What artists can learn from Henri Matisse

Guest column special to “See Great Art” written by Miriam Schulman

Henri Matisse, French painter, sculptor and printmaker, is widely considered along with Pablo Picasso as one of the revolutionaries in visual arts in the early 20th century. However, what brought him prominence on the global stage was the patronage of the American art collectors Claribel and Etta Cone.

Matisse’s understanding on how to sell to these two wealthy Victorian women allowed him to have a museum presence in America after the Cone sisters ultimately bequeathed their collection to the Baltimore Museum of Art. That artist-patron relationship takes center stage at the museum through January 2, 2022 during the exhibition A Modern Influence: Henri Matisse, Etta Cone, and Baltimore. Also in January of 2022, also on the foundation of Matisse artworks acquired by the Cone’s, the Baltimore Museum of Art opens its Matisse Center which will offer scholars, artists and visitors the opportunity to study the world’s largest collection of his drawings, paintings, sketches, sculptures and writings.

The sisters were first introduced to Matisse by the poet and novelist, Gertrude Stein who spent most of her life living in Paris. She famously organized salons with the leading artists, writers and intellectuals such as Ernest Hemingway, Picasso and of course Matisse.

When the Cone sisters first visited Europe, they started their lifelong love affair with art collecting. So voracious was their love for collecting (and their wish to be recognized by Parisian society as important collectors) that they bought an extra seat at the Opera to seat their shopping bags. When they made their second trip to Paris, they required an extra state room on the ship home just to house their purchases. And then in their apartment, they opened a second apartment  to display their art from floor to ceiling.

Matisse Understood the Value of Relationships

Henri Matisse, The Two Rays, 1920. Norton Museum of Art.
Henri Matisse, The Two Rays, 1920. Norton Museum of Art.

Every artist dreams of having collectors like the Cone sisters to take an interest in their art. Although the sisters also collected Picasso, the number of Matisse artworks outnumber those by PIcasso. There are 3000 objects in the collection that the Cone sisters donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. Now, as part of that, there are 700 artworks by Matisse and only about a hundred artworks by Picasso. So how did Matisse manage to outsell Picasso to these sisters who could afford to collect any art they wanted?

Matisse worked hard to nurture his relationship, regularly updating the heiress about his artist life with stories and pictures of his work in progress. After their initial introduction, Matisse and Etta shared a 43 year friendship that has been well documented through their frequent letters.

What’s more, he understood her mindset. He understood that by collecting his avant-garde work, including nude figures (which was very usual for a woman at the time), that she was creating a sense of identity for herself. Collecting art gave her purpose and freedom from convention. Matisse knew that it was his job as the artist to pursue her. Pursue the collector, not the other way around. He didn’t wait in his studio, waiting for these trips to Paris. He courted the sisters, he pursued them, he even created work specifically with Etta Cone in mind and would write to her about them.

What can we learn from this?

If you’re looking to build your own audience of collectors and patrons, there’s no better way to do that than with the art of the letter. Or in modern terms, the email. If you want to build an audience of adoring fans, it’s not just about marketing to them or selling to them. It’s about building that relationship and staying in touch. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About Your Art

Whether you’re selling online or in person, the words you use are one way to help your collectors see how your art gets them to that better version of themselves. Many artists tell me that they don’t want to use flowery words, or they’re not sure how to use flowery words, but there’s no flowery words required.I’ve also met artists who go to the other extreme because they dislike writing or they feel their art will sell itself. They just slap a price on their pieces and call it a day.

But you do need to talk about your art.

Don’t let that scare you. It’s what Matisse did. He just wrote letters to Etta, as a friend. When you write an email, pretend you’re writing to a friend and be honest and authentic.

About Miriam Schulman

Miriam Schulman, Artist, author, entrepreneur.
Miriam Schulman, Artist, author, entrepreneur.

Miriam Schulman is an artist, author, and founder of The Inspiration Place and The Artists Incubator Coaching Program where she helps artists (from amateurs to professionals) develop their skills, tap into their creativity, and grow thriving art businesses. Her podcast, The Inspiration Place,  is in the top 1% of all podcasts globally and is listened to in over 40 countries. Visit schulmanart.com/profit to get your free e-book copy of The Artist’s Profit Plan to learn the 5 foundations that every creative business needs to thrive.

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