Three canals: top 9x12 oil on mdf panel, middle and bottom, 9x12 charcoal and pastel.
I will try to define 'true painting' in a roundabout way. The catalogue treats Matisse's work as a gradual progression. He experiments successfully for the most part during the first 20 years of his career, but he always had doubts. When he did Young Sailor II, an early abstract/realist painting, he "told friends that [it] had been painted by the local postman." I wrote the other day that his still lifes of the mid 1920's first approached 'true painting' with "simulated realism through abstraction," a kind of brilliantly composed, colorfully cartoony decorative depiction of objects. In a section on the first odalisque paintings, which were like the still lifes, except they depicted women, Isabelle Monod-Fontaine writes, "Each canvas of this last series [with two models] shows a checkerboard, which not only signals the matrix at the core of any decorative grid but also serves as a metaphor for the game of painting, which begins over and over again."
In the next section, a further development of odalisques, Jack Flam quotes Matisse: "Underlying this succession of moments which constitutes the superficial existence of beings and things and which is continually modifying and transforming them, one can search for a truer, more essential character, which the artist will seize so that he may give to reality a more lasting interpretation." Here Matisse reaffirms that he was an idealist searching for something eternal, like the icons he admired, and the joy of a lost Eden, seen in his earlier work.
In a later section that focuses on Still Life with Magnolia, a masterpiece that achieves Matisse's idea of 'true painting', Dorthe Aagesen quotes Matisse: "Every time I've done something successfully, I say to myself, 'that's it, I've got it, I understand'; but no, nothing has been learned. The conclusion of the picture is another picture." True painting involves a continual search.
Matisse appears to find 'true painting' in the final series of Vence interiors during the mid- late
1940s. These were done quickly, unlike the paintings of the previous couple decades, for which Matisse wanted to make everyone understand the endless stages of each painting despite their simple-appearing final version. Again, another wonderful quote from Matisse in the section by Cecile Debray: "What I experienced after the operation was a liberation. I told myself that life was gratis from now on. Up until then I had felt overwhelmed by Courbet's saying that 'one always had to be capable of doing a picture over again, to be sure that one was not just being played on by one's nerves and chance.' So I would do my pictures over again to try and find the law that governed my work, and I destroyed them so as to be able to begin again.
It came to me like a ray of sunlight on my house, a kind of liberation.
Before, between my studio and the world outside, there was no complete continuity. Before, I would change the spirit somewhat, there was always a slight gap between nature and what I did: for example, I would look at the sea, and in what I did, the breath one finds in the sea would be missing. Now I no longer understand everything I am doing. I don't know why."
It seems that Matisse found 'true painting' when he stopped looking for it.
A related quote: in the section on Matisse's Moroccan landscapes Cecile Debray writes, "He had come to dread the landscape genre, which he had rarely practiced after his Fauve period, because he found the mutability of nature incompatible with his attempts to simplify and stabilize his compositions."
I find this comment fascinating. Nature can overwhelm the artificiality of painting if you let it.