It’s not exactly classic Matisse. But I can’t begin to tell you how much I love this brisk little canvas at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Such a surprising artifact. So relaxed, yet at the same time so charged with immediacy. Looking at it, you can almost feel Henri Matisse moving from one moment to the next: Stop the car. Look around. Move over. Pass me my paints. … Okay, let’s do this.
Anyone who has looked through the windshield of a car with the road stretched out ahead can identify. But you can also see just enough of the car to deduce that it is from another time, and that other things were going on.
The year it was painted, 1917, was pivotal not only in world history but in Matisse’s life. Months after painting this work, he went to Nice and pretty much stayed there. An extended period of radical experimentation, in which Matisse — stimulated by his rivalry with Picasso — had pushed right up against the edge of abstraction, came to an end and a fascinating new chapter began.
The onset of World War I meant that Matisse and so many of his compatriots were living in something close to siege conditions. Soon after the conflict broke out, in 1914, his home at Issy on the outskirts of Paris had been briefly occupied by French soldiers. As friends were sent to the front, Matisse and his wife, Amélie, went to great lengths to take care of their spouses and children. His hometown, to the north, was occupied by Germans, his family trapped behind enemy lines. Tormented by worry, he sold prints to raise funds for the town’s civilian prisoners.
The following summer, 1916, as first Verdun and then the Battle of the Somme raged, and Europe seemed intent on ripping itself to shreds, Matisse worked on some of the most somber and radically distilled paintings of his career. The booming guns from the Somme were a constant backdrop.
But at the end of that terrible year, things changed. Matisse hired an Italian model, Lorette, and for the next 12 months, he painted her at a rate of one new painting a week. Lorette loved dressing up. She brought much-needed vitality into the house. (Matisse claimed his son Jean fell in love with her.) And as winter turned to spring, it was as if something clenched in Matisse began to relax, or unfurl.
Craving light and softness in a time of trenches and greatcoats, he began looking intently at the work of his immediate predecessors. He bought paintings by Gustave Courbet. He visited the margarine magnate Auguste Pellerin’s great collection of Cézannes. And he paid a visit to Claude Monet at Giverny. Monet was 76 at the time; Matisse, 47.
Then, in the summer, Matisse purchased a secondhand Renault. His son Pierre drove him around. It was something to do. Pierre was just a few months younger than Jean, who had recently been drafted into the French army. Jean had been longing to join up, but alas, it was a bad time to start soldiering. The first of two revolutions had recently broken out in Russia. French soldiers were revolting and deserting en masse. Jean’s first letters home sounded miserable.
Henri and Pierre — anxious about Jean — distracted themselves by going on painting expeditions in the woodlands to the south and southeast of the city and along the banks of the looping Seine. From time to time, Matisse would ask his son to stop the car so he could get out and paint.
But this occasion was different. Pierre was driving him toward an airport at Villacoublay, just to the east of Versailles. Matisse asked him to stop. The two must have switched seats, allowing Matisse to prop a small canvas on his lap, leaning it against the steering wheel. Cars zooming past them on the tree-lined road rocked the old Renault back and forth, and Matisse had to keep the window shut. But he had always loved views through windows. They relieved his anxiety, inspired dozens of his greatest paintings.
What can we say about the result? That it’s fresh, fresh, fresh. And that it’s true. The road stretching out ahead. Pierre right beside him. The world beyond burning. Everything, right here, in this moment.
A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”
Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.