Le Luxe I and II
The Centre Pompidou in Paris and the National Gallery of Denmark owns two almost identical paintings: Le Luxe I (Paris) and Le Luxe II (Copenhagen). However, closer inspection reveals how widely different the two paintings are. In the exhibition they could be viewed side by side.
Le Luxe I
Le Luxe I was in all likelihood painted without much preparation and without significant changes to the composition during the process. Technical studies of the painting reveal that it was painted using thin layers of oil paints; only few traces of pencil lines are in evidence. This means that the subject matter was simply loosely outlined on the canvas before Matisse begun painting. The paint has been applied in wide, irregular brushstrokes.
Le Luxe II
Le Luxe II has the exact same format as Le Luxe I and features almost identical subject matter. Le Luxe II bears the mark of a square grid. Pencil marks along all edges of the canvas mark out the lines of the grid and tell us where Matisse inserted pins and fitted thick threads coated in red chalk; when pulled back and released with a twang these threads would leave straight lines on the canvas.
The motif was then drawn onto the canvas in thin charcoal lines. However, Matisse made changes to the composition before he began painting. The cloud and the running figure were moved to the left, crossing the painting’s central axis. At the same time the squatting woman’s back became more curved and the cloth beneath the feet of the standing figure was made larger, taking out the entire lower left-hand corner of the picture plane.
Rapid, self-assured work
Matisse chose to paint Le Luxe II using thin, water-soluble distemper, which meant that the grid and underdrawing were both largely washed away during the painting process. Only a few fragments remain visible. The medium required Matisse to work rapidly and confidently: the distemper would dry out rapidly and did not allow for corrections to be made without disturbing the flat, uniformly hued effect. Only the cloud, which was originally green, features some scratches in the layer of colour made before Matisse painted it over in a pale pink. He concluded by outlining the contours in grey.
The essence of the work
While Le Luxe I has the immediacy of a sketch, Le Luxe II is imbued with the control and reflection that characterises a finished work. By trying out two widely different approaches to a largely identical composition Matisse was able to test how the two techniques conveyed the “expressive” dimension that was, to him, the essence of the work.
Hear about more works in the audio guide.
This text is based on Dorthe Aagesen and Kathrine Segel’s article Revising Academic Painting. The full article is available in the exhibition catalogue, where you can also explore much more of Matisse’s art in a total of 28 articles.
You can buy the book in the museum art bookshop.