure depicted in more than 40 drawings, paintings and sculptures on view in this special exhibition.
With more than two-thirds of the works coming from the private archives of the Matisse family, the exhibition illustrates the intimate sensitivity, devotion and fatherly love of an artist whose more famous works often seemed distant or detached. In some ways, it’s hard to recognize the Matisse we know; the tortured artist seems to have been a sweet, doting dad.
His Marguerite appears in his works at age 6. As a sickly child, she required a tracheotomy, becoming a captive model for her father, who he drew with a ribbon around her neck to conceal the scar. As a teenager, she became a constant presence in his studio, dressing a model in “La Toilette” (1905) and serving as a muse herself in “Marguerite Writing” (1906). He later depicts her as a grown woman in more famous portraits including “Marguerite” 1916, and “Marguerite Wearing a Hat” both on loan from the Met. More than a muse, she was a manager of his studio and the conduit to his most important patrons, corresponding for decades with Gertrude Stein and Etta and Claribel Cone, the Baltimore-based sisters who donated 500 of their 3,000 Matisse works to the BMA.
As his style evolves, so too does Marguerite, and it’s a treat for the viewer to witness his subject’s growth. Though many artists have muses, it is rare for an artist to draw the same model over the course of a six-decade career. But the exhibition is also important for understanding Matisse’s artistic method. Jay Fisher, the BMA’s deputy director of curatorial affairs, says that, in particular, the “miracle” paintings illustrate Matisse’s process.
“It’s such an important pair, in terms of showing his process and how he moved from one work to the next,” Fisher said. “The first view is carefully observed in nature and is deeply felt. He gradually moves to the second, [sketching her] more abstractly to communicate a totally different emotional result. She moves from suffering to strong, as though she’s looking ahead to the future.”
The exhibition showcases that evolution. Few art museums own or have access to such comprehensive collections of one prolific artist. But the BMA is doubly fortunate: in addition to the works from the Cone collection, Fisher says the museum maintains a strong relationship with the Matisse family, which loaned much of the ephemera and works for the exhibition. While Marguerite’s relationship with her father is well-known in biography, never has she been the subject of such a comprehensive exhibition.
Of course, it’s tempting to idealize the father-daughter relationship depicted in this personal exhibition. And it contrasts the experience of other muses including Loulou Brouty, the Italian model Lorette and his wife Amelie, whose renderings reflected the tense and mercurial artist. Matisse’s temperament caused what the biographer Hilary Spurling called “unbearable tension” for his models. Marguerite, too, must have endured his fastidiousness, making her constant presence even more touching.
Perhaps, that’s why one of the most poignant moments of the exhibition isn’t seen in Matisse’s works, but in those of his daughter. Two paintings by Marguerite hang in the corner of the exhibition, one depicting a floral still life and the other of the azure coastline of Nice, where her father died. Though talented, Marguerite stopped painting and destroyed most of her works, worried that collectors could mistake her signature for her father’s. Instead, she adopted the role of caregiver to the giant she revered, protecting his legacy long after his death and until her death at 87 in 1982.
“Marguerite was the glue that held everyone together,” Fisher said. “Everyone recognized the amazing service and dedication she had in the family. It makes these works even more important.”