Inspired by the experiments of Post Impressionism, Fauvism announced its arrival in Paris in 1905 at the Salon d’Automne (an avant garde alternative to the official salon), where a gallery of wildly colored pictures were so jarring that one critic described them as “fauves” – or “wild beasts.”  Henri Matisse and other members of the Fauve movement sought to liberate color from its descriptive function:

“The fauves liberated color from any requirements other than those posed by the painting itself. “When I put a green,” Matisse would later say, “it is not grass. When I put a blue, it is not the sky.” He was painting pictures, not things. Color was a tool of the painter’s artistic intention and expression, no longer limited by the imitation of nature.”
National Gallery of Art

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Henri Matisse’s bold use of color exemplifies the Fauvist approach.  This portrait of the artist’s wife caused an uproar when it was exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in 1905.  The wild colors and almost savage handling of paint seemed incomprehensible to critics, especially in the treatment of the face, with its blocks of unnatural color.  But in this work, Matisse was declaring his independence from nature by willfully ignoring its dictates.  Indeed, when Madame Matisse was asked what color dress she was wearing for the portrait, she responded “Black, of course”!

For Matisse, a painting is an arrangement of form and color on canvas – what it represents (the subject) is only incidental.  For this reason, he felt no obligation to be “faithful” to observed reality.  As the artist explained:

“I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I must interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture.  When I have found the relationship of all the tones the result must be a living harmony of tones, a harmony not unlike that of a musical composition.”
Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908

Matisse, Luxe, calme et volupte, 1904 (Smarthistory)

Henry Matisse, Joy of Life, 1905-6
Barnes Foundation

Matisse advocated an “art-for-art’s sake” aesthetic, believing that art should provide comfort and refuge from the stress of everyday life – like a big, comfortable chair:

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which might be for every mental worker, be he a businessman or writer, like an appeasing influence, like a mental soother, something like a good armchair in which to rest from physical fatigue.”
Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908

Matisse’s Joy of Life exemplifies his professed aims.  Recalling the bacchanalian themes of 16th century Venetian painting, the painting depicts a lush landscape inhabited by nude figures who dance, make music, and make love, in an idyllic paradise free from the cares and worries of the modern world.

The Joy of Life is an “expressionist” painting because it expresses it’s theme of joyous bliss through strictly formal means.  As Matisse explained:

“Expression to my way of thinking does not consist of the passion mirrored upon a human face or betrayed by a violent gesture.  The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive ”
Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908

The theme of joy is expressed through the warm soft colors and the fluid curvilinear lines that gently undulate across the canvas.  The lines are lyrical and flowing, while the shapes are soft and organic.  The simplicity of the drawing also contributes to the expression of a child-like innocence and playfulness.  Matisse was a master draftsman and had to work hard to achieve this child-like quality in his drawings.

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911
Museum of Modern Art

Matisse’s Red Studio is a large canvas that defiantly challenges the western tradition of illusionism and its concept of painting as a “window.”  The entire picture is painted a uniform red that flattens the space, denying any illusion of depth.  The “solid” furniture is rendered ghostly by faint outlines that turn out to be not lines at all, but negative gaps in the red pigment.  The perspective lines of the walls, table, and chair do not cohere, resulting in a picture that defies coherent spatial depth.

While the furniture is “ghostly,” the paintings, sculpture, ceramics, and other studio accessories are rendered with great detail and clarity.  The picture is a kind of “retrospective” of Matisse’s body of work to date, and a declaration of the superior “reality” of art.  A picture that is essentially “art about art,” The Studio brings us into the oasis of the artist’s studio, where art creates its own reality, and the troubles of the modern world have no existence.

Matisse’s Red Studio, Smarthistory

Modern Masters – Henri Matisse

Modern Masters is a four-part television series detailing the life and work of four giants of 20th century art: Henri Matisse; Pablo Picasso; Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.
During the course of the series, presenter and journalist, Alastair Sooke, explores why these artists are considered so important and examines how their influence can still be seen in our world today.

In this episode, Alastair sets out to discover just how much the artist Henri Matisse has influenced our modern lives. He explains why Matisse’s art is considered so great and also looks at how Matisse’s brilliant use of color and simplification of form continues to inspire illustrators, designers and of course artists today.


Web Resources

Henri Matisse and the Fauves, National Gallery of Art

FAuvism, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Fauvism, Smarthistory

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