Matisse’s Five Jeannettes: An Experiment in Modernism and Abstraction
By Mercedes Weidmer
Matisse, like many other avant-garde artists of his time (Braque, Picasso and others included) ventured from their dominant medium of painting to sculpture. His series the five heads of Jeannette of 1910-13 is one such example. It depicts one woman, Jeanne Vaderin, metamorphosing through Matisse’s modernist style, increasingly abstract and farther from her ‘real likeness’.
Firstly it is important to consider Matisse’s oeuvre. By 1911 Matisse had established himself predominantly as a painter, as Isabelle Monod-Fontaine says, “Painting always takes precedence”. This begs the question why Matisse chose to work outside his normal medium for the Jeannette series, and others. Perhaps for an avant-garde painter, exploring a new medium was a rejection of their conventional role as a painter, dabbling outside their realm of expertise. Furthermore, painters’ engagement with the medium tended to be experimental which gave them the freedom of an informal study, removing them from the expectations of highbrow sculpture and focusing on the “deconstructive and dematerializing imperatives” of a modernist aesthetic.They sculpted as painters, not as sculptors working within a set of expectations; Matisse himself declared, “I sculpted as a painter. I did not sculpt like a sculptor”.
Sculpture could also have been seen by avant-garde painters as a more tactile and therefore perhaps a more expressive art, unlike painting which was restricted to visual sensations of a solely frontal view. Matisse would have found sculpture appealing because it literally brought his works out of representation on canvas into real space. Sculpture has a physical materiality that is harder to attain in painting because it is literally a “three-dimensional mass occupying space”. It also allows the viewer a greater interaction (and perhaps greater understanding) of the work. As they walk around it they are able to view the work from more than one angle and lighting effect: overall it’s more vulnerable to its ‘volume and ponderability’. In the 19th century Baudelaire criticized sculpture for exactly this reason, claiming that it was to a sculptor’s detriment that he had less control over the viewer’s experience because it was vulnerable to subjectivity and even misinterpretation. Baudelaire also commented on the almost democratic nature of sculpture: in being able to view it in the round and at one’s own discretion, “even the most untutored can seize upon and marvel at it”. Although his notes on sculpture are not to the medium’s credit and even tinted with a tone of disapproval, they do highlight characteristics of sculpture that modernists might have found appealing. Perhaps Matisse worked in sculpture to further his modernist objective of a greater expressive potential, a more subjective interpretation, and finally a more democratizing art that lies outside the Salons and Academies and is for the people.
Matisse’s modernist objective can also be characterized as a move towards formal abstraction. The five heads of Jeannette are a literal progression towards increased abstraction, documented in stages. Matisse also explored this motif in other series, including his Backs of 1909 (see fig 4). Some, including Jeannette II, are even based on the cast of its predecessor, making the series a literal continuation in his stream of thought towards abstraction. The seriality of the heads follows a linear “progression of successive omissions and deformations”,allowing the viewer to follow Matisse’s changes through comparison. Each sculpture is more simplified, distorted, and increasingly abstract. Although made from the cast of its predecessor, Jeannette II is reworked with a knife,with cruder modeling and less subtlety. Although the facial expression of Jeannette I is not particularly emotive in to begin with, Jeannette II is even less so. Her features are enlarged and distorted (nose, eyes and mouth), with an overall ambiguous expression that seems blank. In abstracting Jeannette, Matisse is placing a greater emphasis on style than on her as a subject - an interest crucial to modernism in the early 20th century.
Hilton Kramer argues that to a certain extent Matisse failed to completely attain abstraction in Jeannette II in his “vacillation” between abstraction and “verisimilitude”, going so far as to say that this “vacillation” deprives the sculpture of its potential force had it been more decisive. While this may be true when considering the work in isolation, Jeannette II exists firmly within a series and must be considered in such context. In doing so it takes on the more experimental quality of a work in progress: simply one stage in the overall move towards abstraction; Jeannette II embodies a second stage – simplification and distortion of form.
However, if one sees Jeannette II in this progression, it is interesting to question whether the series truly did begin with a naturalistic depiction of Jeannette. The first head, Jeannette I, is realistic compared to later heads but it does not strive for representational verisimilitude in the traditional sense. It is very different from the Roman bust of a Flavian Woman ca. 90 CE (see fig. 2) for example, lacking the finished quality of a Classical sculpture that epitomizes anatomical precision. Although Classical sculpture aims for more idealism than gritty realism, Matisse does neither in Jeannette I: it does not pay close attention to anatomy, or strive to be the truest likeness of its model. Instead it has a crude Rodinesque modeling whose expression is through material physicality. In this way it more resembles Rodin’s bust Miss Eve Fairfax of 1904-5 (see fig 3). Both Jeannette I and Fairfax cling to naturalism but have an unfinished texture and blank facial expression. One could even argue that Matisse goes even further than his modernist forefather in the cruder modeling of both Jeannette I and II compared to his bust of Miss Fairfax. Thus it would be more accurate to describe the series as a modernist exploration of abstraction.
Ellen Mcbreen suggests that the series is a progression increasingly mask-like, making the ‘real’ Jeannette (Jeannette I) harder to distinguish. Avant-garde artists of the time frequently resorted to African tribal masks as a source of form alternative to that of Europe. This interest in ‘primitive’ art (similar to their interest in sculpture) allowed for a freedom from conventional form towards abstraction. Matisse had a collection of masks in his possession around this time, including a Kuba helmet mask called Mbwoom (see fig 5). Matisse even referred to Jeanette II as the ‘Jeannette Mask’ in his casting notes. This is not to say that the heads of Jeannette are mask-like depictions of the model, increasingly disguising her identity to a primitivist end. However, it is possible that Matisse’s interest in ‘primitive’ masks was influential. Although there are not explicit similarities between the mask and the heads of Jeannette, its facial features are different from European convention and therefore can perhaps be adopted for abstraction. The power and sheer function of a mask to “mediate between the invisible and the visible, the absence and presence” of a face could have resonated with Matisse in his attempts to mediate between the representational and the abstract; Jeannette’s likeness is still apparent but increasingly ambiguous and indistinct.
Matisse’s knowledge in his Kuba mask was probably relatively limited in terms of its history, function or cultural significance. It is widely recognized now that artists of the avant-garde saw in ‘primitive’ art projected illusions of barbarism and the grotesque, ignoring their cultural history in its own right, seeing them as a binary opposite to Europe. Thus Matisse would have seen the mask as an isolated object, without narrative or historical background. This isolation is apparent in Jeannette. Jeannette II is named after the model used not a famous figure or character, only her face is shown with little-to-no neck, she lacks any symbols to allude to a story, and her expression does not indicate a specific emotion. As previously discussed, the heads are even further removed from representation in that their volume and surfaces are not to illustrate a narrative but to be considered as meaningful in their own right – a profoundly modern notion. Matisse could have taken inspiration from Rodin here as well. Known for his rejection of explicit narrative Rodin expresses solely through materials, texture, and form. These are the very qualities that Matisse relies on in his Jeannettes.
Matisse’s Jeannette series demonstrates a progression of a woman’s head increasingly abstracted. Despite his preference for painting, Matisse might have chosen to dabble in sculpture for its informality, and qualities apparently inherent to three-dimensionality which painting cannot offer. Such qualities might include a greater potential for subjectivity of interpretation and the sheer physicality of a sculpture: a viewer’s experience is more varied in their ability to see it in the round, and its physical presence brings it away from representation on canvas and into real space. Like other avant-garde artists of his time, he also found inspiration in Rodin, as well as ‘primitive’ art for lack of narrative, crude modeling and formal features.
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