Henri Matisse (French, 1869 – 1954), Olga Merson , 1911. Oil on canvas, 39 ¼ x 31 ¾ inches. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund. © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
“In this striking portrait of his student Olga Merson, Henri Matisse does not convey her personality through conventional means such as costume or gesture. Instead, he reveals the physical struggle of his painting process.
One of the major innovators of the 20th century, Matisse accorded color an unprecedented structural and expressive role in his compositions. In 1905 he helped launch the century’s first avant-garde movement, Fauvism. (Confronted by the boldly colored paintings of Matisse and contemporaries at the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris, a critic claimed that the works could have been painted by fauves, or wild beasts.)
Matisse moved away from the bright colors of Fauvism into new artistic terrain, and he painted Olga Merson two years after the movement’s dissolution. He leaves traces of his effort as he works through the placement and rendering of his sitter: the scraping and over-painting of the face, neck, and forearm, and the bold black marks that so severely reaffirm the figure´s placement on the canvas. Yet he also conveys a powerful impression of Merson. She fills the frame, and the curved diagonals anchor her to the composition, creating a sense of monumentality” (Museum of Fine Arts Houston)