Drawings by Henri Matisse shown at Art Museum.

Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), Femme en fauteuil (Woman in chair), pencil on paper, 1935, collection of The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, 346.203120 (c) 2014 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Hundreds of students, faculty, and community members gathered September 4 for a rare glimpse at the foundational work of iconic French artist Henri Matisse.

A newly opened exhibition at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, Matisse Drawings: Curated by Ellsworth Kelly from The Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation, gives special attention to Matisse’s masterful use of line. The exhibit continues through December 14.

As Mount Holyoke College Art Museum Director John Stomberg put it, “A seemingly simple curve could simultaneously define a shoulder, establish its place in relation to the picture plane, suggest its volume, outline the shape of the upper torso, and lend an emotional tenor to the sitter.”

Ellsworth Kelly, an internationally celebrated artist in his own right, was in attendance for the annual Patricia and Edward Falkenberg Lecture, “Matisse: Line, Color, Action,” during which historian, lecturer, and author Olivier Bernier discussed Matisse’s use of line to define space and—in other works—highlight vibrant color.

Kelly selected the 45 drawings on display from the comprehensive collection of the Pierre and Tana Matisse Foundation. He also designed the installation, using custom-made frames to highlight the shape and size of each piece. The MHC exhibition presents a wide variety of Matisse’s work, from sketches to finished drawings, and covers most of his career, spanning 1900 to 1950.

In a review of the exhibition, Pulitzer Prize winner and Boston Globe art reviewer Sebastian Smee calls it “ravishing,” noting that it includes a breadth of works even avid collectors have seldom seen through the lens of a fellow artist. “What gives the show its special, intimate appeal,” Smee wrote, “is that the drawings were selected and installed by one of the world’s greatest living artists, Ellsworth Kelly.”

You can view both artists’ works in a single museum visit, since Kelly’s botanical prints from the 1960s are the focus of a separate exhibition displayed simultaneously with the Matisse show. Although the two artists’ styles differ significantly, Kelly recently explained his affinity for Matisse this way: “Picasso made me want to paint, but Matisse made me want to draw.”

Henri Matisse drew constantly throughout his life (1869–1954) and his direct, elegant draftsmanship has become a hallmark of twentieth-century modern art, says Stomberg. “His particular gift was an economy of line. A majority of what Matisse communicates with his drawings he achieves through implication rather than replication.”

And—once you see a Matisse—you’ll never mistake his work for anyone else’s. As Kelly said, “He can't make a mark without it being a Matisse. I mean a single mark.”

• See related story: MHC Museum of Art Director John Stromberg discusses the exhibit on ABC TV 40 (video).

—By Emily Harrison Weir and Julia Ferrante