Henri Matisse, MoMA, America, and the Rockefellers

In 1930, when the Museum of Modern Art was not even a year old, Henri Matisse came to America. The main purpose of his voyage was to visit Albert Barnes and to view the future site of the Dance Mural he had commissioned for his museum in Merion, PA. American collectors, including the four Steins, the Cone sisters of Baltimore, and Barnes, played a crucial role in Matisse’s early career. Indeed American museums own many of the painter’s iconic works.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at MoMA (October 12, 2014-February 10, 2015) will be a long-remembered exhibition. The works on view include the restored Swimming Pool, which the artist created for his dining room when age and disease limited his ability to get about. Indeed this joyous show includes several of such environments the artists created for himself. I particularly liked The Parakeet and the Mermaid filled with leaves, fruit and a small bird with which the painter identified.

Taken as a whole, the show is a tour de force of Matisse’s sense of color, design and technical skill. It all looks so simple! It is also particularly nice to experience these marvels during the darkest days of the year.

Henri Matisse's Dance mural, created for Albert Barnes.

Henri Matisse’s Dance mural, created for Albert Barnes.

One of Matisse’s earliest uses of his cut-out technique was for the Dance murals commissioned by Barnes for $30,000. The work gave the artist much trouble. Because of an original mistake in measurement, Matisse had to redo the entire work from scratch. Nevertheless, once it was finished and installed, Matisse wrote to his son Pierre: “When I see the mural before me, I find it superb.”

During his 1930 visit to New York, Matisse dined at the Rockefeller house on 54th Street. Though she was only one of three founders, to a large extent Abby Rockefeller founded MoMA. “Mother’s Museum” was a constant source of irritation between her and husband John D. Rockefeller Jr, who abhorred modern art. During that famous dinner Matisse tried to change his host’s opinion about art. Admiring Junior’s green, yellow, red, and black Chinese porcelains and his oriental rugs Matisse pointed out that these artists had relied on abstraction and vivid color, concepts that now influenced his work as well as that of Braque, Picasso and Juan Gris. Rockefeller refused to be convinced. (Abbreviated from Frank Crowninshield, Art and Mr. Rockefeller.)

One of the delights of the Cut-Out exhibition are Matisse’s stained glass windows. In 1952 he created The Christmas Window for Life magazine. It is now owned by MoMA. Its bright yellow star, colored leaves and background translate the magnificence of this world-wide holiday.

Rose window

Matisse’s rose window at Pocantico Hills, NY. (Photo by David Lee Tiller)

Abby Rockefeller died in 1948. Even though her friend Henri Matisse himself was aged and infirm, the Rockefeller family asked him to create a rose window for the small Union Chapel in Pocantico Hills, NY where they often worshipped when at Kykuit. At first Matisse refused because he was unfamiliar with the site, but he finally consented. A long exchange of letter and sketches followed between Matisse and Alfred Barr, MoMA’s director, who handled the commission. When Nelson Rockefeller read of the artist’s death on November 3, 1954, he figured that there would be no window. A few days later a letter, dated November 1, arrived. It stated that Matisse had happily concluded his work. The maquette for the rose window, created by Matisse’s cut-out technique, was found tacked to the wall of Matisse’s bedroom. The window was completed in France. Its delicately shaped glass petals, surrounded by two concentric circles of free-form yellow and blue-green glass, are part of America’s Matisse treasures.


For more details see Suzanne Loebl’s America’s Medicis: The Rockefellers and Their Astonishing Cultural Legacy (Harper, 2010).

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4 Responses to Henri Matisse, MoMA, America, and the Rockefellers

  1. Pingback: ‘Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey’ at Columbia University | Branching: Thoughts of an Ever-Curious Author

  2. Pingback: A Spring Ritual: Central Park’s Conservatory Garden | Branching: Thoughts of an Ever-Curious Author

  3. Please give credit for my photo of the Matisse rose window. Thank you kindly. David Lee Tiller. Peace

    • Dear David,
      Thank you very much for your kind note, and I’m so sorry for the oversight. I have added the credit for your lovely photo. Is there a site you’d like me to link to, as well, in case readers would like to see more of your work?

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