The Matisse Connection

Valentine Dudensing knew that if he wanted to sell contemporary European art in New York he would need an agent in Paris who could source artwork for him. It was serendipitous then that he met Pierre Matisse (1900-1989), the younger son of the artist, who was looking for opportunities to launch his career as an art dealer. Dudensing recognized that Matisse could offer access to the artists, dealers, and collectors of Paris and, most importantly, to Henri Matisse himself. In the fall of 1925 the two began discussing a partnership that would last for five years.

Henri Matisse's work had been introduced to the U.S. in the Armory Show of 1913 and in subsequent solo exhibitions in New York at Montross Gallery (1915) and at Brummer Gallery and Fearon Galleries (both in 1924). The retrospective exhibition that Pierre Matisse arranged for the Valentine Gallery for the month of January 1927 -- the first major Matisse show since 1924 and the first retrospective of the artist's work held in the U.S. -- was a welcome opportunity to see the artist's latest stylistic developments in context with his earlier work. Visitors crowded the gallery for the month-long show before it traveled to the Arts Club of Chicago for ten days. 

The exhibition featured nineteen paintings from 1890-1926 and included such highlights as:

  • Still Life, 1899 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

  • Woman on a High Stool, 1914 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

  • Marguerite au chat noir, 1910 (Musée national d'art moderne/Centre Pompidou, Paris)

  • The Moroccans, 1915-16 (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

  • White Plumes, 1919 (Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN)

  • The Moorish Screen, 1921 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA)

  • Young Woman in Pink, 1923 (de Young/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA)

  • Figure décorative sur fond ornemental, 1925-26 (Musée national d'art moderne/Centre Pompidou, Paris)

1927 became an important year for Matisse whose acceptance in the U.S. was confirmed when he won first prize for a still life submitted to the Carnegie International. With this award, Matisse became the first modern artist recognized by this venerable survey exhibition which began in 1896 and was held each fall at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.

Two years later, Pierre Matisse arranged a second solo exhibition -- this time of his father's recent paintings from 1923 to 1929 -- that opened at the Valentine Gallery in December 1929 and ran through early January 1930. 

Of the seventeen canvases included, at least seven are in U.S. museums today:

As Dudensing predicted, in addition to drawing crowds, Matisse's paintings attracted a number of well-known collectors and helped establish the Valentine Gallery's reputation as a leading source for the finest examples of modern art in New York. Dudensing's promotion of the artist arguably had the greatest impact on Stephen C. Clark (1882-1960), an important New York collector who in 1939 became Chairman of the Board of the Museum of Modern Art. Clark bought his first Matisse painting from the Valentine Gallery in March 1926 and over the next six years acquired twelve more paintings from the gallery. By 1930 he had converted the grand room on the top floor of his East 70th Street townhouse (now The Explorer's Club) into a "Matisse Room" that was decorated to match the brilliant colors and patterns in the paintings that hung on the walls.

Despite the fact that Clark had a change of heart and sold or gave away all of his Matisses by 1954, at least four paintings that he had acquired from the Valentine Gallery are now in U.S. museums: Coffee, 1916 (Detroit Institute of Arts, MI); White Plumes, 1919 (Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN); The Three O'Clock Sitting, 1924 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); and Seated Odalisque, 1926 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).