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After seeing Matisse: Robert De Niro, Sr., - paintings and drawings

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The Matisse Museum of Nice in France has chosen to display the works of the American painter Robert De Niro, Sr. (1922-1993), father of the actor Robert De Niro, to answer its vocation of making known the works of Matisse, master of the 20th century, through different angles and, on this occasion, as a source of inspiration.

The paintings and drawings of Robert De Niro, Sr. show a relationship to the works of Matisse through the creation of certain compositions, graphic assertion of certain drawings, use of the same techniques, like stumping, and the search for harmonies of colors.

Influenced by the great European artists, Robert De Niro, Sr. focused his work on the figurative, a more sensitive representation of the world.

However, the American artist preserved his own mode of expression, tied to the abstract, which came from his training under American masters like Joseph Albers, founder of optical art, and Hans Hofmann, a follower of Bauhaus, whose scientific approach to the treatment of color and space represents American abstract expressionism, particularly the New York School.

This exhibition begins with the presentation of photographs of Robert De Niro, Sr. in his New York studio. Figurative paintings are organized according to thematic characteristics of the art of Matisse, such as female models, interiors, still lifes, landscapes, ending with a series of black and white drawings with stumping.
Robert De Niro, Sr. – Paintings and Drawings

Trained in abstract expressionism by masters like Joseph Albers, founder of optical art, and Hans Hofmann, a follower of Bauhaus and representative of the New York School, Robert De Niro, Sr., after a stay in France from 1961 to 1964, took a new direction with his art.

He detached himself from abstract expressionism and the New York School, which had become the references for American painting in the second half of the 20th century. He turned to French painting and devoted himself to reading about European art history. Flemish paintings, the paintings of Delacroix, Bonnard, and especially those of Matisse, guided him to return to the figurative and the representation of concrete spaces. Thus, Robert De Niro, Sr. painted models in interiors, still lifes, landscapes.

He worked in broad brushstrokes. White is always present, never entirely covered by the paint. On top of charcoal outlines, he laid the colors with a knife. He continually returned to different parts of the painting that he wiped or scraped systematically with a rag. He is fond of the spontaneity and speed of energy and expression translated into the freedom of large arabesques.

The work of De Niro, Sr. results from a vast knowledge of art history. He learned and evolved through masters from the past, but also thanks to contemporary professors. He clearly knew how to develop a style that was his alone. He is not part of any particular category of artists.

After seeing Matisse

The relationship between the body of work of Robert De Niro, Sr. and the oeuvre of Matisse is discovered through certain compositions. The female nudes in an interior recall the manner in which Matisse placed his model on an armchair and organized the elements of décor that surround her. Thus the spirit of Matisse’s rocaille armchair is found in De Niro, Sr.’s painting Nude with yellow chair (1977), that of the vase with handles on a table in Still life with vase, chair, and mirror (1972).

However, Robert De Niro, Sr.’s palette was more muted. The treatment of color, in backgrounds or graphic lines, is organized in more abstract combinations and preserves the movement of the stroke and his improvisation.

These differences serve as proof of the space created between the sources of inspiration and the personality of an artist.

The museum collection is unique in its compilation of personal objects of Matisse, which took part in the birth of a number of works.

The presentation of this collection amidst the paintings and drawings of Robert De Niro, Sr. serves to overlap the work of Matisse with that of the American artist, whose studio was a room filled with canvases in bright colors, plants, draperies, and bottles that he used in his still lifes.

In the words of Matisse

Drawing also counts tremendously. It is the expression of the possession of objects. When you know an object profoundly, you can determine from one exterior line what will define it on the inside (1).

There exists then an essential truth to draw from the sight of the objects to be represented. This is the only truth that is important (2).

The object is not so interesting in and of itself. It is the context that creates the object. It was in this way that I worked all my life in front of the same objects that gave me the strength of reality by focusing my mind on all that the objects had passed through for me and with me. A glass of water with a flower is a different thing from a glass of water with a lemon. The object is an actor: a good actor can act in ten different plays, an object can play a different role on ten canvases.

We don’t take it alone; it evokes a group of elements (3)

In still life, copying the objects is nothing; they must be given the emotions that they awaken in one. The emotion of the group, the correlation of objects, the specific character of each object – modified by its relation with others – all that tangled up like a rope or a snake (4).

The object must act powerfully on the imagination, the feeling of the artist must be expressed and render the object worthy of interest: it only says what one makes it say (5).

The drawings of Matisse in charcoal and pen, like the series Thèmes et variations (1942-1943), the Grand Acrobate (1952) in brush and Chinese ink, and Arbre(Le Platane) (1951), as well as the paintings Intérieur à l’esclave (1924), Figure endormie (1941) represent Matisse’s constant research on the simplification of the line, and are a form of expression adopted in the large drawings of Robert De Niro, Sr., with the same techniques. The lines are erased along with the creation until nothing remains but the final drawing, which breaks free from the stumped surface.

In the words of Robert De Niro, Sr.

If I am forced to repeat, until near exhaustion, the same charcoal line over and over again or the same brushstroke while I paint, it is because I am nothing but an “old nag” who knows himself too well and who must endlessly find ways to surprise himself. Not, as many of my colleagues do, by accelerating my gestures in the hope of discovering, as if by accident, surprising bits that I might be able to use later. A comfortable technique that has proven itself, but which I was always careful to be wary of. Just as Hans Hofmann, my former professor, taught me when I was so young, I immediately erase without the least regret anything pretty or particularly good that has appeared on the canvas. That is why I am surrounded by chamois leather or rags soaked in turpentine when I draw. More than speed, what is important is to erase, always erase, systematically. If, as Picasso assures, painting is “love made visible”, this method is for me the only way to most honestly transmit this light that belongs only to me and that can only reach the spectator once I am in the canvas and not in front of the canvas. All things considered, the ideal would be to succeed in painting with closed eyes, like children do. This only happens very rarely, two or three times a year. If by luck, fortune chooses to smile on you (6).

March 8 – May 31, 2010
Adress : 164, av. des Arènes de Cimiez 06000 Nice.
Tel : (+33) (0)4 93 81 08 08 (informations)
Tel : (+33) (0)4 93 53 40 53 (conservation)
Fax : (+33) (0)4 93 53 00 22


1. Comments recorded by Gaston Diehl in Problèmes de la peinture, 1945, Lyon, Editions Confluences.
2. 1947. Preface to the catalog for the exhibition Henri Matisse, dessins, A.P.I.A.W, Liège.
3. Comments recorded by Maria Luz and approved by H. Matisse, published in XXe siècle, n°2, January 1952.
4. Notes of Sarah Stein, 1908.
5. Comments recorded by Maria Luz and approved by H. Matisse, published in XXe siècle, n°2, January 1952.
6. Comments made to art historian Valère Bertrand in the 1970s.

 March 14, 2010

* Nature morte à la table, aux vases et au chapeau
(Table Still Life with Vases and Hat), Sans date
Huile sur panneau d’aggloméré, 91,4 x 76,2 cm
© 2010 - The Estate of Robert De Niro, Sr.
Courtesy Ameringer McEnery Yohe, New York.

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