Matisse’s Way with Eyes (1920-52)

We have seen in Red Studio (1911) how Matisse formed his initials, HM, out of ordinary objects in the scene. Here I show how often Matisse did something similar in his sketches of women, so often that it must have been intentional.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Matisse, Visage (1946) Pencil on paper. Private Collection.
R: Detail of image at left

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Drawn quickly with chalk, pen or pencil these female faces are turned into self-representations by the simple expedient of drawing their pupils in the shape of an M. Given the incongruity of the shape - no part of an eye resembles an M - it surely stands for Matisse. An eye, of course, is an artist's most important organ.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Matisse, Visage (1952) Crayon on paper. Private Collection.

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It is astonishing that even though the letter M appears in the eyes of literally hundreds of drawings, no specialist on Matisse's art ever seems to have noticed this.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Matisse, Visage (n.d.) Crayon on paper. Private Collection.

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Knowledge of Matisse's practice makes it less surprising that Leonardo may have painted the letters LV into the right eye of the Mona Lisa, as an art expert recently claimed1. [See "Mona's Eyes are Lettered"] Both artists use their initials to indicate their self-representation in a woman and thus the androgyny of their minds.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Matisse, Portrait of a Woman (n.d.) Crayon on paper. Private Collection.

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Even in self-portraits, where self-representation is obvious, Matisse sometimes included an M in at least one eye. In other self-portraits, though, with circular pupils Matisse must have thought them unecessary. The two examples at left, though, include the M.

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Matisse, Self-Portrait (c. 1920) Crayon on paper. Private Collection.
R: Matisse, Self-portrait (1920) Pen and ink on paper. private Collection.

Click image to enlarge.

The use of an artist's initials disguised as another object naturally part of the scene is a fairly common practice among artists of this calibre and its purpose is almost always the same: self-representation. The placement of the initials may vary but the eye, symbol of the artist's prowess, is a common site. We have seen the method practiced in varying centuries by Leonardo, Durer, Poussin, Courbet, Manet, Matisse, Miro, Picasso and Basquiat, a small but expanding sample. Keep your own eyes open; it is a growing list and there are likely to be many more.

Notes:

1. Nick Pisa, "Is there a Da Vinci code in the eyes of Mona Lisa?", Daily Telegraph, Dec. 13th., 2010, p.20

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 16 Dec 2010. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.