"What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue."
Henri Matisse is widely regarded as the greatest colorist of the twentieth century and as a rival to Pablo Picasso in the importance of his innovations. He emerged as a Post-Impressionist, and first achieved prominence as the leader of the French movement Fauvism. Although interested in Cubism, he rejected it, and instead sought to use color as the foundation for expressive, decorative, and often monumental paintings. As he once controversially wrote, he sought to create an art that would be "a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair." Still life and the nude remained favorite subjects throughout his career; North Africa was also an important inspiration, and, towards the end of his life, he made an important contribution to collage with a series of works using cut-out shapes of color. He is also highly regarded as a sculptor.
Matisse used pure colors and the white of exposed canvas to create a light-filled atmosphere in his Fauve paintings. Rather than using modeling or shading to lend volume and structure to his pictures, Matisse used contrasting areas of pure, unmodulated color. These ideas continued to be important to him throughout his career.
His art was important in endorsing the value of decoration in modern art. However, although he is popularly regarded as a painter devoted to pleasure and contentment, his use of color and pattern is often deliberately disorientating and unsettling.
Matisse was heavily influenced by art from other cultures. Having seen several exhibitions of Asian art, and having traveled to North Africa, he incorporated some of the decorative qualities of Islamic art, the angularity of African sculpture, and the flatness of Japanese prints into his own style.
Matisse once declared that he wanted his art to be one "of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter," and this aspiration was an important influence on some, such as Clement Greenberg, who looked to art to provide shelter from the disorientation of the modern world.
The human figure was central to Matisse's work both in sculpture and painting. Its importance for his Fauvist work reflects his feeling that the subject had been neglected in Impressionism, and it continued to be important to him. At times he fragmented the figure harshly, at other times he treated it almost as a curvilinear, decorative element. Some of his work reflects the mood and personality of his models, but more often he used them merely as vehicles for his own feelings, reducing them to ciphers in his monumental designs.
Most Important Art
Henri Matisse Artworks in Focus:
Joy of Life (Le Bonheur de Vivre) (1905-06)
During his Fauve years Matisse often painted landscapes in the south of France during the summer and worked up ideas developed there into larger compositions upon his return to Paris. Joy of Live, the second of his important imaginary compositions, is typical of these. He used a landscape he had painted in Collioure to provide the setting for the idyll, but it is also influenced by ideas drawn from Watteau, Poussin, Japanese woodcuts, Persian miniatures, and 19th century Orientalist images of harems. The scene is made up of independent motifs arranged to form a complete composition. The massive painting and its shocking colors received mixed reviews at the Salon des Indépendants. Critics noted its new style -- broad fields of color and linear figures, a clear rejection of Paul Signac's celebrated Pointillism.Read More ...
Henri Matisse Overview Continues Below
Henri-Emile-Benoit Matisse was born to middle-class parents Emile-Hippolyte-Henri Matisse, a grain and hardware merchant, and Anna Heloise Gerard. He grew up in Bohain-en-Vermandois and went to school at the College de Saint Quentin, before moving to Paris to study law. In 1889, he returned to Saint-Quentin as a law clerk, though he found the job tedious and complained of anxiety. Later that year he contracted appendicitis and spent several months at home recovering. During that time, at the age of 20, he discovered the welcome isolation and freedom of painting.
Struck by his new passion, Matisse left for Paris again in 1891, this time to study art. He failed the entrance exams for the Ecole des Beaux Arts, but unofficially joined the studio of French symbolist painter Gustave Moreau in 1892. Moreau told his students, "Colors must be thought, dreamed, imagined." This Symbolist attitude toward painting contributed to Matisse's expressive use of color. In 1894, Matisse unexpectedly had a daughter, Marguerite, with his lover, Caroline Joblaud. After finally being accepted to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in 1895, he continued to study with Moreau until 1898. Many styles influenced the painter during these years, from the academic still lifes of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin to the loose brushwork of the Impressionists.
In 1898, having ended his relationship with Caroline, Matisse married Amelie Parayre. Moreau died while the couple was abroad for their honeymoon, and Matisse struggled to find another teacher. He was also faced with the challenge of raising three children - he and his wife had two sons, Jean in 1899 and Pierre in 1900. Despite their financial struggles, Matisse began his lifelong collection of avant-garde art, purchasing Three Bathers (1879-82) by Paul Cézanne from the gallery of Ambroise Vollard. Influenced by the Post-Impressionists' use of color, and the writing of art critic Paul Signac, Matisse moved past his Impressionist exploration.
Matisse spent summer 1905 in Collioure, working with André Derain to create a new style of pure colors and bright light. The new style became known as Fauvism, after critic Louis Vauxcelles described the arrangement of works at the Salon d'Automne in 1905 - an important showcase for the new movement - as "Donatello among the wild beasts [fauves]." Matisse was soon known as the Fauvists' leader in the press, called "chief fauve" by Louis Vauxcelles and other critics. The Fauvist movement, though short-lived, forged one of modern art's two directions. In 1905, Matisse met Pablo Picasso at the studio of Gertrude Stein. The two artists began a lifelong friendship and rivalry, each artist representing a possible direction modern art could take after the death of Paul Cézanne. While Picasso deconstructed objects into Cubist planes, Matisse sought to construct an object's form through color.
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By 1907, painters were no longer working in the Fauve style, not even Matisse. He moved on to create simplified forms against flat planes of color. His interest in sculpture intensified as well, especially North African work, probably due to his experiences on a 1906 trip to Algeria. He used sculpture to resolve pictorial problems, especially those relating to the figure. He also acquired the support to open an art school in 1908, teaching approximately eighty students over three years. And he gained patronage from collectors of avant-garde art, including the Russian collector Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, who eventually owned dozens of his paintings.
From 1911 to 1916, Matisse focused on depicting the human figure in interior spaces decorated with Eastern rugs and souvenirs. While he was not drafted during World War I, the seriousness of world events affected his painting, muting his palette. Towards the end of the war, however, he returned to his bright colors, leading to his "Nice period" from 1917 to 1930. Many of these paintings make use of the white of the exposed canvas to suggest the bright light of southern France.
In 1930, Matisse went through a time of artistic crisis and transition. Dissatisfied with the conservative direction of his work, he traveled first to Tahiti, then to America three times in three years. He spent much less energy on easel painting, instead experimenting with book illustration, tapestry design, and glass engraving. In 1931, he was commissioned to create a mural for the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, which he completed in 1933.
Late Years and Death
Matisse's separation from his wife in 1939, the arrival of World War II, and ill health, all added to Matisse's anxiety over the direction of his work. After major surgery in 1941, he was confined to a wheelchair. He turned to drawing and paper cut-outs, media that were physically more manageable and offered new potential for expression. Paper cut-outs symbolized for Matisse the synthesis of drawing and painting.
The paper cut-outs encouraged Matisse to simplify forms even further, distilling the object's "essential character" until it became a symbol of itself. He used the paper cut-out technique to design stained glass windows for the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France, and as a medium in its own right in large-scale works. With the help of assistants, Matisse was able to continue working through his illness. On November 3, 1954, Matisse died of cancer.
Scholars in the 1950s described Matisse and Fauvism as a precursor of Abstract Expressionism and much of modern art. Several Abstract Expressionists trace their lineage to him, though for different reasons. Some, like Lee Krasner, are influenced by his various media; Matisse's paper cut-outs inspired her to cut up her own paintings and reassemble them. Color field painters, such as Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland, were taken with his broad fields of bright color, as in the Red Studio (1911). Richard Diebenkorn, on the other hand, was more interested in how Matisse created the illusion of space and the spatial tension between his subject matter and the flat canvas. Others, like Robert Motherwell, did not show Matisse's influence directly in their artwork, but were influenced by his view of painting color and form. Matisse's art continues to beguile not only artists, but also collectors, who have bought his paintings for as much as $17 million. And as several recent and upcoming blockbuster exhibitions suggest, he continues to be a favorite of the public worldwide.
I’m rarely taken aback by a Matisse. The reasons admittedly have more to do with personal taste than with aesthetic discernment, in particular an overriding interest in architectonic structure; in the “Matisseite” and “Picassoite” factions dividing Gertrude Stein’s pre-World War I salon, I would have definitely chosen the latter.
Still, it would be hard to argue that the leader of the Wild Beasts has come down to us untempered by time. We turn to his most radical paintings — “Luxe, calme et volupté” (1904-1905), “Le bonheur de vivere” (1905-1906), “Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra” (1907), among others — for the exuberance of their color, not for the unstable and alienating worldview that Analytical Cubism, promulgated by Matisse’s archrival Picasso, represents.
Between the end of the First World War and his final flowering as a semi-abstract collagist, Henri Matisse (1869–1954) settled into the role of the consummate Modern Master, turning out reliably beautiful paintings of traditional subjects: portraits, nudes, still lifes and landscapes.
The decorousness (and at times decorativeness) of the later work, in hindsight, is but a stone’s throw from the innovative early paintings, which, no longer startling, now appear to be as much about balancing color and composition as they are about fusing shapes and flattening out the field of vision.
Matisse also famously explored images of interiors, which might include one or several figures — sometimes foraying into genre painting — or none at all. Often he would depict a large window, which would provide the opportunity to contrast indoor and outdoor views.
“Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” (1948) is 45 3/4 x 35 1/8 inches, painted in oil on canvas. On the left, a window divided into four panes looks out onto a sunlit palm tree, whose fronds fill the entire window frame. Just below, there’s a fruit bowl on a pink table, and to the right, the Egyptian curtain.
The painting is owned by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. In the catalogue for the traveling exhibition Art Beyond Isms: Masterworks from El Greco to Picasso in the Phillips Collection (2002), Johanna Halford-MacLeod describes its imagery this way:
The wintry blackness of the curtain teems with life, its pulsating red and green motifs possibly metaphors for generation. The pomegranate [the semicircular shape in the curtain’s upper half], shown in section with its faceted seeds visible, refers to fertility, the vine to creative energy, and the spear motif in the curtain’s border to maleness. The palm tree, seen through the window, is a reference to longevity. Life-giving light from the swirling palm fronds, painted in slashes of green, yellow, and black against a bright blue sky, explodes into the darkness of the room, warming fruits—pomegranates perhaps—in a bowl on the coral tabletop.
Matisse painted this picture when he was 79 and living in Vence, in the south of France, where he had sought refuge in 1943 from the hazards of war. He had already produced a number of cutout collages, including his celebrated book, Jazz(1947).
“Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” is currently on view at the splendid and soon-to-close exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, Matisse: In Search of True Painting. It hangs in a gallery with several other interiors as well as reproductions of cutouts published in the magazine Verve in 1948.
In Art Beyond Isms, Halford-MacLeod connects the dots between “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” and the cutouts:
The Egyptian curtain itself was one that Matisse owned. Its bold and brightly colored appliqué design was a source for the paper cutouts Matisse was working on when he made this painting and which occupied him until his death six years later.
This historical detail provides a clue to why I found this picture more arresting than the similar paintings surrounding it. Those works, such as “Interior in Yellow and Blue” (1946) and “Large Red Interior” (1948), freely intermix painting and drawing, with objects depicted in black line over a monochromatic field.
While these works are refreshing in their liberation of color from form, the graphic charge in “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” is qualitatively different. The shapes are crisp, solid and collage-like; the lines act as color and the color reinforces the sharp divisions of the lines.
Take the six leaf-like shapes interrupting the narrow, leftmost fold of the curtain. Each is edged in white and composed of a single, flatly painted color. From the top, the colors are green, red, red, black, red and black. We accept the convention of filling an outline with referential color in the first three — green, red, red — but when we come to the fourth — black — the white line pops as a graphical element while the color signals a void in the sequence, an ambiguous hole undermining our illusionistic expectations even as it sharpens our appreciation of the passage’s abstract rhythm.
In the semicircle described by Halford-MacLeod as a pomegranate, the white paint boxing in the red-and-white seeds is especially thick, a quasi-sculptural intrusion on the thinly brushed-on surface. The impasto pushes these overlapping, diagrammatic strokes into three dimensions with an energy that is positively propulsive, establishing their primacy in a composition that otherwise militates against hierarchy.
That is to say, Matisse has painted not one picture but three abutted together: the window, the curtain and the still life. While each competes for your attention in its own dazzling way — the window in an explosion of short strokes, the curtain with an interlocking pattern of abstracted shapes, and the still life with a simple but blazing interaction of yellow, pink, black and white — to the postmodern eye the combination of components seem to betray a loss of faith in the ability of a single image to express the fullness of an artist’s vision. That the brushy painting of the still life would be diminished as an idea if it were not contrasted with the hard edges of the curtain or the vortex of brushstrokes denoting the fronds outside the window.
While Halford-MacLeod’s reading of the painting makes sense in terms of traditional symbolism — the same things could have been said about a 17th-century Dutch still life — the jangling, jazzy profusion of images deny the painting a conventional center of interest. The images, however, do not direct the eye to all four quadrants of the canvas, as Matisse does in his other interiors; instead they compact a heightened level of interest in three discreet sections.
To again take the work from a postmodern perspective, Matisse’s “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” can be viewed as more overt in its deconstruction of pictorial integrity than something like Willem de Kooning’s black-and-white “Painting,” which was done the same year.
Although de Kooning all but abandons outside references, he arrays his cluster of Matisse-like forms into an all-over structure, implicitly accepting compositional balance and stylistic consistency as articles of faith.
Matisse, on the other hand, shows no such fidelity, presenting his segmented images in ways that call to mind three stages of his career: the riotous strokes of the Fauvist period (the palm tree); the classicism of the middle decades (the tabletop and fruit bowl); the free-floating near-abstraction of the cutouts (the curtain).
In fact, the curtain’s raucous profligacy of shapes and high-contrast colors is so juiced up that it anticipates the cartoonish snap of American Pop, but this is not the only way the painting points toward the future.
It is important to clarify that by “a loss of faith in the ability of a single image to express the fullness of an artist’s vision,” I meant not a loss of faith in painting, which would be declared dead by certain influential academics within the next two decades. That inability is instead an intimation of the McLuhanesque world to come, in which the way that an image is presented is integral to its meaning, and the juxtaposition of various forms of presentation can create a set of meanings independent of the constituent parts.
Put another way, the future beyond this particular Matisse is far from the reductionist paradigm of the artist’s “View of Notre Dame” (1914), which embodied the experimental simplifications of his early work — an impulse that the Museum of Modern Art, New York, adopted as the focus of its 2010 exhibition, Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913–1917.
Rather, “Interior with an Egyptian Curtain” speaks to a much more inclusive approach to visual signification, a complex interrogation of reality and its perceptions that takes art beyond isms, to cite the Phillips catalogue’s title, and toward the outside air.
Single Point Perspectiveis an occasional series from Hyperallergic Weekend that features texts about single works of art and the currents they ride on.
“Interior with an Egyptian Curtain”is currently on view as part of Matisse: In Search of True Painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through tomorrow, March 17.