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One woman's life, as depicted by her dad

ArtistsArtMuseumsBaltimore Museum of ArtDiphtheria

The only daughter of eminent French artist Henri Matisse lived a long, eventful life. That is not what some might have predicted for Marguerite Matisse, who is the subject of an intimate, intriguing new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

In 1901, at the age of 6, Marguerite contracted diphtheria and had to undergo an emergency tracheotomy to enable her to breathe. The prospects for her longevity were again put in doubt during World War II, when she was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo for her work in the French Resistance.

Marguerite, who escaped from the train carrying her to a concentration camp in Germany, went on to flourish for several more decades. She died in 1982 at the age of 87.

The first half or so of her life was chronicled, in a way, by her father, who found her to be an ideal, perhaps even essential, subject. The BMA show, "Matisse's Marguerite: Model Daughter," brings together more than 40 pieces — drawings, prints, paintings, sculpture — from the museum and other collections.

As Hilary Spurling wrote in his book "The Unknown Matisse," Marguerite "inspired in Matisse what became one of the dearest and deepest attachments of his life." That bond is readily apparent throughout the BMA show.

In some pieces, Matisse seems to be simply the doting parent, sketching his daughter out of pure delight. One print from around 1900, for example, is ostensibly focused on a nude model, but in a corner is an almost doodle-like drawing of young Marguerite (her baby brother gets into the frame as well).

"Marguerite was educated at home," said Jay Fisher, the BMA's deputy director for curatorial affairs. "And home for the Matisse family was the studio. She worked in the studio and also became a subject for art."

Marguerite-centered works emerged in the early 1900s, then, after a decade's lapse, during the World War I years and a little after. In 1923, Marguerite married a man that Matisse was not particularly fond of, and the portraits soon stopped again.

Matisse depicted his daughter for the final time in 1945, after her ordeal during the war (Matisse died in 1954).

Whether depicted as a girl or a chic woman of the 1920s ("Marguerite Wearing a Hat," a 1918 painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a gem in the exhibit), Marguerite comes across as a vibrant, endearing character — sometimes charming, sometimes solemn, always full of nuances and possibilities.

The ribbon she wore around her neck to cover up the tracheotomy scar is a haunting feature of these earlier works.

In the 1945 portraits, Marguerite has the look of a woman who has experienced much — too much of the bad in the world — yet still exudes a powerful life force. No wonder Matisse felt compelled to draw her.

In his book "Matisse Portraits," John Klein suggested that the artist explored an aspect of himself in portraying Marguerite, "as if she gave him access to something of himself that he could not apprehend more directly. … By affirming her individuality, he could also reflect on and amplify his own."

In a bittersweet corner of the exhibit hang a couple of Marguerite's surviving paintings, which reveal an eye for color and form. After learning that some people mistook her work for her father's, she destroyed most of what she had created.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Matisse's Marguerite: Model Daughter" runs through Jan. 19 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free admission. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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