Art History books are full of errors.
I read art history books from time to time. Sometimes I’ll read a passage where a work seems misinterpreted and I’ll wince. If I see this error repeated over and over again in several different books, I’ll go to my blog and write an Andy Rooney-like post.
The painting, La Raie Vert [the Green Stripe] from 1905 by Henri Matisse is a great painting. It’s a painting that everyone likes. It’s a famous painting. You think of Matisse as being a little too frilly—big turquoise floral patterns, naked French woman dressed up as Moroccans, lounging on cushions, their faces looking like 1920s illustrations for Vogue. But the Green Line is something else—it’s a tough painting. The sitter* is looking almost straight ahead, the oval of her face dead-center on the canvas. The background is separated into three near-geometric sections—orange, teal and purple. Much of her is outlined in black. And also there appears to be a green stripe that runs down the center of her face from her forehead into her upper lip and chin.
And so an art historian looks at that green stripe and thinks “wow, that green stripe is really something. I mean, that green stripe is crazy, right? It doesn’t make sense. That green stripe is so arbitrary!”
And then Mitch Magee has to read over and over again in art history books that La Raie Vert is one of the first examples of the use of arbitrary (or unnatural or random) color in Western Art. And then I wince.
Staring in the Baroque**, there appeared the flashy convention in portrait painting of depicting a subject using two different light sources of different temperatures—the warm light source would indicate lamp light, the cool light source would indicate natural light coming from a window. You see this kind of lighting now in movies and also in classic illustrations like Haddon Sunblom’s Coca-Cola Santa:
Santa’s face is being lit by the warm glow of a fireplace and the right side of his head is being lit by the cool light of some window we can’t see, like really strong moonlight or something. And as those two light sources meet and mix, there is a dark patch on the right side of his forehead.
Light is funny—it doesn’t combine in the same way we would expect pigments to combine. And weird things happen when two light sources of different temperatures mix. And sometimes colors shift in unexpected ways.
Matisse in his Fauve period was inheriting a tradition of French painting that was very much interested in the effects of light. If you were Monet, you would sit around and look at haystacks all day. You would make lots and lots of paintings of haystacks at different times of day and you would concentrate on the quality of light that hit the surface of those haystacks. You thought of images as little particles of light hitting your eyeballs. You would try to be impartial in your perception of light—sometimes a haystack might look purple; sometimes a haystack might look orange; sometimes green. Light is weird.
Derain and Matisse knew what Monet was up to—they had made similar work. What they both decided to do in the early years of the 20th century was to push these impressionist investigations into visual perception (where a shadow on green grass can appear purple, for example) one step further. It was like they had a big “color intensity” knob attached to an impressionist painting and decided to turn it all the way up. When they saw a shadow that appeared slightly blue, they would just make it blue. When an orange-looking light hit the side of a brown boat, they’d paint the boat orange. It was all based on observation. And to some it looked arbitrary.
La Raie Vert, is not an example of the “arbitrary” use of color (what painting is?) It is a painting that—among other things—emphasizes the strange visual effect that occurs when different temperatures of light combine—the “warm” yellow light from a lamp, combing with the “cool” white light from a window, creating what to Matisse’s eyes looked like a dark, almost-greenish stripe that ran down the center of the sitters face. And so he made the stripe green.
* EDIT: Somehow I forgot that the sitter was Mme Matisse! Whoops.
** (I may be a bit off here. I’m thinking of the work of Jacob Jordaens. Most painting from the Baroque uses one light source. This minor convention of using two light sources really hits its stride in the 19th cen. and becomes an illustration and portrait painting convention a little later on near the turn of the century.)