Two pictures by Matthew Smith Landscape Near Cagnes and Nude with Pearl Necklace show the painter in his maturity as an artist.
Both paintings demonstrate Smith's mastery of the painter's craft in landscape and figure painting. He had studied briefly under Matisse at his school in Paris and had absorbed Matisse's dictum that in art it is essential to condense and concentrate what is seen and felt in nature and translate immediate sensation into an 'expressive harmony'.
Landscape Near Cagnes is a powerful tone poem celebrating the countryside around Villa Brune in southern France where Smith lived with his model and lover, Vera Cunningham. The paint, liberally loosened with linseed oil, is dashed onto the canvas spontaneously with bravura skill. The colours are livid, an expression of the painter's personal empathy with the very land and its vegetation, its history, its hills and its prevailing atmospheric and climatic conditions. The sky is almost black with swirling whorls of rain-bearing cloud. The effect of previous rain is obvious from the lush, harshly green vegetation and the rocky waterways, bare of soil and ready for torrents. Everything is depicted with a juicy brush loaded with pure colour. This is the artist concerned with the art of painting-attempting to meld idea and technique. Smith is rejoicing in the pure enjoyment of place, painted while he was enjoying it as well as enjoying painting it.
From 1930, Smith lived near Cagnes, leaving France only when forced to return to England at the outbreak of World War II. He had left his wife and family in 1922 to be with Vera Cunningham, and the series of paintings he made of her over the next seventeen years forms a testament to his impassioned relationship with her and to his love affair with colour.
Nude with Pearl Necklace, c 1935, is one of. these opulent loving portraits. Frederick Gore called them '. . . love poems as fine as any in the English language'. He worked quickly, and his passionate elation is obvious in the work. Luscious arabesques and swelling brushstrokes attest to the artist's sensual enjoyment of colour, pigment and texture. Smith allows form to grow out of the pigment, with every brushstroke having a constructive function. Form is not realised by drawing so much as by colour. The solid and sensual bulk of his subject is firmly modelled and defined with a strong chiaroscuro. She lives and breathes in a real space-our space. In fact, her presence is too real, too overpowering for some viewers, who confess to faintness in front of such an unashamed, direct representation of receptive femininity.
Many believe, incorrectly, that Matthew Smith was untaught before he wandered to France and had his brief weeks with Matisse. In fact, Smith received practical art training in Manchester as well as studying at the Slade around the turn of the century. He also absorbed much informal art experience when he went to France and painted, particularly around Pont-Aven in 1908. A meeting with the brilliant Roderic O'Conor, who had painted with Gauguin, seemed to liberate Smith's palette. From the time of that meeting (1919) Smith's paintings became a vivid response to the sensuous richness of the visible world.
Matthew Smith was a much-admired painter during the 1920s and 1930s. However, the loss of his two sons in World War II exacerbated nervous problems caused by his own shocking experiences as a soldier in the Great War. After World War II he lived a reclusive life, moving between seedy hotels or staying with Dorelia and Augustus John. He was knighted in 1954 and died in 1959. His reputation as a brilliant, individual colourist has gained much strength from three major exhibitions since his death, the most recent in London in 1983.