With a cheerful disregard for perspective, impulsive brushstrokes, bold outlines and flamboyant colour, Henri Matisse, the 'wild beast', and our Artist of the Week, creates paintings that excite the senses.
After ditching his legal day job, the young Henri Matisse (1869-1954) made the artistic pilgrimage to Paris, to seek out training at the illustrious Parisian art schools. But, like many of his contemporaries, including last week's Artist of the Week, Claude Monet, Matisse eventually gave up trying to curry favour with the traditionalist fuddy-duddys at the Salon du Paris, instead opting for a far more emotional and vibrant style, which spawned it's very own (if short-lived) artistic movement.
Inspired by artists such as Van Gogh (who Mattisse declared he loved more than his own father!), and taken under the wing of visionary teacher and controversial professor at the École des Beaux-Arts, Gustav Moreau, Matisse began to experiment with bold colours and brushstrokes, seeking to capture a mood or feeling, rather than realistically depict a scene or object. This more subjective style of art broke from the establishment's focus on form and composition, to concentrate more on exploring and expressing the emotions of the artist.
“Nature itself is of little importance; it is merely a pretext for artistic expression. Art is the relentless pursuit of the expression of inward feeling by means of simple plasticity”
– Gustave Moreau
The early 20th century was one of the most exciting and important epochs in the history of modern art, thanks to artists such as Matisse. During this period, art took a wild and wonderful turn, moving away from traditionalist artistic values and paving the way for multiple new art forms, such as Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism.
Matisse's paintings inspired their own artistic movement named 'Fauvism', a term coined by art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, who dubbed Matisse and his fellow artists, André Derain, Albert Marquet, Maurice de Vlaminck, and co. 'wild beasts' in a derogatory article after viewing their strident canvases at the Salon d'Autommne of 1905. Although this was a negative term, the Fauvists, adopted it as their unofficial title.
Mattisse's impetuous use of colour, and rejection of classical proportions remained part of his signature style his whole life. He became one of the most well-known artists of his day, earning the dislike of Picasso, who painted 'Les Demoiselles d’Avignon' as an ideological slap in the face to Matisse, shortly after he released 'Le Bonheur de Vivre'. Picasso considered Matisse's creative philosophy to be too convivial, too frivolous. Matisse earned much scorn from the artistic community when he declared in 1908:
“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter... for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue."
This comment enraged a lot of avante-guard artists who wished to explore the depths of human nature through art, and not have it promoted as a soothing accompaniment to an after-work cocktail. However, as the century progressed, and the darkness of 1914, the depression of post-war Europe, and the rise of the Nazis took place, public opinion towards Matisse changed, and people began to appreciate the euphoric nature of his art, which provided a much needed source of escapism and aesthetic joy!
Here are 7 of our favourite Matisse masterpieces:
The Open Window (La Fenêtre ouverte) ,1905
Image via henrimatisse.org
The 'Open Window' caused shockwaves in the art world when it was first exhibited in 1905 at the Salon d'Automne, prompting artist, Andre Derain, to refer to it as a 'stick of dynamite'. This is one of Matisse's most important early works, and with it's intense colour and expressive brushstrokes, helped to established Fauvism as a movement. It was at this particular exhibition that the term 'les fauvres' was first used to describe Matisse and his cohorts.
Woman with a Hat (Femme au chapeau), 1905
Image via henrimatisse.org
“A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public” - Art critic, Camille Mauclair
Also exhibited at the controversial Salon d'Automne, 'Woman with a Hat' features Matisse's wife, Amélie, depicted in a classic French outfit. Despite the vibrant colours that he used for her dress, when asked what colour Madame Matisse was actually wearing, Matisse airily replied, "Black, of course."!
The Joy of Life (Le bonheur de vivre), 1906
Image via The Guardian
"It's the work of a madman." - Art dealer, Ambroise Vollard
Considered by many to be his greatest Fauvist masterpiece, 'The Joy of Life' is a vast canvas of colour, depicting nudes reclining against trees, amorously entwined, and frolicking on the beach. This is Arcadia, the mythical Greek pastoral world of nymphs and shepherds. Reflecting the mood of optimism at the turn of the century, The Joy of Life captures a wonderful sense of freedom, of frivolity and ecstasy. This fantasy realm is brought to life by Matisse's rainbow pallet, abstract human bodies and wacky perspective (see for example the flute player in the foreground compared with the nude lying behind, which appears much larger than the flute player).
The Dessert (Harmony in Red), 1908
Image via Daily Art Magazine
The art world was left profoundly disturbed by 'Harmony in Red', with one contemporary art critic describing it as 'squirm-inducing'. Indeed, there is a certain claustrophobia about this work, the rich red of the room reminding one of being inside the belly of a monster. There is continuous debate about whether the window is really a window, or a landscape painting. Harmony in Red was commissioned by Russian art collector, Sergei Shchukin, who once remarked, “If a picture gives you a psychological shock, buy it. It’s a good one.” Matisse originally painted 'Harmony in Red' as 'Harmony in Blue', but was dissatisfied with the result, so painted over it in red.
Dance I (1909), Dance II (1910)
Matisse's dance series leave many people confused about it's overall meaning, and Matisse's artistic intentions. The first, which is a study and therefore less finished, is much softer, depicting five women dancing around a circle, sharing similarities with his earlier 'Le Bonheur de Vivre'. However, his second canvas, Dance II, is much darker, the colours rich and ominous, and the figures drawn with heavy interior lines. The most startling difference is in the figures themselves- in Dance I, the dancers are female, however in the final version, the figures appear to be male, with much more sharply defined muscle tone, creating a vague feeling of tribal menace. Note also the hands in the foreground, which are touching but not quite joined together- this can be interpreted either as a sign of invitation to the viewer, or as a source of tension within the painting.
Image via EPPH
The Red Studio (L'Atelier Rouge), 1911
Image via MoMA
“Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know, I find that all these things . . . only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.”
Over the years, the colour red became an essential feature of Matisse's art, with him reflecting that red seems to give meaning to the objects that he sees. In 'The Red Studio', Matisse paints the entire room red, but unlike his previous 'Harmony in Red', the resulting effect is not one of claustrophobia, but strangely, of calm. The objects are more spaced out, and there are no distracting patterns, or people in this painting. The room depicted is Matisse's own art studio, seen suspended in time (note the clock with no hands). One of Matisse's key aims was to undermine the illusion of space, a chief bug-bear for artists at that time who sought to destroy the visual programming of seeing three-dimensional space. However, despite painting the whole room red, making his lines non-linear and furniture strangely proportioned, we still see a 3D room!
Woman in a Purple Coat, 1937
Image via henrimatisse.org
The model for this piece, Lydia Delectorskaya, was a penniless Russian who Matisse took under his wing, much to the chagrin of his wife! Convinced that he was having an affair, Matisse's wife left him and shortly after, Matisse offered Lydia a job as his assistant. She became his main muse, but because of her young age he never asked her to pose nude. In 'Woman in a Purple Coat' we see her reclining on a chaise lounge, wearing a vivid purple striped coat. With bold lines, and beautiful colour, this is classic Matisse, and one of the last oil paintings he made before he turned his attention to paper cutouts.
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