Influence is only interesting when it results in something unexpected, when it jumps languages, generations, mediums, styles, when it is not immediately recognizable as such. I’m thinking about influence because I’m thinking about Matisse, whose influence pervades the last 100 years of art perhaps more widely and deeply than any other single artist. Why did Matisse have such a massive, and prolonged, impact? It’s not just a matter of his artistic greatness (proved yet once again by the current show of the cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). There seems to be something in Matisse’s work that, under the best conditions, gives considerable space to other artists to construct something new.
Art historians have traced countless instances of Matisse’s influence, but there is one episode that hasn’t, I think, been sufficiently explored. It begins at Les Trois Marroniers, a small café-tabac on the rue du Dragon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés that in early 1950s was frequented by a band of expatriate American painters, including Sam Francis, Shirley Jaffe, Norman Bluhm, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Kimber Smith.
What drew these artists to Les Trois Marroniers wasn’t the café itself—it was, by all accounts, a negligible locale—but one of its patrons: Georges Duthuit. A maverick art historian whose focus was Byzantine art and who believed that the Italian Renaissance, with its emphasis on fictive perspectival space, had sent European art in the wrong direction. Duthuit also developed a deep engagement with the art and literature of his time. Chiefly remembered now as the interlocutor in Samuel Beckett’s “Three Dialogues,” Duthuit was the editor of Transition, an important journal of the arts, from 1948 to 1950, and became an influential art critic in the 1950s and 1960s, writing mostly about the abstract painting, in particular the work of Francis and Riopelle.
In addition to his stimulating ideas and charismatic presence (Francis recalled him as “a Baudelairean dandy”), Duthuit offered the American painters something else important—a direct connection to Matisse. In 1923, Duthuit had married Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, and although the discovery of Duthuit’s affair with another woman had strained relations between the painter and his son-in-law, Duthuit remained an enthusiastic and eloquent supporter of Matisse’s work. Looking back at the rue du Dragon gatherings, Jaffe has recalled how Duthuit “spoke to us so much about” Matisse. All these painters were marked by their years in Paris in ways that set them apart from their U.S.-bound contemporaries, but the importance of their encounter with the work of Matisse, and with Duthuit’s interpretation of it, can’t be underestimated. (Of course, Matisse was also important to expatriate artists beyond the clientele of the Trois Marronniers, including Joan Mitchell, who was close to all of the Trois Marronniers regulars and also knew Duthuit, as well as others such as Ellsworth Kelly, George Sugarman and Ed Clark.)
The influence of Matisse on Sam Francis has long been recognized and one has only to compare Matisse’s Blue Nude cutouts (1952) and Francis’s Blue Form works from circa 1960 to perceive the strong connection, although Matisse’s insistence on the necessity of the figure, the ”object,” doesn’t carry over to Francis’s proto-process abstractions.
In 2009, the Musée Matisse in Le Cateau-Cambrésis presented a brilliantly conceived exhibition titled “Ils Ont Regardé Matisse” (They Looked at Matisse) that examined how 15 abstract painters, Francis and Kelly among them, in the U.S. and Europe responded to the work of Matisse.
With Kimber Smith, who would have been a welcome addition to the Musée Matisse show, Matisse’s impact is visible in the American’s economical brushwork, his (apparent) nonchalance and bold deployment of color and patterning via abbreviated, signlike motifs. Smith’s response to Matisse’s work takes on greater depth in his last works where he engaged aspects of the cancer that would kill him with a visual style that we read as carefree and joyful. When we look at Smith, just as when we look at Matisse, we must remember that a buoyant style doesn’t preclude the experience of despair.
Chez Shirley Jaffe one must be careful not to equate visual resemblance with direct influence. Jaffe’s colorful “white ground” paintings have often been compared to Matisse’s cutouts, but Jaffe has made it clear that she came to her way of working by other paths.
In a 1989 interview with Yves Michaud, Jaffe says: “I don’t think that [her vocabulary of forms] came from looking at Matisse. I wonder, rather, if it didn’t come from my love of Persian and Indian and French miniatures, for Fouquet, or even more for mosaics, for Sassetta and the Italians.” In fact, Jaffe’s process, with its patient accumulation of minute brushstrokes and continual adjustments, couldn’t be further from Matisse’s. What Jaffe took away from her encounter with Duthuit may have had as much to do with his conception of Byzantine art as with his comments about Matisse. Byzantine mosaics were near the center of Duthuit’s art historical vision, while for Jaffe, when she was living in Berlin in 1963-64 at a crucial point in her career, the Ravenna mosaics at the Bode Museum were very important.
Although, thanks to Duthuit, he was close to the Matisse family during his years in Paris (1948-1956), Norman Bluhm didn’t fully engage Matisse’s art until several decades later. It’s true that the gestural shapes which first appear in his work in the late 1950s owe much to the liberated figures that float through Matisse’s work from the two La Danse paintings (1909-1910) to the cutouts, but to my eye the final decade of Bluhm’s work (1989-1999), which is marked by increasingly ornate and large-scale decorative schemes, is where he makes the most of Matisse’s legacy.
My feeling is that artists are still looking at Matisse very intently and very productively. In a subsequent Silo entry I plan to look at more recent instances of his impact. I also hope to say more about Georges Duthuit.
 Yves Michaud, “Entretien avec Shirley Jaffe,” in Shirley Jaffe: Peintures 1965-1989, Fondation du Château de Jau, Cases de Pène, 1989, p. 25. My translation.