HENRI MATISSE (1869-1954) Arbre de neige 16 x 10 1/4 in (40.5 x 26.3 cm) (Created in 1947)

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Lot 12
Arbre de neige 16 x 10 1/4 in (40.5 x 26.3 cm)

Sold for US$ 1,567,500 inc. premium

Impressionist & Modern Art

17 May 2017, 17:00 EDT

New York

HENRI MATISSE (1869-1954)
Arbre de neige
signed 'H. Matisse' (lower right)
gouache and découpage on paper
16 x 10 1/4 in (40.5 x 26.3 cm)
Created in 1947


  • Provenance
    The artist's studio, Vence, France.
    Galerie Berggruen et Cie., Paris (on consignment from the artist).
    Theodor Ahrenberg, Stockholm, Sweden and Chexbres, Switzerland (acquired through Berggruen circa 1953); his sale, Sotheby's, London, 3 July 1968, lot 89 (to O. Adler for Galerie Agnès Lefort).
    Galerie Agnès Lefort, Montreal.
    Private collection, Québec (acquired from the above in November 1968).
    By descent from the above to the present owner.

    Paris, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Henri Matisse, Oeuvres récentes 1947 - 48, June-September 1949, no. 7.
    Paris, Galerie Berggruen et Cie., Henri Matisse, papiers découpés, 27 February-28 March 1953 (illustrated in color).
    Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, Moderne utländsk konst ur Svenska privatsamlingar, 12-30 November 1954, no. 53.
    Possibly Helsinki, Helsingin Taidehalli, Henri Matisse, Apollon, Theodor Ahrenbergin kokoelema, 10 December 1957-6 January 1958.
    Liège, Musée des Beaux Arts, Henri Matisse—Apollon, Collection Theodor Ahrenberg, 3 May-31 July 1958, no. 3.
    Zurich, Kunsthaus, Henri Matisse Des Plastische Werk, Sämtliche Plastiken des Meisters sowie Zeichnungen, Graphik und Collagen als Leihgaben der Sammlung Ahrenberg, Stockholm, 15 July-12 August 1959, no. 74.
    Gothenburg, Konsthallen, Henri Matisse ur Theodor Ahrenberg's Samling, 16 March-10 April 1960, no. 3.

    J. Cassou, 'Matisse va présenter au public ses papiers découpés', in France Illustration, no. 383 [14 February 1953], pp. 234-235 (illustrated).
    J. Cowart and J.D. Flam, Henri Matisse, Paper Cut-Outs, New York, 1977, no. 75, p. 144 (illustrated).
    K. Buchberg et al., Henri Matisse: The Cutouts, exhib. cat., London, Tate Modern, and New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2014, p. 130 and p. 272, note 30.

    The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by Madame Wanda de Guébriant.

    The work I am doing today is in step with the future

    Henri Matisse's series of gouaches on cut paper, known variously as cutouts or découpages, are now among his most recognizable and arguably most profound works. Created largely in the last ten years of his life they can be seen as the summation of his artistic endeavor. The artist himself felt that he was crossing an exciting threshold into an entirely new art form rich with possibility. He was confident that he had opened a door to the future, a verdict which the impact of the cutouts on later twentieth century art has certainly borne out. As he declared to his friend the artist and critic André Verdet:

    'The technique of cutout gouaches literally lifts me to the heights of passion. The passion to paint, because by entirely renewing myself, I believe I have discovered one of the major points of artistic inspiration and fixation today. By creating these colored paper cutouts, it seems to me that I am happily anticipating things to come. I don't think that I have ever found such balance as I have in creating these paper cut-outs. But I know that it will only be much later that people will realize to what extent the work I am doing today is in step with the future.' (quoted in P. Deparpe, (ed.), Matisse: La couleur découpée, une donation révélatrice, Paris, 2013, p. 14).

    Arbre de Neige dates from Matisse's first major series of finished works in this new medium. The group comprised approximately fifteen compositions pinned to the wall of his studio at the Villa Le Rêve in Vence. The exact number is uncertain since contemporary photographs show elements constantly being reconfigured across the wall. Their inception can be dated to after his return from Paris to Vence in April 1947. By 22 February 1948 he wrote to André Rouveyre 'The walls of my bedroom are covered in cutouts ... I do not yet know what I will do with [them] ... The result is of more importance than it would seem.' (K. Buchberg et al., op. cit., p. 17).

    On 5 April 1948 he wrote to his son Pierre in New York 'J'ai parfait mon mur de découpages.' ['I have perfected my wall of cutouts'], reporting that he had been approached by a shipping magnate who wanted to buy the entire wall to decorate the bar of his cruise ship Le Génie Français. Hiding behind concerns that humidity in the Far East would damage the delicate elements, he admitted that he would rather keep them and frame them as motifs for his own inspiration.

    Arbre de Neige remained pinned to the wall at Villa Le Rêve until 1949 when Matisse moved back to Nice. In that year, his secretary and amanuensis Lydia Delectorskaya, together with his studio assistants, carefully removed the cutouts from the wall and lightly spot-glued the cut elements in place. Each panel was framed simply under glass for exhibition at the Musée National d'Arte Moderne in Paris in June of that year: Arbre de Neige appears to have been kept in that same frame until 2017.

    Drawing with scissors

    Matisse seems to have known instinctively that his cutouts showed a new way, an art form that he set at the same rank as painting, sculpture or drawing. They had the scale and chromatic impact of painting, the three-dimensional presence of sculpture and the immediacy and fluency of drawing. In his text for the Jazz series, his first extended use of the new medium albeit in support of a printed project, he muses that he is 'drawing with scissors. Cutting directly into vivid color reminds me of the direct carving of the sculptors.' (J. Flam, Matisse on Art, Berkeley, 1995, p. 172).

    Matisse was certainly the supreme colorist, and from his Fauve days it was in the investigation of color that he made his most profound advances. Yet he was also an unparalleled master of pure line, matching austerity of means to a luxurious contour. With the cutout process he was able to move past a conflict that dated back to the Renaissance between the primacy of line and the power of color. As the scissors cut through paper prepared with pure pigment, the contour and internal shape are formed simultaneously with a line as precise as a pen stroke. As he explained to Verdet, 'by drawing with scissors on sheets of paper colored in advance, one movement [links] line with color, contour with surface.' (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., p. 216).

    John Hallmark Neff gives a deeply felt analysis: 'In his cutouts, Matisse limited illusion primarily to the edges, or the contours, of his colored shapes, the contour itself a condensation of sculptural mass in line. ... Matisse's cutouts are, by definition, half-real and half-illusion – physical forms rendered in pictorial terms.' (J. Hallmark Neff, 'Matisse, His Cut-Outs and the Ultimate Method' in J. Cowart and J.D. Flam, op. cit., p. 27).

    The act of cutting is inherently sculptural, but with the cutout process the scissors cleave positive form from negative, creating two matched but opposing images. Matisse occasionally used both elements in a composition, but more often he used the tension between positive and negative space to give the composition movement. This is particularly true in Arbre de Neige since the white element, which is an optically negative 'void', is actually the raised cut section, set against the visually dominant but physically passive fuchsia ground. While the lightly glued elements articulate the surface with shadow and areas of low relief it is this dynamic optical effect of 'slippage' that gives the cutout its vibrant sense of movement, seeming to cycle between positive and negative elements.

    As Matisse explained to Verdet in 1952: 'here is not a brush winding and gliding on canvas, but scissors cutting through stiff paper and color. The procedural conditions are completely different. The shape of the figure springs from the action of the scissors, which give it the motion of organic life. This tool, you see, does not modulate; it does not brush onto but cuts into – a point that should be emphasized., for it makes the criteria of observation completely different.' (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., pp. 292-293).

    Colors win you over more and more

    Through his intense investigation of color, line, space and texture Matisse was able to open up new vistas. He was often criticized by his contemporaries, particularly partisans of Picasso, for the apparent ease of his works. His much misunderstood suggestion that his art should be as relaxing as a good armchair was balanced by his own angst at the prospect of creation. As he explained in an aside to Georges Charbonnier 'I believe my role is provide calm, because I myself have need of peace' (quoted in J. Flam, op. cit., p.193). His facility masked a deeply mystical sensibility, driven not by theory but by passion. He realized that through color he was able to directly address his viewers' innermost thoughts: 'Colors win you over more and more. A certain blue enters your soul. A certain red has an effect on your blood pressure. A certain color has a tonic effect. It's the concentration of timbres. A new era is opening.' (Matisse to Verdet in J. Flam, op. cit., p. 211).

    Lydia Delectorskaya was present at every step of the evolution of the cutouts. Her memories are particularly vivid: 'He took color itself and decided the amount of it that would be harmonious for the drawing he was making with scissors. He subordinated color to drawing and drawing to color. ... He would look at orange on a sheet of paper, for example, and ask himself whether it 'did' anything, whether it spoke to him, whether it sang?' (quoted by D. Szymusiak in E. de Chassey, Ils ont regardé Matisse, Montreuil, 2009, p. 217).

    The whole wall was filled with his compositions, right up to the ceiling

    Lydia marshalled the studio assistants with an iron will, ensuring that Matisse always had on hand piles of stiff paper carefully prepared in a rainbow of pure color. On his nightstand were a range of implements from delicate embroiderer's scissors to the enormous shears with which he would have been familiar from his youth among the textile workers and pattern cutters in Le Cateau-Cambrésis. To one side were the boxes of pins with which the assistants would attach the cut elements to the wall at the master's direction. Contemporary photographs show that the elements were often rearranged. The walls of Matisse's principal rooms at Villa Le Rêve had been prepared with softwood panels to allow the pins to be moved easily.

    Sometimes Matisse made drawings in preparation for his compositions, but he didn't directly refer to them. Rather in the creation of a new work he allowed his subconscious to work on the memory of his drawing. Often indeed it was enough to make a 'drawing' with his finger in thin air as a preparation for picking up the scissors, rather as an athlete develops 'muscle memory' while preparing for an event. Matisse's biographer Hilary Spurling relates this to his early artistic training at the Académie Julian: 'Drawing with scissors effectively abolished the frontiers between thought, feeling and expression. It allowed him to concentrate on overall effect rather than component parts, a knack perfected in more traditional ways of drawing where he no longer worried about inessentials.' H. Spurling, Matisse the Master, London, 2005, p. 429).

    Lydia Delectorskaya recalled the significance that Matisse placed in the cutouts as inspiration: '[he] would keep his eyes glued to his paper cutouts all day, and at night he would wake up and they would still be there. Sometimes the whole wall was filled with his compositions, right up to the ceiling' (quoted in E. de Chassey, op. cit., p. 217).

    It was just perfect. It all closed in, achieving instantaneous unity

    The great innovation that Matisse had achieved with his cutouts was at first greeted coolly by critics, but his fellow artists were immediately aware of their power. Picasso, his close friend and intense rival of more than 40 years, immediately recognized their importance. Picasso and Françoise Gilot spent their summers in the late 1940s not far from Vence, and were frequent vistors. Madame Gilot writes movingly of watching the old magician Matisse in action in the autumn of 1947:

    'When we arrived, we found Matisse armed with a huge pair of scissors, carving boldly into sheets of paper painted all kinds of bright colors. Each one had been painted in a flat tone according to his instructions. Delicately holding the piece that suited his purpose in his left hand, he wound it and turned it while his right hand skillfully cut the most unpredictable shapes. Women, vegetation, birds, dancers, bathers, starfish, abstractions – a complete world emerged from his hands, full of strength and vitality.

    It was fascinating to watch him work, carving in pure color.'

    Matisse then makes a cutout abstract 'portrait' of Françoise:

    'It was just perfect. It all closed in, achieving instantaneous unity. With enough balance but not too much, with enough tension and enough rest, enough feeling of danger and of elation, enough zest and respite – a complete satisfaction for the being, for the mind, for the senses. A fragile masterpiece was there in front of us, defying eternity.

    In the impressive silence that followed, Lydia, armed with pins, managed to attach the five forms to the background without displacing them. We sat like stones, slowly emerging from a trance. We had traveled with him all the way, in complete empathy with his every movement and decision.'

    F. Gilot, Matisse and Picasso, New York, 1990, pp. 71-73.

    A luminous environmental art capable of evoking the calm, untroubled ambiance

    Matisse had addressed his studio as a subject and as a source of inspiration from early in his career. Although the motif is common from the Renaissance onward, in his hands it becomes a thrilling battleground for his Modernist experimentation. Two paintings from 1911, The Pink Studio (now Moscow, Pushkin Museum) and The Red Studio (now New York, Museum of Modern Art), show the studio as protagonist, free of figures but with a dynamic arrangement of form and pattern gyrating in space. The latter work in particular was to have a profound effect on later artists, especially in America. As William C. Agee explains, 'For artists in America, it might well be called the Demoiselles d'Avignon of color art. It is certainly the father of Color Field painting...' (W.C. Agee, 'How The Red Studio shaped American Art', in J. Cauman and G. Stavitsky, Matisse and American Art, Montclair, 2017, p. 58).

    Matisse developed these ideas in the Nice interiors of 1917-30, but it is with the cutouts in Vence that he reached the logical target that he had predicted in 1911. The composition bursts out from the canvas and spreads across the wall, the studio goes from being the subject to being the support, a precursor of installation and conceptual art. Working on the scale of a mural he created a total environment, especially powerful since the sculptural elements of the cutouts added extra depth and movement. Lightly pinned in place, the organic forms would ripple in the breeze and react to the shifting Provençal light. Gardens had long been one of his inspirations. Following complications from a medical procedure in 1941 he was now often restricted to his bed: the Vence cutouts brought the garden into his studio.

    As John Hallmark Neff notes 'he was far beyond the discovery of merely a more pure equivalent of easel painting. He had recognized in his cutouts a means to something more comprehensive and fundamental to his aspirations as an artist; a luminous environmental art capable of evoking the calm, untroubled ambiance he had always sought to create. The paper cutouts were not his ultimate method but a beginning.' (J. Hallmark Neff, op. cit., p. 33).

    For me the paper cutouts represent a creation parallel to oil painting

    Matisse used cut and painted elements to compose oil paintings from at least 1912, but in a manner very different from the contemporary collages of Picasso and Braque. Where collage often used found elements and played with incongruous juxtapositions for an often provocative effect, Matisse's cutouts are constructive. The antecedents for the technique can perhaps be seen more clearly in the 18th Century tradition of silhouette portraits or the mysterious cutouts of Philipp Otto Runge. Equally he came from family long associated with the textile industry, so he would have been familiar with the possibilities of a pattern cutter's shears from an early age,

    Through the 1910s and 20s, Matisse continued to use the cutout technique as a practical means of developing compositions, for example in his designs for Massine's Le Chant de Rossignol (1919), before using it extensively in preparation for the great mural composition for Dr Alfred Barnes in Merion (1932-33). The 1930s saw Matisse turning increasingly to cutouts as a means of expression, for example in the cover designs for the journals Verve and Cahiers d'Art (1936), but it was with the evolution of the Jazz portfolio that they really took flight.

    Jazz grew out of an initial idea from the publisher Tériade, who had intended them as covers for Verve before realizing that they stood as a complete portfolio of astonishing power. The compositions were largely completed in 1943-44 when Matisse was in isolation in wartime France recovering his health after the crises of 1941. They stand as an intensely personal visual autobiography, and so it is telling that he chose his new and very powerful medium to express it. The cutouts were used to layout the pochoir prints for the portfolio, but in Matisse's view the results were a failure since they lacked the three-dimensionality which had given life to the originals. Returning to the technique in 1946 he declared to Lydia that The Lyre was his first successful 'free-standing' cutout composition (K. Buchberg et al., op. cit., no. 49). That summer in Paris he worked on his two enormous compositions of white cutouts mounted on buff canvas, Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea, inspired by his memories of Tahiti (K. Buchberg et al., op. cit., nos. 52-53). The fronds of South Sea vegetation that waft across the almost hallucinatory depths of these two compositions are the immediate precursors of the optical effect of Arbre de Neige.

    Once he had inhabited the technique, it's influence was found in every element of his art, as for example in the strong decorative effects in Interieur au rideau egyptien, among his last great paintings (1948 ; Phillips Collection, Washington DC). It is telling that he used the technique in the designs for the Domincan Chapel of the Rosary, Vence (1948-51), notably for the stained glass windows since in both processes he felt he was sculpting with light.

    We ought to rejoice occasionally that we live in the same age as Matisse

    In his lifetime, Matisse's most recent work was shown regularly in the United States, from the first exhibition of The Red Studio at the 1913 Armory Show, through to Pierre Matisse's presentation of ten of his father's cutouts in 1949 and the great retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1951-52. As John Cauman notes, 'in the late 1940s Matisse was at once a modern master with a body of canonical work and a contemporary artist turning out works of power and originality.' (J. Cauman and G. Stavitsky, op. cit., p. 51). Clement Greenberg, quoted above, was confident in the profound influence of Matisse on American Art, and specifically the New York School of which he was a propagandist. The cutouts in particular seemed to prefigure the concerns of his pivotal essay 'The crisis of the easel picture' (April 1948), which advocated the reduction of fictive depth and the arrival of 'all-over painting', concerns which were to characterize the Color Field painters. Three artists exemplify the extent of this influence: Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Motherwell and Stuart Davis.

    Ellsworth Kelly first experienced Matisse in Paris in the 1940s, and continued to commune with the work on his return to the United States. For Kelly, painting in the prewar period was about surface and form, as a development of the traditional concept of a painting as window, a concentration on the space 'behind' the canvas. In his own work he wanted operate in the space between the painting and the viewer. The cutouts were a bridge to this new conception, and Kelly was fully aware of their importance: 'the cutouts were where his whole lifework was leading: to the freeing of color and form from a ground' (Ellsworth Kelly quoted in J. Cauman and G. Stavitsky, op. cit., p. 115).

    Motherwell, meanwhile, first saw first Matisse's paintings at the home of Sarah and Michael Stein in California, and returned often to the artist's work, describing him as his 'favorite painter of the century'. He declared that it was from Matisse that he learnt how to 'construct a painting using broad areas of color' and to use 'colors as independent forces' (quoted in J. Cauman and G. Stavitsky, op. cit., p. 174). The strong silhouettes of the cutouts are reflected often in his compostions, and it comes as little surprise that Motherwell himself owned La danseuse, one of the cutouts from circa 1949 (J. Cowart and J.D. Flam, op. cit., no. 99).

    Of the older generation of American modernists, Matisse's influence can be most deeply felt in the work of Stuart Davis. As William C. Agee notes 'The renewed intensity and boldness in Davis's use of color after 1950 suggest the influence of Matisse's late cutouts ... Furthermore, besides the rich color, the way Davis's compositions are constructed with each shape having its own, autonomous identity and position – as if placed in as well as on the canvas – also brings to mind Matisse's cutouts.' (W.C. Agee, 'Stuart Davis in the 1960s: 'The Amazing Continuity"', in L. Stokes Sims, Stuart Davis, American Painter, exhib. cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1991-92, pp. 93-94).

    The absolution summation of Matisse's work

    The exhibition of the majority of Matisse's cutouts at Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in 2014-15, sadly not including Arbre de Neige which at the time was untraced, brought these astonishing works back to the center of the artist's oeuvre and to the notice of a new generation of artists. As the critic Jerry Saltz remarked in his review of the exhibiton‚ 'the cutouts are a new form of poetry that comes at us like a flotilla of visionary barges on an imaginary Nile' (http://www.vulture.com/2014/10/moma-henri-matisse-review-dont-miss.html; accessed 11 April 2017). In the exhibition catalogue, curator Nicholas Cullinan sums up the group's impact, describing the cutouts 'as the absolution summation of Matisse's work and a life spent exploring the expressive possibilities of both contour and color, not to mention one of the most unique and indeed greatest late periods in any artist's career.' (N. Cullinan in K. Buchberg et al., op. cit., p. 29).
HENRI MATISSE (1869-1954) Arbre de neige 16 x 10 1/4 in (40.5 x 26.3 cm) (Created in 1947)
HENRI MATISSE (1869-1954) Arbre de neige 16 x 10 1/4 in (40.5 x 26.3 cm) (Created in 1947)
HENRI MATISSE (1869-1954) Arbre de neige 16 x 10 1/4 in (40.5 x 26.3 cm) (Created in 1947)
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