The Matisses here skip from the early, clunky "The Musketeer," 1903 to a pattern that he settled into in the 1920s that lacked the outward radicalism of some of his really groundbreaking works like "The Red Studio." Matisse was perhaps more at ease with his method by then, but the foundations of these paintings and all his subsequent work demonstrate his emphasis on the spatial attributes of color and the radical nature of his drawing. "Odalisque With a Tambourine," 1925-26, is a highly sophisticated and coherent confluence of structure and hue.
Picasso loved being an artist and was always good at it. Matisse worked tirelessly at mastering his work with patience and direction. Together they were two of the finest artists of the 20th century, and these works present a chance see why.
Two of the five Cézannes here have the characteristics of his best and most influential work in its early phases. "Milk Can and Apples," 1879-80, and "L'Estaque," 1879-83, take the subjects apart and reassemble them in ways that he attempted again and again, bringing to his task a particular idea about how we really see. The space is deep and distant in the landscape "L'Estaque," and the cloth and fruit in the other painting are tangible, almost beyond real. But a close look shows there is no real vanishing point, no classical lines of composition, no modeling as it was known at that time. Lights, darks, and colors are inherently inartistic, but there is solid reality here, seeing without preconceptions. Matisse and Picasso both looked to Cézanne, and if we look at these two works carefully we can see why.
I've lingered over these three artists because they formed the world we know now, but there is much else to enjoy. We get a good look at Georges Rouault, a couple of surprisingly funny and irreverent Henri de Toulouse-Lautrecs, and a wonderful little work on paper by Georges Braque, "Still Life on a Mantelpiece," 1920.
Few artists could draw with the facility and grace of Degas. There are three drawings here, "Portrait of a Woman" and "The Jockey," both 1866-68 in his earlier, gentler mood. The big charcoal "Two Dancers," 1905, is skilled but unsettling, almost angry.
There are four Paul Gauguin works, one from this period in Arles, "Washerwomen," 1888, and three others from his famous later sojourn in Tahiti. Gauguin is an example of an artist who was included early into the canon and remains there, but it is hard to see why. There is not much in these pictures to change that view.
There's an odd painting that doesn't fit here, as if Paley were kicking over the traces of Alfred Barr's demanding criteria. "Industry's Increase," 1933, by John Kane, is a particularly artless piece of work that one almost feels sorry for, surrounded as it is by its betters.
A good place to finish a walk in this show is with the three little Vuillards near the exit. For a couple of lessons in painting (or looking at painting) see "The Green Lamp," 1893, for how to tell a lot with a little. See "The Window," 1894, for how to fit everything you need to know about a space into a small package. ^
"THE WILLIAM S. PALEY COLLECTION: A TASTE FOR MODERNISM" | at the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland | through September 8 | 207.775.6148 | portlandmuseum.org