I, who because of my age and the major’s decisions, have remained with my brushes, I am often sickened by all of the upheaval to which I am not contributing—and it seems to me that my place is not here. I work as much as I can . . . I can’t say that it is not a struggle—but it is not the real one.
—Matisse to Léonce Rosenberg, June 1, 1916
For France, 1916 was one of the worst years of World War I, punctuated by the terrible battles of Verdun and the Somme, both of which were fought near the capital. For those in Paris, these events struck close to home: indeed, on still nights during the summer and fall, they could hear guns in the distance. For Matisse, this time marked progress on some of the most difficult but pivotal works of his career. At first he was consumed by the monumental Moroccans and later by three long-standing projects: Back, Bathers by a River, and Jeannette. Each involved a complex approach in which the artist built upon his earlier processes of scraping and incising while still adding new material, reducing and fragmenting form in order to produce something fresh. Reinitiating these works was a test of skill and conviction; as Matisse told the artist Gino Severini, “One should be able to rework a masterpiece at least once, to be very sure that one has not fallen victim—to one’s nerves or to fate.” In all these—as well as in the newly conceived Piano Lesson—he employed his demanding “methods of modern construction” on an ambitious scale. Their surfaces are thick with the trails of repeated reworking, products of the artist’s attempt to reconsider and adjust his approaches to familiar motifs.
Earlier, when he was rejected from military service, Marcel Sembat advised him “to continue to paint well.” While his works make no direct reference to the war in their styles or subjects, they were physically and mentally challenging to produce, existing as his own response to the conflict. They are unified in their purpose and serious demands on the artist, functioning as records of the extraordinary challenge that he set for himself at this moment.