The Long and Short of It

The Norton goes way outside the impressionist box, then offers a shrunken Matisse

The exhibition ultimately does all its artists a bit of an injustice by diffusing its focus so much. Since most of the Americans indeed studied in France, often with Monet himself, wouldn't a tighter focus on Monet and his immediate circle have made more sense? But that would be another show, not the one now on view.


Impressionism may have mildly scandalized audiences and critics when it first appeared, but the work of Henri Matisse provoked outrage and disgust not so many years later. A 1905 exhibition, for instance, prompted another art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, to slap Matisse and some of his contemporaries with the label "fauves," for "wild beasts."

Laurette With Long Locks: Not so beautiful, but fierce.
Laurette With Long Locks: Not so beautiful, but fierce.
More water lilies from Monet
More water lilies from Monet

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On display through March 5 ("Impressionism") and April 19 ("Matisse") at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, 561-832-5196.

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Now, of course, we luxuriate in Matisse's color-saturated, pattern-riddled interiors, although some of the artist's output — portraits, notably — remains almost as intimidating as it was then. That doesn't appear to have deterred the crowds visiting another current Norton exhibition, "Matisse in Transition: Around Laurette."

The show is small — only about two dozen pieces, plus some supplementary photographs — and it's as sharply focused as the impressionist exhibition is fuzzy. Most of the works are in oil, a few in ink, charcoal, and graphite, and all but a handful are of a frequent Matisse model from the early 1900s.

Little is known of this mysterious Italian woman, including her surname, and even her first name varies from image to image. And while Matisse was often photographed with his models, there are no known photos of the artist with Laurette (or, as she's sometimes referred to, Lorette).

One easy conclusion to be drawn from the Laurette pictures, however, is that it's doubtful Matisse was attracted to her for her great beauty. More likely, he was fascinated by her strong, fierce features, which lend themselves quite well to his explorations of portraiture at the time. Only one small oil-on-wood work from 1917 softens the model's usual harshness to any significant degree.

Oddly, two of the most powerful portraits are 1916 renderings not of Laurette but of Michael Stein (brother of Leo and writer Gertrude, both avid patrons of Matisse and Picasso, among others) and his wife, Sarah. Even more than the Laurette portraits, these strange paintings live up to the "in transition" part of the exhibition's title.

But just as Laurette captivated Matisse, we may find it difficult to resist his myriad interpretations of her peculiar charms. These paintings and drawings are a reminder of how revolutionary Matisse remains after nearly a century.

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