Matisse engravings


It’s a question of learning and relearning the language of lines”. Matisse to Raymond Escholier

Henri MATISSE (1869-1954) is of course known and appreciated for his use of colour, but he was also a master of line, with a freedom of hand that is perfectly visible in the large number of lithographs and engravings he created. Long treated as secondary, this side of Matisse’s work has been brought to the fore by various exhibitions in recent years in initiatives that do justice to an artist who considered engraving equally important as drawing. Ignoring any hierarchy of mediums and techniques, Matisse conceived every work, whether painted, carved, engraved or cut-out, as an emanation of himself, each with the same degree of importance. Matisse worked with prints of all kinds in a spirit of ‘demanding freedom’ for over fifty years, and, as he used to say, “Each technique feeds the other

High quality works… much in demand

Matisse made his first engraving in 1900: a drypoint self-portrait in which he imagined himself engraving, in the same posture that Rembrandt had chosen for his own self-portrait in 1648. Aged 31 at the time, his first foray into the medium made a direct reference to the greatest engraver in art history… Not long after, he dropped traditional styles, liberating his lines and clearly referencing another master, Eugène Delacroix, who also had a very high opinion of engraving (“The art of engraving in not just about imitating the effects of painting… it’s a language in its own right”). Until the end of his life, Matisse explored the various printmaking techniques including etchings, drypoints, aquatints, monotypes, lithographs, woodcuts, linocuts, creating nearly 90 illustrated books and some 829 sheets (listed in his catalogue raisonné). Of these, 313 are drypoints and etchings and just four are woodcuts (between 1906 and 1907). There are also 306 lithographs, roughly 60 monotypes (all made between 1915 and 1917), about fifty linocuts and 57 sugar aquatints.

This sizeable output is a manna for a market avid for works by Matisse. And, as the geographical distribution of the lots sold shows (38% in the USA, 19% in the UK, 16% in France, 11% in Germany and 15% in the rest of the world), the market is global.

Over the past 30 years, more than 8,100 Matisse prints have been offered at auction compared with fewer than 500 paintings. In relative terms, Matisse’s prints represented 80% of the total Matisse lots sold over the last two years, and 3% of the artist’s auction revenue over the same period. Although the offer is dense, the editions have been subject to rigorous control. Clearly wishing to elevate the standing of printmaking as a medium, Matisse was particularly careful with each print often drastically limiting editions (12, 25… sometimes just one copy). After the prints were made, the plates (in zinc, copper, linoleum, etc) were scratched to prevent any subsequent printing

Line and colour

Some Matisse prints are worth a fortune, with one having fetched over a million dollars on several occasions: his screenprint Océanie, la mer (1946), a masterpiece measuring almost four metres. Second on the auction podium is his album Jazz (1947), a large illustrated book printed in 270 copies (plus 100 copies in addition to the book), which has also crossed the million-dollar threshold. In 2015, a complete Jazz album (composed of 20 sheets) reached $1.12 million at Sotheby’s New York. Yet it took more than 20 years to sell this superb album published by Tériade, which was often dismembered, and whose scattered prints have decorated certain American hotels.

Océanie, la mer and Jazz are examples of an essential part of Matisse’s output. Indeed, his cut-outs represent a major innovation blurring the distinction between drawing and colour. Developed in the last decade of his life, his practice of scissor-cut paper allowed him to “draw directly into the colour, which is all the more measured for not being transposed. This simplification ensures such precision in the meeting of the two (line & colour) that they become one”.

As in the case of Jazz, Matisse’s stencilled multiples, “cut directly into the colour”, are key to the evolution of his work. Nowadays, the individual sheets of his Jazz album change hands for between $3,000 and $6,000 on average; but some climb much higher. There are also his Algues, much rarer on the market, some of which, from editions of 200, are worth about $4,000, others, from editions of 1,000, are fetch roughly a tenth of that price for being less rare.

Matisse’s stencil work therefore represents a gateway to an artist often considered the greatest colorist of the 20th century. However, in his earlier work the artist put a lot of energy into etching and lithography, processes that are closer to drawing… to the clarity and balance of the black line on a white sheet of paper. Matisse engraved as he drew, in search of simplicity and purity. His favorite subject, he said, was “not landscape, nor still-life, but rather the figure”… The figure… and the nude of course. In his prints, as in his drawings, Matisse championed the feminine, exploring the curves of dancers and sensual odalisques, synthesizing the flexibility of shapes in lines made from a single gesture, without any correction. Prices for such works vary enormously depending on the subject, the rarity and the condition of the print. Expect to pay between $5,000 and $40,000 to acquire a good ‘feminine’ etching. If you encounter an ink drawing of one of his muses, you would expect to pay between $40,000 and $2 million.