I just began teaching a class on Henri Matisse. In our first meeting, we investigated his practice of copying other artists' work and techniques. A few questions arose: What is the value in doing this? And how can an artist who is so intent on being a trailblazer get to a point of originality through imitation?
Artists have been copying each other--either out of deference or defiance--for over 2000 years. When the Romans conquered Greece, they melted down gorgeous bronze statues and turned them into weapons, but first, they copied them out of marble. Later, Renaissance artists copied these copies; they studied their perfect proportions then created works all'antica, in the style of the ancients. In the Baroque period, artists copied Renaissance masters, and in the nineteenth century, painters went to the Louvre and copied works in the collection. In fact, most Modern masters--now famous for breaking away from Academic traditions--learned how to subvert tradition by mimicking it first.
Matisse (1869-1954) is an interesting example. He didn't start painting until twenty-two, quite a late start in the 1890s. Matisse's initial teacher was William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a successful Salon artist working at the Academie Julienne, but the relationship didn't last long. His first true mentor was Gustave Moreau, an ardent Classicist who instructed his students to copy paintings in the Louvre. Matisse copied somber still lifes by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, dynamic compositions by Eugene Delacroix, fine lines by Jean-Dominique Ingres, and balanced landscapes by Nicolas Poussin. The goal was always to parrot the older artist's technique, and Matisse grew quite skilled at this.
Even after leaving Moreau's studio in 1898, Matisse continued to copy; however, his models changed to more contemporary masters. He also no longer recreated paintings verbatim, but instead started working "in the manner of" various figures. First he looked to Vincent Van Gogh, with whom he reportedly "entered into a dialogue" when he traveled to Corsica. The Dutch painter had been dead for nine years, yet Matisse was channeling him when suddenly bright blues and yellows burst forth in his landscapes. Next, he posed as Paul Cézanne, whose Three Bathers (1882) he purchased in 1899 and stared at every morning. According to Matisse's biography Hillary Spurling, "Matisse seemed to absorb Cézanne into his bloodstream at such a deep level" that it's difficult to pinpoint the exact connections. That same year, he read Paul Signac's "From Delacroix to Neoimpressionism," which advocates a more rigorous approach to Impressionism by placing separate, complimentary colors adjacent to one another. In 1904, Signac and Matisse spent the summer together in St. Tropez, and Matisse tried out Signac's "Neoimpressionist" idiom in his now famous Luxe, calme, et volupte, which Signac bought and hung in his dining room.
How did this chameleon-like behavior eventually lead to Matisse's invention of something intensely new? He himself answered, "I have never avoided the influence of others... I believe that the personality of the artist develops and asserts itself through the struggles it has to go through when pitted against other personalities."
In 1905, Matisse painted his first major break-through: Woman in a Hat, a portrait of his wife Amelie, in which her face is simultaneously chartreuse, violet, and orange. He had combined the rough color patches and solidity of Cézanne, with the expressiveness of Van Gogh and the use of complimentary hues of Signac and Seurat. But he had surpassed them all in liberating color from subject. His colors no longer related to anything in the observable world; instead, he used color's force "like sticks of dynamite." Most viewers were horrified and could not believe Amelie would let her husband paint her in such a sickly, unflattering manner. But a prescient Leo Stein purchased the painting for 500 francs, or roughly $100. Needless to say, this was an excellent investment.
Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse, (New York: Knopf, 2005).
Dorthe Aagesen and Rebecca Rabinow eds., Matisse: In Search of True Painting (London: Yale University Press, 2012).