Consider this: A man in his 50s quits his family and moves alone to the beach, where he takes up with a series of beautiful young girls.

The conclusion is obvious, right? A chronic mid-life crisis leads to a final fling before it is too late.

Now add this information to the scenario: The man is not a tired CPA from L.A. who decamps to the marina, and the time is not the present. The time is 1916, the beach is the French Riviera, and our hero is a renowned painter.

So what? Renowned painters from 1916 were allowed to have mid-life crises and run off to cavort with nymphs like everybody else. Yes, but this renowned painter lived in narrow hotel rooms with little to recommend them except Gallic quaintness and the gorgeous light of the Cote d'Azur. As far as one can tell, he painted every day wearing a suit and a tie and never got closer to La Plage or the Boulevard des Anglais than the view from his tiny balcony.

Anybody who has ever either painted or lived in a hotel room knows that the act of trying to do both while wearing a good suit bespeaks a degree of control and inner decorum that has probably vanished from the Earth. The circumstances conjure an image that does not go with that of a long-toothed satyr warbling, "Thank heaven for little girls."

Or does it?

This is the conundrum posed by an dazzling exhibition at the National Gallery through March 29. Called "Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1930," it purports to be the first searching look at a period generally regarded as a time of unforced artistic relaxation for one of the two undisputed titans of modern art.

By the time Matisse moved to the Riviera, he had launched the Fauvist movement that liberated color from the task of mere representation and painted pictures like the 1910 "La Danse," which said that art had internal harmonics that were not just the arbitrary caprice of modern rebels but a time-honored tradition going back to the wall frescoes of the ancient Aegean. After decades as one of art's slowest starters, Matisse had money and a renown equalled only by that of his admired colleague and bitter rival, Picasso. Aside from their comparable artistic stature, the two men could scarcely have been more different. Picasso, the wild bohemian, left his multiple affairs undisguised, and his art virtually insists that we take them into account while looking at the work.

Matisse was professorial and reticent. For decades, biographers have been going crazy over their inability to get at the private man behind the great artist. Is that important? Doesn't the guy have as much right to his privacy as we have to be curious about what made him tick? Sure, the truth is that the biographical details are none of our business except insofar as they ultimately cast some light on the work. But the work is telling us about itself by its appearance, and Matisse's personal elusiveness really supports what the work is already saying.

Virtually all of the paintings of the early Riviera years are either empty interiors full of decorative patterns bleached in powdery pastel light, or they are interiors inhabited by languorous women sometimes dressed as Oriental odalisques. The women equate with the pictures' combination of the commonplace and the ornamental saying, in effect, "These pictures make a distinction between the sexual and the sensual."

Matisse was like a rather dry professor with twinkling eyes and little knowing smiles that makes a student feel a conspiratorial closeness that begins as something personal and evolves into something theoretical. "Theoretical" sounds boring, but it was Matisse's gift to prove that the theoretical can ultimately be as moving as the autobiographical.

Matisse's colleague Pierre Bonnard painted domestic interiors and nudes that were a kind of celebration of cozy French banality.

Matisse uses banality as a neutral given that makes us recognize that it is not that dumb little dressing chair or the pretty lady that makes this painting so moving. Matisse was no symbolist, but it is significant that he often painted the recurrent motif of a black, blank mirror, as if to say, "This picture is not a mirror of reality or a flattering reflection of your vanity, it is a thing in itself."

Critics of this period of Matisse's art have long insisted that it was too easygoing at best and a potboiler factory at worst because it resulted in no great stylistic leaps forward. The artist's groupies knee-jerk to his defense without saying exactly why they are defending him.

They are both right. In these pictures, Matisse is not being the inventor, he is playing the patient professor and another role for which he is rarely credited--the dazzling visual wit. As a matter of fact, Matisse did make a minor invention during these years--he invented the prototype of the New Yorker magazine cover. Virtually every issue of the great periodical owes something to this period of Matisse's art.

It works like this--give the viewer something recognizable, like the rooms in a Dutch interior or a perfectly traditional nude, so that he has something to hang on to both from his experience of reality and his experience of art. That way, every deviation from the conventions of either art and life are apparent and the viewer can tell what you are doing.

What was Matisse doing? Well, if he had already said that art was not about the mere perpetuation of convention, he was now saying that neither was it only about invention. If he had already said it was not about copying reality, he was now confirming it was was not about arbitrary abstraction without observation of the world.

So what is he about? Good old French compromise? No, finally, what keeps us moving around the gallery is an extraordinary expression of intelligence. Matisse's pictures tell us that he set himself the task of looking at these, bright, humble things and asking himself, "Now what is the quickest way to accurately portray that light, shadow, shape, space or pattern with the stroke of a brush?" At the same time, he was asking himself how the decision to depict something real on a flat canvas would also contribute to turning it into a decorative object as seductively luxurious, calm and voluptuous as an Islamic tile.

The results are literally hypnotic. The viewer keeps circling galleries full of 170 modestly sized canvases wondering how one man could have painted so many limpidly gorgeous, seemingly effortless canvases.

There are known masterworks here tucked between the 1916 "L'atelier du Quai Saint-Michel" and "Figure decoratif sur fond ornemental" of 1926, but the show is not about big flourishes. It is like listening to 100 etudes by Chopin or 150 Bach fugues. Themes and variations are tirelessly reinvented, and just as you think there isn't another wrinkle left in an idea, Matisse hands you five. He locks on the black arabesque shapes in the tresses of a model named Lorette and uses them to turn black into a wonderful sonorous color with a life of its own. At the same time, he doesn't forget to sculpt out the plane of a face with all the conviction of a Cezanne and half the effort. He paints model as a Parisienne gamin done up as a harem girl and then shows her lush young nudity. He soberly acknowledges his pleasure in the fun and the sexiness of it without getting caught up in it.

Matisse moved to the beach to have an orgy all right, but it was an orgy of the most polite and sophisticated painting in the modern lexicon.

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