Theater & art

Art Review

Paley saw what these artists had made of modern art

Henri Matisse’s “Odalisque With a Tambourine.”
Thomas Griesel /The William S. Paley Collection
Henri Matisse’s “Odalisque With a Tambourine.”

“What I dream of is an art of balance . . . an art which could be for every mental worker . . . a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.”

PORTLAND, Maine — You’re a busy accountant and mom. You live in Boston. There’s a show some critic’s suggesting you see. Is it really worth making the trip?

You break it down:


Portland’s two hours away, that’s manageable. Sounds like the show has some great paintings. And I’ve always liked Matisse: I used to have that poster in the office, “The Dance” . . . Just the thing when you’re up to your neck in W2s.

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They’re all from a private collection — that CBS guy, Paley — but he gave them to the Museum of Modern Art, where the best of them are usually hanging anyway. I could just wait until my next trip to New York. . .

But New York’s expensive. Gotta find a place to stay. And MoMA? Can’t stand the new building, it’s like going to the mall. Ka-ching! Ka-ching! I’m an accountant, I should be OK with it, but I can’t get that sound out of my head. . .

Besides which, this collection apparently has something special about it. Good to see it apart, and all together, drawings and paintings, instead of sprinkled in with everything else. You never see the drawings in the permanent galleries at MoMA.

That Cezanne of his wife, for instance, in pencil: tiny, incredible thing. Imagine being looked at like that. And the big Degas of the ballet dancers, one tying her slipper, the other doing her bun. . .


So beautiful, Degas. But imagine being looked at like that! He gives me the shudders.

Also, Portland is nice. It’s in Maine. . . . There and back in a pleasant day — a hundred bucks max (although, wow! It’s $17 to see the show!). If we made a family weekend of it, we’d still be much better off than if we went to Manhattan.

Where was I?

The art. Yeah. What have we got?

Oh my: This critic says the first section is all Cezanne and Gauguin. That big Gauguin, “The Seed of the Areoi,” looks wonderful.


Funny, his pictures usually have that hazy, faded-denim look. I’ve never seen a Gauguin look so bright — the colors almost as saturated as a Matisse.

‘Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious,’ Matisse said at the time. I bet that sounds even more delightful in French.

And just look at that dear sweetheart with the flowers in her hair, set against the steep blue mountains, the yellow palms (why yellow?), the mauve bushes, the indigo cloth and that red, red floor. Dazzling. I could do with a bit of that.

Says here that, back in ’65, Paley noticed some flaky paint, so they took a closer look at it. The conservators worked out that it had been painted over by someone else, all sorts of odd bits added on: a necklace, more flowers in her hair, lines outlining her breasts. They removed it all, then cleaned it 30 years later. Explains the color, I guess.

What is it with Gauguin, though?! He freaks me out. The girl is pubescent, at best, and he’s painting her as a love goddess from a Tahitian story he’s no doubt got all wrong. In the story, wouldn’t you know it, there’s also a god — a war god. They make love, and in the god’s honor, a secret religious society is established that goes around dancing and music-making and copulating.

It’s all right up Gauguin’s seamy alley. You look back at the picture and you see it instantly: He thinks he’s the god. (Didn’t he once paint himself as a sort of parallel to Jesus Christ, too?) You have to wonder: How could such a repugnant man produce such a beautiful picture? Such a lie. I’m not sure if I even want to see it.

It’ll probably rain the whole way up, anyway.

Oh? Wait. How many Matisses? Six? All paintings? Aaaahh . . . Get me out of this gray and stinky office. I’m on the tra-aaiiin to Maine!

There’s an early-pre-Fauve one, 1903, in that purple-and-green key Matisse was so fond of then. Wimbledon colors. “The Musketeer” it’s called. You have to love it: He’s got a male model posing as a famous actor playing Cyrano de Bergerac. . .

Layer upon layer of fiction. But not lies. . .

If you think about it, this is what crafty old Matisse was doing later on in Nice, too. It was the 1920s (a good decade for women, I always imagine). Those local Nice girls were modern, sophisticated, independent. I reckon they had fun hamming it up as indolent odalisques. (Matisse’s biographer, Hilary Spurling, says he never had sex with them. I wonder. . . )

What I like is, unlike Gauguin, Matisse didn’t need you to buy into the fiction, the fantasy. He wanted you to see it for what it was: “Everything was fake, absurd, amazing, delicious,” he said at the time. I bet that sounds even more delightful in French.

The best Matisse here, the review says, is “Odalisque With a Tambourine.” Spellbinding color. Look at the way, along the top, left to right, it goes from turquoise to black to blue to pale blue and finally back to turquoise, but this time washed out. Ravishing.

He did half of it with a palette knife: lovely textures, like icing freshly packed on top of a cake. And look at those subtle, creamy shadows he had going on in Nice. Makes it look kind of 3-D. They’re all ironed out by the time he did the later one here, the woman with the vase of amaryllis.

I need to go stand in front of these pictures! Now! Preferably alone. I think I’ll leave the kids with their dad. (Problem is, I won’t want to leave.)

Do I like Picasso? I always have to ask myself. . . . There are four major paintings by him, including two huge Rose period ones (much better than Blue period), and a handful of early drawings.

I know he was a cad, but something about him in these first few years is weirdly touching. I mean, he’s just met his first real girlfriend, Fernande Olivier, and pretty quickly they’re like teenagers in love. They’re experimenting with opium (“Everything seemed to take on a special beauty and nobility,” she wrote), they have no money at all, and so, after consulting their accountant (not really), they make a trip together to Gosol, this little village in Spain.

Suddenly he comes up with these amazing pictures.

In a way, he’s like Gauguin, trying to get back to something more “savage” and simple. Only (at this point, anyway), he seems much more sympathetic. That naked boy leading the unbridled horse – so poignant! And then the nude girl. They look newly hatched.

I see there are a few later Picassos, too. “The Architect’s Table”: Isn’t that one of the great early Cubist pictures?

They’re alien at first, those cubist images, and then they start whispering at you. You see the violin scroll, then the bottle of liqueur, the tablecloth tassels, the flirty inclusion of the words “Ma jolie,” the calling card with “Mis [sic] Gertrude Stein” written on it. . . . It’s like an underground trickle of private jokes and allusions. Like tax returns. Intoxicating.

The rest? There’s supposed to be a knock-out Rouault, close-up of a clown’s face. A couple of still lifes, too, by Renoir (strawberries) and Manet (two roses, painted the year he died; he could barely hold a brush, but you wouldn’t know it).

A great Bonnard. A few good Derains. Oh, and more Cezannes: Not just the drawing I mentioned, but three major paintings and a watercolor. People say you have to be in the mood for Cezanne, and I know what they mean. He can be so remote. But when you really look, there’s nothing better.

The one I so want to see is the still life. That cantankerous old guy had an obsession with rhyming shapes: the wallpaper that echoes the cloth that rhymes with the weird blob that might be a foreshortened breadstick but is really that shape only because it rhymes with a fold in the cloth and the upside-down pear on the other side . . . your eyes go round and round like the looping splash lines in a Jackson Pollock.

And you see that in some ways Cezanne’s still lifes are exactly like those late bathers he painted, each body like a breadstick or branch, the branches like breadsticks or bodies. . . . Everything is exchangeable, everything flows, like (I shouldn’t say this) cash in a purring economy.

There are a handful of Vuillards, too. I like Vuillard a lot. He was very close to his mother. She was a dressmaker, so he grew up in a house surrounded by seamstresses, lucky boy. The paintings are too tiny to make sense of in reproduction. But this critic — talks like such a mensch — says if he could take home any picture in the show, it would be Vuillard’s “The Green Lamp.”

I wouldn’t mind seeing some of the later stuff, too, especially the two small Francis Bacon triptychs. One of them is called “Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes.” I heard Moraes had a fling with Lucian Freud. I imagine he painted her very differently.

Speaking of women, I notice the show, at its earlier venues, did include one painting — oh yes, one — by a woman, Agnes Martin. I like Agnes Martin. Why did they leave her out here?! I feel — to say the least —– shortchanged.

Still, I’m looking back over the ledger (I’ve got my accountant’s abacus here to help), and on balance, I think I’ll go to the show.

I hope it’s not too hectic on I-95.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this review of “The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism” at the Portland Museum of Art misstated the show’s closing date. It is scheduled to close Sept. 8.