Henri Matisse’s “The Young Sailor, II”, a moderately sized oil painting that this modernist master painted in 1906, presents us both an evocative and lush image of the “jeune marin” but also allows us to investigate Matisse’s sense of his own calling as an artist – which was tied in key ways to his conception of the role of the artist’s model. After presenting a formal description of this painting at the beginning of this paper, I shall proceed to examine the ways in which this particular canvas supports Yve-Alain Bois’s arguments about Matisse’s intentions.
This painting is in many ways a visual riff upon a number of then- (and still-) venerable conventions within the Western tradition of portraiture painting. We have all, of course, seen portraits of men and women displayed for the viewer on a chair, gazing out at us even as this young sailor does. Or rather, not exactly as this young sailor does, for while there is something of the typical self-possession of the portraitist’s subject in this painting, there is also a certain dis-ease that we are not accustomed to see.
That discomfort that Matisse conveys to us suggests that this man has perhaps not volunteered to be the subject of this painting. This is, after all, not a painting in the grand tradition of wealthy families seeking to acquire another canvas to hang in ancestral gallery but rather a man of modest means, a peasant even, visually caught within an artistic tradition that had (until Modernism) essentially belonged to his superiors in rank and wealth.
That Matisse should suggest that a poor young man might feel uncomfortable as the painter’s subject is not terribly surprising; what is far more interesting to us is the technical way in which he has been able to do so. Much of the effect of this painting lies in the ways in which Matisse has framed his subject. What would be the “cropping” if this were a photograph is too close, too severe. There is not the customary amount of space around this figure, who fills up the canvas to the point that we expect to see his elbows protruding from the edges.