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Beauty,Spring 2005 Third Web Papers On Serendip

On Seeing the Beauty in the Paintings of Matisse, the Shape of a Rectangle, and the Number Three

Alix Dermer

I stand before three long-rectangular canvases. Each canvas holds a separate and autonomous image, possessing the ability to physically stand alone while remaining aesthetically engaging and coherent. However these three seemingly separate images exist intrinsically connected to one another, and together they create one pictorial narrative. Collectively, these three canvases compose one work of art entitled "Three Sisters" by Henri Matisse. The "Three Sisters" first grabbed my attention during my first fieldtrip to the Barnes in January. As I explored the museum for the first time, I was bombarded by the hundreds of paintings that adorned the walls. Room after room, the variety of artists and styles overwhelmed me, and it was not long before every Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse began to look the same.

Before I stepped into the Barnes from the frigid wind on that January morning, I was already acquainted with museums and art, especially that of the French Impressionist style. I had studied Art History and was exposed to the ideas and theories of the discipline. I suppose, from the viewpoint of Barnes, I was already tainted and would never be able to experience his collection of art the way he intended he students to. I also had a vague knowledge of the backgrounds and biographies of the artists whose art hung on the walls inside the Barnes. I explored each room inside, taking note of those paintings which I found most striking and quickly discovered my preference for Matisse's work. Something about the colors and shapes in his works evoked immediate feelings. Matisse's works seemed most alive to me and ignited some sort of emotion without my conscious analysis. It was that subconscious arousal of emotions, which signified to me that I, in fact, found these particular pieces of art beautiful.

As I write these words I am reminded of the article, "The Ivory Tower of Tearlessness" discussed by James Elkins. I was able to personally relate to the article, as I am someone whose emotions are not easily shaken one way or the other by art of any medium be it a painting, novel, or movie. I do not believe however, that my stoic attitude toward art is any reflection of my appreciation of it. I have always been able to experience and appreciate art, while maintaining a distance between my emotions and the work itself. That being said, I believe this characteristic causes me to have passionate tastes in terms of the arts, as I must strongly like or dislike a particular work of art for my emotions to be rattled in anyway. I therefore acknowledged, during that first visit to the Barnes, that I could not simply dismiss the affinity that developed between me and the art of Matisse.

Matisse was conscious of the beautiful images he chose to paint. He is known for his expressive use of color, and some even claim that Matisse created a kind of "paradise world" within his paintings.(Pioch) Matisse was known to be an anxious man who strove to convey a serene and comforting beauty with his paintings.(Pioch) He was once quoted as saying that he viewed each piece of his art "like a good armchair."(Pioch) It is definitely these visions of serenity and paradise, to which I am most attracted in his art. I feel as though his paintings truly transport me to this other more beautiful world he created.

Upon my return to the Barnes today, I arrived having yet to decide which painting I would write about. Although I wished to remain open minded about the many possibilities that adorned the walls inside the Barnes, I suspected that whichever painting I chose would most likely be a Matisse. It remained a mystery even to my subconscious which specific painting I would ultimately choose. But now, I know, staring at the suitably named "Three Sisters" that this collection of paintings is what I choose to discuss.

Its color is the aspect that most immediately attracted me to the "Three Sisters." There is a strong theme of green that runs through the three scenes depicted on each of the three canvases. Admittedly, I cannot say that I have clung to liking only one favorite color over the years; however, I can say that I currently am particularly attracted to any shade of the color green. While green has not always stood out to me among the other colors of the spectrum, it is the color that plucks my attention most at the moment. I would not even say that green is the most prominent color throughout the three images; however it is greenness in the paintings that first attracted me to this Matisse trio.

The size and shape of the canvases themselves are the next aspects which intrigued me about the trio. Each rectangular canvas itself is large and spans almost the entire length of the wall; however, each rectangle's width is proportionally narrow, and I am struck by their unconventional dimensions. But since each canvas is not a separate entity but rather a mere part of the larger narrative of the three, I stand back and try to imagine the trio as one painting with one frame enclosing the three separate canvases. Matisse has granted the viewer of this work a certain freedom and has created an almost type of optical game in how one chooses to perceive the three images.

The paintings' subject, which I perceive to be both exotic and enchanting, sparks my interest as well. Each separate canvas depicts a posed arrangement of three sisters, though I am unable to tell whether or not they are the same women in each of the three scenes. Thus in the complete trio of canvases live a total of nine female figures. I am conceptually intrigued by the play of the relationship among the woman within each canvas and the possibility of a relationship between the sets of sisters amongst the canvases. I even go on to ponder the relationship among each of complete scenes in the canvases and even the physical canvases themselves. I am left to wonder if perhaps Matisse refers not to the depicted figures within the canvases but to the actual canvases themselves, when he entitles the work "Three Sisters." Perhaps each canvas is a sister obviously related and similar in creation and appearance, while still able to exist independently from one another. Like the painted sisters, whom Matisse poses and groups in a visually pleasing manner with regards to shape and space inside each canvas, Matisse also arranges and displays the three rectangular-canvas "sisters," paying close attention as well to shape and space along the wall.

These are the thoughts and questions, which race through my mind as stand in front of these grand figures. But now I stop pondering for a moment, since I do not find the beauty of art in knowing or understanding the subject and its history. I agree with the part of the Barnes aesthetic that places no value on the background information behind a work of art. I agree that I do not need any prior or outside knowledge in order to appreciate Matisse's "Three Sisters." I found myself attracted to this work of art, but my feelings may not necessarily be enhanced by external historical information. And thus, through my exercise on reading the painting, "The Sisters," by Matisse, I leave the Barnes museum with not only a new appreciation and awareness of various beauties in art, but also a new and applied appreciation for the aesthetic values of Albert Barnes and his museum.

Pioch, Nicolas. Matisse, Henri. 19 Aug. 2002. WebMuseum, Paris. 27 Mar. 2005

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