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DMA's Matisse Exhibit: A Study in Rejected Commissions

by Gail Sachson 20 Jun 2011 1:56 PM

Although it chronicles events of more than 50 years ago, the crowd-pleasing Matisse exhibit “Afterlife: The Story of Henri Matisse’s Ivy in Flower at the Dallas Museum of Art is relevant to the art world today.


Ivy in Flower, Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, © Succession H. Matisse, Paris/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Guest Blogger Gail Sachson owns Ask Me About Art, offering lectures, tours and program planning. She is Chair of the Cultural Affairs Commission and a member of the Public Art Committee.

Although it chronicles events of more than 50 years ago, the crowd-pleasing Matisse exhibit “Afterlife: The Story of Henri Matisse’s Ivy in Flower at the Dallas Museum of Art is relevant to the art world today.

DMA Curator Heather MacDonald has mounted an eye-catching exhibit that travels up and down the sloping spine of the museum. We are a captive, engrossed audience as we move along the wall, following the “he said/she said” story of Matisse’s cut paper masterpiece, Ivy in Flower,  and the mystery of how it fortuitously landed in our collection.

In 1952, Mary Lasker commissioned Henri Matisse, whose work she owned and admired, to create a 10′ x 10′ stained glass window for the Tarrytown, N.Y.,  mausoleum of her recently deceased husband, art collector Albert Laker. Matisse’s son,  gallery owner Pierre Matisse, negotiated the commission (the museum has reproduced his letter detailing the agreement). The fee would be $25,000, with 25 percent necessary to begin the work.  If the commission was rejected, the full-size, cut-paper maquette – cut by Matisse and assembled under his supervision – would be the property of the purchaser. But, Matisse continued, if this were the case, the maquette should be donated to a museum.

Cross of Ely, Graham Sutherland, 1964, gold and silver, Dallas Museum of Art, The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection

No doubt all concerned were excited about the window, until a follow-up letter from Pierre Matisse to Mrs. Lasker mentioned the window’s yellow background. Lasker had specifically asked for red, green and blue – her husband’s favorite colors. Upon learning of the predominant yellow — a color Matisse seemed to decide upon in relation to the New York sun — Mrs. Lasker rejected the work and ended the commission.

Matisse’s bad luck is our good fortune. Because of a friendship between Mary Lasker and Dallas’s Betty Marcus, Mrs. Lasker donated the maquette for Ivy in Flower to the DMA.  It is rarely on display because of its sensitivity to light, yet MacDonald says, “It is one of the most beloved, popular, favorite works in the collection.”

The intriguing story of Ivy in Flower reminds me of another rejected commission that eventually found a home in the DMA collection. The four-foot-tall, gold and silver Cross of Ely by Graham Sutherland in the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection was originally commissioned by the Cathedral at Ely. But after it was installed, it was rejected and removed. It appears the Sutherland cross was too flashy, too reflective and probably too modern. The Reves, friends of Sutherland, purchased the cross, and today it is installed prominently in the Great Hall of the Reves’ wing at the DMA.

Fast forward to today. The Vaquero of Fort Worth, a 10-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a Mexican cowboy on a horse by Dallas artist David Newton and Tomas Bustos, has been rejected by the Fort Worth Arts Commission because of the artists’ decision to add a gun and holster at the side of the Vaquero. The original design was approved without the gun or holster.

Both factions are disputing the historical accuracy of a Vaquero with a gun, and it’s now up to the Fort Worth City Council to stop a shoot-out with a decision.

The Vaquero of Fort Worth

  • Since when is Fort Worth afraid of guns? They’ve always advertised the stock yards and the city as the sight of the “last gunfight” between “Longhair Jim” Cartwright and, I believe, Bat Masterson. They may question the aesthetic quality of the piece, but historically, how can you question whether a Mexican cowboy would carry a gun or not? True, not all cowboys carried guns, but most did. Clearly this is just a “control” issue. “It’s ‘our’ piece, we’re paying for it, you make it ‘our’ way”. Vs “We’re the artists, we’ll make it the way WE see it”. I hope the artists win. Unfortunately, in dealing with city commissions, it’s likely they’ll NEED a gun to get paid. And that gun will be in the form of a good lawyer.