Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra), 1907.
Matisse’s Blue Nude, now on display at the Art Institute, was one of the paintings excoriated by art students in 1913.


Back in 1913, enraged art students called him ‘Henry Hair Mattress.’

ART As winter gave way to spring, Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917 settled in at the Art Institute of Chicago for a three-month stay. The city immediately embraced the exhibit: its gala grand opening on March 19th lured enough of the "beautiful people" to raise $500,000 for the museum. Chicago, however, did not always welcome Monsieur Matisse so cordially.

Newspaper clipping from Henri Matisse's 1913 appearance in Chicago at the Art Institute
The headline from the Chicago Daily Tribune story that ran on April 17, 1913—the day after the mock trial of Matisse by Art Institute students on the heels of the Armory Show.

In March 1913, the notorious Armory Show—a collection of paintings and sculptures that gave most Americans their first look at the discombobulated work of Europe’s avant-garde—traveled from New York to Chicago. Known formally as the International Exhibition of Modern Art, it was greeted here by howls of derision. Charles Francis Browne, a nationally renowned landscape painter and a teacher at the Art Institute, was among the most vociferous critics, and he directed a torrent of ridicule at Matisse. Speaking in front of a packed lecture hall, he described how Matisse’s son had haphazardly daubed paint on one of his father’s unfinished canvases. "Was the child punished?" asked Browne. "No. Matisse surveyed the work and exclaimed, ‘That’s it!’ and a new school of art was founded."

Three weeks later, the students proceeded to outdo their teacher. On April 16, 1913, just as the exhibit was leaving town, they burned copies of three of Matisse’s most outrageous paintings—among them, his Blue Nude, on loan from the Paris collection of Leo Stein and his sister Gertrude—and then held a mock trial of the artist on the Art Institute’s south portico. They led out a manacled Matisse (a student, rechristened Henry Hair Mattress, stood in for the artist) at the point of a rusty bayonet and read the indictment: "You are charged with artistic murder, pictorial arson, artistic rapine, total degeneracy of color, criminal misuse of line, general esthetic aberration, and contumacious abuse of title."

After enduring a collective fainting spell, the jury found the defendant guilty. "The executioner stepped forward," noted the Chicago Daily Tribune in its account of the event, "but the shivering futurist, overcome by his own conscience, fell dead." A faux chaplain preached a funeral sermon (drawn from an anatomy text), but the police stepped in before students could conclude the ceremony by burning Matisse in effigy. "Ten or twenty years from now," noted one of the exhibit’s organizers, "some of these students will be eating crow." Bon appétit, les etudiants.

GO: Thru June 20. Admission $12-$18. Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S Michigan. artic.edu

  • The Los Angeles Times review of the current Matisse show by Christopher Knight, 3/22/2010:
    "Matisse was not, as is sometimes claimed, indulging in escapist fantasy. Instead, the show’s remarkable example (and first-rate catalog) suggests a profound understanding: Great artists know that the world is always already in the process of unraveling."
  • The Chicago Tribune’ s Lauren Viera deconstructs Bathers by a River, the centerpiece of the current show: "The techniques woven into the layers of that painting are key to understanding Matisse’s entire career." 
  • The University of Virginia has reconstructed the 1913 Armory Show—what it calls "one of the most influential events in the history of American art"—as a virtual gallery. Enter the exhibit, then head to gallery H to see paintings by Matisse and other French artists.


Photograph: Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954). Blue Nude (Memory of Biskra), 1907. 92.1 x 140.4 cm (36 1/4 x 55 1/4 in.) The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, BMA 1950.228. © 2010 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Thumbnail: Alvin Langdon Coburn (British, 1882-1966). Henri Matisse painting Bathers by a River, May 13, 1913. Photograph. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, 1979:3924:0012.