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Louisa Matthiasdottir

By John Ashbery

Louisa Matthiasdottir was born in Reykjavik in 1917, the youngest of three children of Dr. Matthias Einarsson and his wife Ellen. Following Icelandic custom, her father’s first name became of her last name, hence “Matthias’ daughter.” Her father was a doctor who collected works by Icelandic painters of the day, particularly the renowned Jon Stefansson. In 1925 Dr. Einarsson moved his to a mansion, called Höfði on the shore close to Reykjavik; it would become known to television viewers worldwide as the site of the summit meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev.

From childhood, Louisa’s cultivated parents encouraged her to study art; first with a local painter, Tryggvi Magnusson, and later at the Danish College of Crafts in Copenhagen. She agreed with her parents that it would be a good idea to study commercial art as a means of gaining a living, and in fact took quite naturally to the simplification and clarity required of the commercial artist. A water color of that period, a proposal for an advertisement for ceramics, startingly anticipates the bold colors and shapes of dishes in her later still lifes. After finishing her course of studies she returned to Iceland, and must have been pleasantly surprised when her parents suggested that she accompany them to Paris in the fall of 1938, and stay on there to study art. During that year she studied with Marcel Gromaire and deeply moved by a Matisse show at the Pierre Rosenberg Gallery (she had seen samples of his work before but hadn’t been especially impressed). She also discovered the work of Derain, who would be a major influence on her work and that of her future husband, Leland Bell. In Paris she made the acquaintance of another young Icelandic art student, Nina Tryggvadottir, who was to become her closest friend and would travel with her to New York in 1942.

After war broke out, further study in Paris was out of the question. In 1942 her parents suggested that she continue studying art in New York (with characteristic succinctness she said, “I thought it was a good idea and agreed to it right away”). Despite the dangers of transatlantic travel (Iceland had been occupied by the British in 1940), Ulla, as Louisa was nicknamed, sailed for New York. She enrolled first at the Art Students League, but found the teaching there too stodgy for her now rather advanced tastes: She would later say that her teachers there “knew nothing about art.” Fortunately the émigré  German painter Hans Hofmann, who had been forced out of the Art Students League, opened his own school first in Provincetown and later on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village where Ulla joined him. Hofmann proclaimed: “The planes should battle, should fight, should push and pull, should be expressed as forces in our work which make the work living in the end. We have now already gotten away from an imitation of nature. A living creation is formed through movement.” Such statements would have merely confirmed what Louisa had discovered on her own in paintings done in Iceland just before leaving for New York: The broad planar simplifications in her portraits and still lifes of that period already appear to exemplify Hofmann’s dicta. And indeed, though she professed respect but not involvement with abstractionism, her 1942-43 study of New York skyscrapers, virtually nothing but massed vertical planes, bears a startling resemblance to Hofmann’s abstract paintings, though it would remain an exception.

A young painter from Richmond, Va., Nell Blaine, had become the leader of a group of especially gifted Hofmann students; in the late forties they would found the short-lived but influential Jane Street Gallery; where abstraction gradually began coming to terms with figuration, due in part to certain European painters such as Léger  and Hélion, who had escaped the war and were living in New York. Some of the major figures in the Jane Street circle were Robert de Niro Sr., his wife Virginia Admiral, AI Kresch, Jane Freilicher, and Leland Bell. It was Blaine who introduced Louisa to Bell. After a far-ranging courtship (Bell had signed on as deckhand on a freighter; when he heard that Ulla and her friend Nina were living in San Francisco, he got himself transferred to a freighter sailing the Pacific, and found the girls working as waitresses in a YWCA hotel) he proposed marriage. At first she turned him down, but Bell persuaded them to accompany him on a trip through the south including New Orleans and then back to New York. By that time Ulla had relented; they were married in 1944, and their daughter Temma (who would continue the family tradition by becoming a painter herself) was born in 1945.

In the fifties and sixties the Bells made two extended visits to Paris, where they renewed contact with Hélion and met some of the other painters who had been or would be influential for them, including Balthus, Giacometti, and the American Charles Marks. With the addition of Derain and Marquet, these made up Leland’s highly idiosyncratic cenacle of European artists. His friends remember his passionate advocacy of their work, expressed in sometimes vehement conversations. Unlike her husband, Louisa seemed cool and reserved, if not downright austere. Those who knew her well, however, testify to her slightly dry sense of humor, which could occasionally surface in her work as well. In his superb monograph on her work (to which I am indebted for this eulogy), Jed Perl discusses a self-portrait in pastel where she is wearing a cap similar to that of Chardin (an artist she deeply admired) in his own famous pastel self-portrait. Perl writes, “I think we can sense a hint of sneaky delight in her informing us that this artist is a woman. This is one of those instances where Matthiasdottir reveals her gift for subversive humor. She knows how to laugh at the world, as she does in some of her paintings of sheep, horses and dogs, where the familial relations among animals occasion witty or tender analogies with life among us mammals who walk on our hind legs.”

Starting in the late sixties, when I returned from a long stay in Paris to become an editor at Art News, Louisa’s exhibitions at the Schoelkopf Gallery were occasions I looked forward to eagerly. Amazingly, each one, though similar to the last in subject matter, seemed deeper and richer, until finally they began to blaze with the light of authority we find in Chardin’s stilllifes. Leland’s shows there were also a source of delight; I treasure a small painting of three figures (perhaps himself, his wife, and his daughter) that he once gave me. How I regret now that I didn’t take the time to get to know the Bells better! It would have been so easy: Our tastes in art were similar, and we lived near each other in Chelsea. Perhaps one of the useful side-effects of sad occasions like this one today is to remind us to cherish the artists in our midst, and to try to know them better while there is time to do so.

I think I described my feelings about Louisa’s painting fairly accurately in a text I wrote for the catalog of her 1982 exhibition at Schoelkopf so I will end this tribute to her by reading that text.


THERE ARE NO superfluous secrets in Louisa Matthiasdottir’s paintings. The edge of the table in her still lifes is close to the viewer’s eye. The table top slopes gently upward, its objects placed at some distance from each other so that their individuality remains intact; contiguity doesn’t blur their contours and identities. Her pictures of people and animals are almost emblematic. The Icelandic sheep, a rectilinear beast whose double coat of wool hangs down its sides evenly like a horse blanket, seems to have been designed by nature as an illustration on a child’s building block, and the painter emphasizes its two-dimensional squarishness with only a slight trace of humor. Same for her self-portraits: Sometimes she paints herself an Icelandic woolen coat of her own, of many colors and broad stripes, with hands on hips and a just-noticeable attitude of impatience: portrait of the artist deciding to do something. Or she will pose in a trench coat and holding a closed umbrella, as stiffly as those eighteenth-century French prints representing various petits métiersthis time it’s the artist preparing to go outside. This is a story of sorts, not really much of a one, but enough to allow the painter to intervene with a story of another kind involving light, shadows, volumes, and swift, accurate passes with the brush. Then there are the landscapes of Iceland, where she was born and which she has visited regularly through the years. The land is flat, slanting a little up or down for easy viewing, until it hits the water and then the mountains which block the view, simple and intransigent as the wall behind the table in the still lifes. Apparently there are no trees or sfumato in Iceland. The buildings are simple gabled shapes, white with colored roofs, and few if any windows, like the houses in Monopoly. The land is clean, chilly and open. Sometimes two figures stand in the foreground, not too close together and casting the long shadows one associates with de Chirico. This might seem to invoke a secret or a mystery, but if so it does it only long enough to make the point that this bit of poetry is only a minor ingredientessential, perhaps, but smallin a game where formal concerns override others without suppressing them.

The cold Nordic colors and an almost summary way with volumes and perspectives are things we remember from expressionism. Are there suggestions of Munch in the bleak urban sunlight, of Hodler in the bald blue mountains, of Marc in the sheep and horses hieratically placed in prismatic air against bold, chromatic planes defined just enough to be constructed as landscape? Probably, but probably they are very few. For all Matthiasdottir’s care to bring out the counterpoint of shapes, the armatures and buttresses shoring up the world of appearances, which takes her close to abstraction, she never considers reducing it all to a diagram as did the Precisionists, for example. There is an increment of something else, a trace-element of mystery, a dreamlike tinge, which allows the picture to deploy its loose big shapes and go about its business, just by keeping the whole alive and never letting it sink into facile abstraction or sermon. So, though there are no unnecessary secrets, there are enoughthe ones the average person, as opposed to the Machiavellian intriguer, would have. It is just this that gives Matthiasdottir’s painting, despite its tendency toward broad simplification, an air of heightened realisma kind of trompe-l’œil that works on a mental rather than an optical level. In any case, one returns to these pictures, as year after year they paradoxically both expand and simplify the world they have chosen to explore, for their strange flavor, both mellow and astringent, which no other painter gives us.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 14, 2000.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters