In 1932 at the age of 24, Henri Cartier-Bresson obtained a handheld Leica camera. This freed the photographer from virtually all constraints and became an extension of his eyes through which he would observe the world during his subsequent global travels. Eventually becoming known as the “Eye of the Century,” few photographers would have a greater impact on the medium and changing the trajectory of modern art in general than Cartier-Bresson’s enduring images of the “decisive moment.” For his portraiture, he created images both of unknowns who interested him formally and also celebrities, treating them no differently by conjuring a certain mystery typically within strange settings. As he once said,
“Taking a portrait is the thing I find hardest. It’s a question mark you put on somebody.”
His approach to portraiture in general involved his desire to have the subjects forget he was there. Photographing from a slight distance, he never took close-ups or used flash and concentrated on the relationship between the sitter and their surroundings, avoiding all artifice. Cartier-Bresson began taking commissioned portraits for magazines and book publishers shortly after he escaped from a prisoner of war camp in Germany in 1944. In this same year before he documented the liberation of Paris, he created a series for the publisher Les Editions Braun of artist portraits that included Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. Having a deep respect for painters stemming from his earliest artistic influence of his uncle who was a painter, these portraits became quite personal for Cartier-Bresson and show his passion for their work.
Sitting for a portrait while convalescing at his south of France home, Henri Matisse in his old age seems far away from the troublesome world of 1944. Part of the Fauve artistic movement, he is photographed in black and white, stripped of the colorful palette that defines his vibrant paintings. The great French painter captured by the great French photographer in a medium quite different from Matisse’s own is more than a portrait; this is a photographer paying respect to a painter. It depicts Matisse holding a white dove in his left hand while sketching the bird in an album, but the eye is first drawn to a burst of white in the right foreground of three other doves on a cage. Shot across the room from the artist himself, the doves and the setting bring the viewer closer to the peaceful and sublime nature of Matisse more than a shot of only his face. It is as much about the sitter’s environment, that reflects his personality, than solely Matisse himself, making this portrait particularly unique. Creating the appearance that Matisse is alone, Cartier-Bresson says,
“Just like a cat, as in photography. A cat makes you forget his presence, it is there, and you no longer see it. When I went to Matisse’s, I sat in a corner, I didn’t move at all. It was as though I didn’t exist.”
Remaining good friends, in 1952 Matisse drew the cover for Cartier-Bresson’s seminal book, “The Decisive Moment.” Today, Cartier-Bresson’s photograph has become an iconic portrait of the master painter showing the intersection of two of the greatest artists in the twentieth century.