STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A conversation between two major artists, Henri Matisse of France and Richard Diebenkorn of America, is taking place on the walls of the Baltimore Museum of Art. Now, these artists never met, but Matisse influenced Diebenkorn's work across decades and across continents. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg saw the evidence of that influence on the painters and their descendants.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The museum invited Matisse's great-granddaughter and Diebenkorn's daughter to see the exhibition before it opened to the public.
SOPHIE MATISSE: Hello.
GRETCHEN DIEBENKORN GRANT: Hi.
MATISSE: How nice to meet you.
GRANT: It's such a pleasure to meet you.
STAMBERG: Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, age 71, has a lovely smile. Sophie Matisse, age 51 - chic and fit - was born in Boston. She is a painter.
MATISSE: Have you seen the show yet?
GRANT: No. I'm salivating, I guess you could say, yeah.
MATISSE: Right, sure, right.
GRANT: My whole life, we all looked at Mattise all the time.
MATISSE: Oh, really? Yeah.
GRANT: And to see them together...
MATISSE: That's funny, me too.
STAMBERG: Me too, says Sophie.
GRANT: (Laughter) Yes, I'll bet.
STAMBERG: Curator Katy Rothkopf began thinking about getting Matisse and Diebenkorn - the painters, not the descendants - together some 15 years ago. She was poking through the Baltimore Museum's storage room when inspiration struck.
KATY ROTHKOPF: We had this spectacularly beautiful Diebenkorn drawing of a woman seated in a chair and realized it had incredible resonance with a Matisse drawing we also had of a reclining model with a flowered robe. They were made 40 years apart and were done by men living in different places with different lifestyles. But yet, here they were really needing to have a conversation.
STAMBERG: She says Diebenkorn was in his 20s when he discovered Matisse. He got hooked.
ROTHKOPF: He really sought out every opportunity to see as many paintings in exhibitions, in permanent collection installations, in a few lucky cases in private collections. And it was something that he was interested in throughout his entire career.
STAMBERG: Wherever he was - Portland, Ore., where he was born, San Francisco, Santa Monica - Diebenkorn collected books on Matisse, stuffed sketched books with clippings, postcard reproductions, notes. He loved the master's women, his adventures with abstraction, his shifting style depending on where he lived, and, of course, Matisse's joyful colors. Diebenkorn's colors shimmer, delicate veils of blues and greens and grays. Teaching in Urbana, Ill. in 1952, he said he saw nothing but haystacks. He was starved for colors.
ROTHKOPF: So he decided to black out the windows of his studio and made these beautiful abstractions really from his imagination.
STAMBERG: Gretchen Diebenkorn says there was one year, though, when her father capped his coloured tubes. She points to a black, white and gray painting of a dining table set with dishes.
GRANT: My mother always used Indian bedspreads for table cloths. And that is a lamb chop bone on the plate there. And my father's favorite dinner was lamb chops.
STAMBERG: With spinach and baked potatoes. Diebenkorn made the piece in 1964.
GRANT: And this is the year that my grandfather died. And in that year, he did only black and white drawings.
STAMBERG: So that was his mourning period essentially?
GRANT: Yes, I think so. I think so.
STAMBERG: It's only black and white, but they're not somber at all. They're..
GRANT: No, they're not depressing. They're not mournful, really. They're just - this is where he was, I guess.
STAMBERG: The black-and-white works are in various museum collections. When Gretchen spots one, she doesn't have to look at the date. She knows it was made in 1964. Sophie Matisse has no stories about her great-grandfather Henri. Sophie was born 11 years after he died. And her grandfather, Pierre - Henri's youngest child - kept pretty mum.
MATISSE: Well, just to be perfectly honest, he didn't really talk a lot about his father and didn't even answer questions so much about his father. I never forget one time my brother, who was nobly trying to make conversation at the dinner table because we were kind of coached, you know, well, ask him about a story about his dad or whatever just try to make conversation.
So my brother said, oh, so tell us some great stories about your dad and what it was like and. Pierre never moved a muscle. He was just there at the table, stiff as a statue, and just suggested that he go read a book about it. So (laughter) I closed this down and we didn't really talk about family stories after that.
STAMBERG: It's not that the relationship was thorny.
MATISSE: I think that he had been asked too many times, you know. I think their relationship was solid, actually, and very good, and very deep, and very intimate and private. He wasn't a big sharer of feelings or even conversations. What happened between them more or less stayed between them.
STAMBERG: Gretchen Diebenkorn has lots of stories about her beloved father. Like Henri Matisse, he had a real work ethic, a dedication to craft. Diebenkorn painted every day, was not to be interrupted.
GRANT: Oh, yeah. Never, never went to the studio except invited occasionally in emergency. I only remember knocking on the studio door once. That was his space.
STAMBERG: He worked all day. The family wouldn't see him again until dinner time.
GRANT: My mother was a wonderful cook, so (laughter).
STAMBERG: Descendants of famous men, a daughter with loving memories of her father, a great-grandchild with a distant but looming connection to a fellow artist.
Has your name ever become a burden to you?
MATISSE: Yes, it has. But at the same time, it's been obviously a tremendous honor.
GRANT: I was happy that my name changed to Grant.
STAMBERG: Mrs. Gretchen Diebenkorn Grant, one-time actress and singer.
GRANT: First of all, it was always the longest name on a program when I was acting or singing, which is always difficult. It just - I got tired of being reviewed parens the daughter of the artist. You don't want to be an adjunct somehow.
STAMBERG: The two women move happily through the artworks of their ancestors gathered at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Matisse's voluptuous harem women near a luscious Diebenkorn abstract landscape. Matisse's "Still Life With Blue Tablecloth" near a Diebenkorn still life swirled with Matisse-y (ph) blues and curves. It is a knockout show.
You know, I was thinking it's too bad that the two never met. But they really did, didn't they?
ROTHKOPF: They did. And I, you know, I sort of think that this exhibition will give them the opportunity to have a conversation on our walls for the next three months.
STAMBERG: After Baltimore, the show goes to San Francisco.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.