When you paint an apple, the portrait of that apple does not differ significantly from the portrait of any other apple. But with the human being, that's not so."
For art historian Pierre Schneider, this truism explains the difficulty modern artists have with portraiture. It is therefore key to what may be the most striking Matisse exhibit to open in Paris since the last one Mr. Schneider conceived in 1970.
"Visages decouverts" (at the Mona Bismarck Foundation through Sept. 7) brings together more than 100 faces drawn by Henri Matisse during the last nine years of his life. The works range from painstaking efforts in pencil or charcoal to rapid sketches, with eyes and nose indicated only by fleeting brushstrokes.
Most are on display for the first time. Underpinning the show is the contradiction between the abstract style Matisse had adopted like a vow and the realism necessary to paint a likeness. "Matisse was passionately in love with unity," remarks Mr. Schneider, "but he wanted it to come from conflict."
When Matisse drew these faces (between 1945 and his death in 1954), he was virtually bed-ridden after a serious operation. A few years earlier, he had shared with a friend his dream of "a second life, in some paradise where I'll do frescoes." The operation gave him that second life, and his well-known paper cut-outs, enormous compositions in simple forms and bright colors, date from this same period.
But as though to counterbalance - or contradict - their purity, Matisse also surrounded himself with the earthly, mobile fragility of the human face. Photos of his bedroom show dozens of portraits tacked up on the walls.
"The place was very alive," says Jackie Matisse Monnier, the artist's granddaughter, a teenager at the time. "You saw the work that was done yesterday and the day before, and when that came down, the work that would be done tomorrow would take its place. It was all quite spontaneous and fun."
Ms. Monnier, like other grandchildren and friends who caught the artist's eye, was a frequent model. Eight pictures of her appear in the show.
"I had red hair," she recalls. "It was voluminous and sort of all over the place. But he made me pin it up behind my head; he insisted. He did not want any of it showing. So all that was left was my face."
Monnier describes long morning sessions, as her grandfather labored with his charcoal, observing her, finding the lines of her face, rubbing them out, moving them and rebuilding a little to the left... "tricking himself," she says, "into getting to know the model's features, so his hand could talk." Then would come the fast studies, in pen or brush and ink. Matisse would have learned the face by heart, like a musician, so "he could actually shut his eyes and draw on a piece of paper without seeing the model," Monnier says.
By the end, as his portraits drew near the unhampered forms of oval, line, and dot, he would almost be in a trance. According to Schneider, this process, this "journey, which leads him not only from realism to abstraction, but also from conscious work to unconscious work" is what fascinated him.
For her, the portraits are also psychological probes. "It's hard to speak of psychology and art, but I really think in order to 'possess' the face, he needed to establish its psychological identity for him." She walks over to a drawing hanging on the kitchen wall in her stone farmhouse. It is one of the meticulous studies, in charcoal. The lines of her nose are heavy and black; the eyes are hard. Monnier was shocked when she first saw it: "I said, 'That's not me!' " But since then she has come to appreciate what she calls the "advice" it gave her.
"You're rather shy at 15, kind of willy-nilly. And he wanted something a little bit more structured. So he puts the structure right in there, with his pencil." She pauses, musing. "It's an interesting approach to the portrait, what you add to the reality."
Claude Dutuit, Monnier's cousin and fellow model, rejects this notion of psychology. "Matisse drew what he saw," he says.
One corner of the three-room exhibit is occupied by eight pictures of Mr. Dutuit, including a tryptich of fast sketches, framed together like a moving picture. "I was noticing this one was done on a Sunday afternoon," he says with a wry smile, glancing at the first portrait.
"That could not have been a merry, merry afternoon, on a Sunday, one of your rare free afternoons, and you have to sit there motionless. Even if it was for a famous artist."
Dutuit insists it seemed perfectly normal to pose for his grandfather, that he was used to it. Still, his memory of the sessions - of being on one side of the drawing board while Matisse monopolized the other - betrays the traces of a young boy's frustration.
"Everything was happening on his side. I was just the subject, and the subject might as easily have been an armchair with a bright cover as a human being. I was cast away from his creation."
But once the working hours were over, Matisse and his grandson shared an intimate friendship, full of camaraderie, mutual teasing, and confidence. That friendship was never to change, though the model-artist relationship did. When Dutuit was 16, he suffered a serious mountaineering accident.
"I crashed my face into a rock face," he says laconically. "Face against face, with my face giving in." A few months later, he went to visit his grandfather.
"What happened to your face?" Matisse demanded.
Dutuit: ("I was 16 and rather proud.") "Oh, a rock-climbing accident."
Matisse: "Well that's too bad. I can't ever work with you any more. Your face has lost its symmetry."
Asked whether he was crushed, Dutuit responds paradoxically: "He was hurt," he says. "He was insulted. He'd been aggressed, not me. That was a characteristic of his creativity - that the world belonged to him. He was frightfully upset that I'd ruined a perfectly good subject."
For Dutuit, it was this egocentrism that possessed Matisse, that was key to his character.
"It was the only means he had to drive himself the way he drove himself," Dutuit says. "The amount of work he could come up with was amazing. And what seemed very easy for an observer amounted to hours and hours and hours and hours of practice."
Not far from "Claude's corner," the seven self-portraits included in "Visages decouverts" offer a glimpse of Matisse's conception of himself.
"Clearly he doesn't take himself very seriously," Dutuit says, pointing out a pen-and-ink sketch that's almost a caricature. "Then all of a sudden he does." Another portrait shows an obviously conscientious man, "with his big nose - that he did have, but it somehow got lost in the middle his face - and those big eyeglasses and the enlargement of the eyes behind the lens."
Are those two - conflicting - images accurate?
"Oh, absolutely," says Dutuit.