‘With Matthew Smith the means of expression are as articulate and fluent as those of any British painter since Constable: …He draws with colour…and we feel the density, weight and contour of his pears, his red Provençal hillsides, his model’s thigh or belly.’(Patrick Heron, The New Statesman, 19th November 1953).
Born in an environment of stifling late Victorian industry and sobriety, it would be hard to predict Smith’s natural affinity with colour and expression. Matthew Smith’s youth and adolescence were dominated by his stern industrialist father; it took the threat of his leaving home permanently to convince his father to support his studies at the Manchester School of Art, under the proviso that he was on no account to be allowed near any classroom where women were posing in a ‘state of undress’.
Smith’s departure to France in 1908 signalled the true beginning of his artistic development, initiated by his time in Pont-Aven. Smith always believed that his life only really began with his arrival in the Brittany town in September of that year. Drawn to the ‘landscape, the dress, bearing and speech of the inhabitants, and the humanity, tolerance and voluptuous simplicity of the painter’s life in France’, he was finally able to grow as an artist. In contrast to the precedence that his Slade education based on drawing, Smith finally felt empowered to disentangle himself from the shackles of rigorous draughtsmanship, exploring all that colour was able to provide. He moved to Paris the following year and went on to exhibit at both the 1911 and 1912 Salon des Indépendants (the 1911 show was notable for its role in the genesis of Cubism).
With the outbreak of war in 1914 Smith returned to England and he continued to develop and implement what he had learnt in France. Taking a studio on Fitzroy Street, this period proved to be one of his most significant. Two of the more prominent works produced during this period, Fitzroy Street Nude No. 2 (1916, British Council Collection) and Fruit in a Dish (circa 1915, Tate, London) are superlative examples of the impact that his exposure to Fauvism had and the persistence with which he implemented it. From an intellectual perspective the typically sweeping areas of colour in this period reinforce that most modern of notions, the inherent flatness of a canvas, a radically progressive approach, which greatly exceeded much of what was being produced in England at the time.
Matisse was to be one of the most persistent influences in Smith’s art. Despite only spending a very short time at the Atelier Matisse, the influence of the master was to be life-long. Smith found himself naturally drawn to Fauvism, with the emphasis that was placed on instinctive and fast application of paint, demarcation of colours and the inherent value of colour itself all conforming to his own personal attitudes; as Francis Bacon said of Smith, ‘here the brush-stroke creates the form and does not merely fill it in’ (Francis Bacon, quoted in Matthew Smith, (exh. cat.), Tate, London, 1953, unpaginated).
Vase and Pears is a striking image that makes patently clear what confidence and inspiration he drew from his French sojourn. As we are conscious of the liminality of the canvas we are drawn into the scene through the exaggerated perspective and confronted by the jug, pears and chair. The brief, vibrant brushstrokes accentuate the colour with dynamism. The separation of colours enables Smith to give the whole picture seeming recession, and the objects assume substance.
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