There is a story regarding the poet William Carlos Williams and the painter Marsden Hartley that recounts an early shared experience. Dr. Williams was working at the time at the Post Graduate Clinic in New York and after his shift had made arrangements to visit Hartley’s studio. Hartley however, was either late or had totally forgotten the appointment and Williams sat for a few minutes on the stoop in front of the building. It was getting dark, streetlights were coming on and firetrucks were racing past. Williams got out a piece of paper and wrote down, or sketched out, the entire scene. It became his poem “The Great Figure” and was published as part of his collection Sour Grapes in 1921.
A few years later Charles Demuth began a series of eight abstract “poster portraits” as tributes to other modern American artists, amongst them were Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Arthur Dove. Although these were not literal likenesses, Demuth created these portraits using imagery that related to each sitter. In William Carlos Williams’ case urban sights and sounds, cubist directional lines and a number on the side of a passing firetruck are all incorporated into this one particular painting.
“The Great Figure”
“Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city”[i]
Williams’ poem became a classic example of the new writing in America known as Imagism. Charles Demuth’s painting was purchased by Alfred Stieglitz and later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And later still, during the Pop Art period, Robert Indiana appropriated this image for a series of his own paintings and silkscreen prints titled the “American Dream.” Examples of these works are now in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
[i] Williams, William Carlos; The Collected Poems: Volume I; New Directions Publishing Corporation; New York, New York; 1986; p. 174.
At the Salon of 1907 in Paris, the critic Louis Vauxcelles described the “Blue Nude” as: “A nude woman, ugly, spread out on opaque blue grass under some palm trees.”[i]
In 1913 in New York and Chicago the Armory Show was a catalyst for derision of both European and modern art by the general American population. It was of course the first exposure of works by Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, and even Ingres to the American public. This exhibition also included selected contemporary American artists, including several who were associated with Alfred Stieglitz and his gallery.
Henri Matisse’s early painting, “Blue Nude, a Souvenir of Biskra” from 1907 was one of the pieces to cause a public stir. At the close of the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1913, the students rioted and burned both the painting and Matisse in effigy on the steps of the museum.
The painting had been purchased by Leo Stein in Paris at the 1907 Salon. Later it was purchased by the American collector John Quinn, whose estate in turn sold it to Etta and Claribel Cone of Baltimore, where it remains in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art.
The Blue Nude was also featured in an exhibition at Stieglitz’s gallery in 1921, where it was seen by the American poet William Carlos Williams. His prose poem, inspired by this painting, may be one of the first positive pieces of writing regarding the “Blue Nude.”
“A Matisse in New York”
“On the french grass, in that room on Fifth Ave., lay that woman who had never seen my own poor land.”
“So he painted her. The sun had entered his head in the color of sprays of flaming palm leaves. They had been walking for an hour or so after leaving the train. They were hot. She had chosen the place to rest and he had painted her resting, with interest in the place she had chosen.”
“It was the first of summer. Bare as was his mind of interest in anything save the fullness of his knowledge, into which her simple body entered as into the eye of the sun himself, so he painted her.”
“No man in my country has seen a woman naked and painted her as if he knew anything except that she was naked. No woman in my country is naked except at night.”
“In the french sun, on the french grass in a room on Fifth Ave., a french girl lies and smiles at the sun without seeing us.”[ii]
More recently, in 1993 the English writer A. S. Byatt has taken a similar approach to this subject in The Matisse Stories, a series of short stories each inspired by one of Matisse’s paintings. This time, it is the “Large Reclining Nude” also known as the “Pink Nude” purchased in 1936 directly from the artist by Etta Cone and donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art through the Cone Sisters’ bequest in 1950.
Dr. Claribel Cone’s will stated that the Baltimore Museum of Art should receive the bequest of their collection provided that “…the spirit of appreciation for modern art in Baltimore became improved.”[iii]
“She had walked in one day because she had seen the Rosy Nude through the plate glass. That was odd, she thought, to have that lavish and complex creature stretched voluptuously above the coat rack, where one might have expected the stare, silver and supercilious or jetty and frenzied, of the model girl. They were all girls now, not women. The rosy nude was pure flat colour, but suggested mass. She had huge haunches and a monumental knee, lazily propped high. She had round breasts, contemplations of the circle, reflections on flesh and its fall. . . . She had asked cautiously for a cut and blow-dry.”[iv]
In conversations with his friends and fellow artists over the years, especially with the poet Louis Aragon, Matisse often stated that: “The importance of an artist is to be measured by the number of new signs he has introduced into the plastic language…”[v]
[i] Flam, Jack; Matisse in the Cone Collection: The Poetics of Vision; The Baltimore Museum of Art; Baltimore, Maryland; 2001; pp. 41-42.
[ii] Tashjian, Dickran; William Carlos Williams and the American Scene 1920-1940; Whitney Museum of American; New York, New York; 1978; 29-31.