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Friday, April 15, 2011

Matisse's Students

From colonial times, American artists have been drawn to Europe to study. This trek across the sea continued until the advent of WW I. Until the Revolutionary war, most American artists studied in London, but along with the break from England came a breaking away from English influence in American art. Paris became the place to go to learn to paint, though Munich and Dresden in Germany sometimes drew Americans into their circle of influence. During the early 1900s, though the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Academy Julian continued to attract American students, one man alone probably had greater influence upon American artists than all these hallowed halls of academic art combined.  His name was Henri Matisse.

Henri Matisse, 1933
Often, as in the case of Marguerite Thompson, the American artist/student, sojourning to Paris during the first decade of the twentieth century, they initially intended to study at the Ecole des Beaux-arts.  However with the Avant-garde exhibits blooming like Paris in the springtime, the lure to the Fauves, or Cubism, was often irresistible. And it was Matisse who attracted them like flies to honey. Among the American flies were Alfred H. Maurer, Arthur B. Carles, Patrick Henry Bruce, Henry Lyman, and Miss Thompson. Typically, they often met Matisse for the first time though their friendship with American expatriots Leo and Gertrude Stein. Though often they also flirted with other French art titans such as Picasso and Delaunay,  inevitably it was Matisse and his Fauvist, expressionistic colors that captured them and sent them back to America after a few years with irrational, bold, shocking, primary colors leaping from their palettes.

Still-life, 1924, Patrick Henry Bruce
Back in this country they met with mixed reactions.  Some, like Carles and Maurer, fell into place in Stieglitz's 291 Gallery and went on to become strong, Modernist influences as Dada and Surrealism took hold. Henry Lyman mixed Matisse and Picasso along with collaged newsprint and wallpaper in his work to become a major force in establishing modern art in Philadelphia. Marguerite Thompson returned to her native California where she enriched her paintings of giant redwoods with Matisse's brand of decorative color. Others were not always so fortunate. Particularly Patrick Henry Bruce. He had left his home state of Virginia to study with Robert Henri in New York before being drawn to Paris, Delaunay, and Matisse. His work, perhaps more than all the others, reflected the genius of Matisse, Cezanne and the Paris Avant-garde. But after being forced to return home just before the war, his work tended toward flat, geometric patterns and lost the fresh spirit of his Paris masterpieces.  Lacking both critical acceptance and sales, even when returning to Paris after the war, Bruce grew bitter and depressed. In 1936, he destroyed most of his work before returning to this country where, a few months later, he committed suicide.

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