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A grid of red chalk – Matisse’s use of grids as an aid

Back in 2009 the painting Le Luxe II by Henri Matisse was restored at the Department of Conservation at the National Gallery of Denmark.  In connection with the treatment a range of technical studies were conducted in order to gain new insights into the genesis of the painting and to expand the general body of knowledge about Matisse’s painting technique. For example, we were interested in uncovering how Matisse transferred the motif to the canvas.

Le Luxe times three
Matisse painted two versions of Le Luxe. He painted the first version, Le Luxe I, in early 1907 in the south of France. Today, the work is owned by the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The painting was executed in oils, and technical studies have revealed that only few traces of underlying pencil lines exist, meaning that the motif had only been loosely outlined on the canvas before Matisse began painting.

Two different binders in the pigments
The two paintings share the same size (219.5 x 139cm) and are almost identical in composition. However, unlike the first painting, Le Luxe II was obviously not executed in oils. Matisse chose to paint this second version in thin, water-soluble distemper, which is what gives the painting its flat appearance.

A full-size sketch
In addition to the two paintings mentioned above, the Pompidou in Paris also owns an undated drawn sketch of the motif. The drawing is slightly taller than the two paintings, but it is believed that the drawing originally shared the same dimensions as the Le Luxe paintings.

Succession H. Matisse/BilledKunst Copydan 2012. Henri Matisse, Le Luxe II, 1907-8

© Succession H. Matisse/BilledKunst Copydan 2012. Henri Matisse, Le Luxe II, 1907-8

This suggests that Matisse – in a highly unusual move – created the drawing after completing Le Luxe I. The drawing served as a tool that Matisse could refer to while working on the second version. When the drawing was finished, thin lines drawn in red chalk were used to divided it into squares, each measuring 20 x 20cm.

Strings covered in chalk
Obvious similarities between the composition of Le Luxe II and the sketch drawing indicate that Matisse presumably employed some sort of transfer technique. When the decorative frame on Le Luxe II was removed in connection with the restoration work the canvas was revealed to have pencil marks along all edges, marking the points of origin of lines. The marks also show where Matisse attached nails or pins, using them to fasten lines that had been covered in red chalk. When these lines were pulled back and released they would leave straight chalk lines on the canvas.

Infrared photograph showing pencil markings along the left side of Le Luxe II

Fragment of the original red chalk grid visible through the paint in Le Luxe II (left of the middle)

Matisse divided his canvas into squares
The grid on the canvas corresponds perfectly to the grid on the drawing. Once the grid was in place the motif was outlined in thin coal lines, using the drawing as a reference. Matisse presumably kept the drawing next to the canvas while working; this is borne out by the correspondence between the undated drawing, the original grid, and the underdrawing of Le Luxe II. The grid technique is a well-known technique for transferring a motif from one surface to another (e.g. from a sketch to a canvas). The grid allows the artist to draw the motif freehand by using the grid for reference.

Water-soluble chalk lines
The grid of Le Luxe II was executed in reddish chalk. The lines of the grid – and the underlying drawing – were water soluble, and so they were largely washed away during the painting process because Matisse painted the work in distemper. This is why only fragments of the original underdrawing remain visible today.

Both versions of Le Luxe and the drawing can be viewed side by side at the Matisse exhibition currently on show at the Gallery.

This piece is based on excerpts from the article Revising the Academic Academy by senior research curator Dorthe Aagesen and conservator Kathrine Segel. The full article can be found in the exhibition catalogue Matisse – Doubles and Variations, which is available from the Gallery’s bookshop.

Updated: 7.jul.2014
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