Discover France in the works of Henri Matisse

With the advent of photography, impressionism, the realm of capturing a moment or a scene en passant on canvas, was no longer in vogue. Around the same time, Fauvism was born, which marked a departure from imitation of life to the expression of emotions and abstract ideas. Henri Matisse was the leading figure of this modern movement, whose oeuvres had a profound impact on the visual arts for generations.

France has played a pivotal role in development of arts in the late 19th century and early 20th century with so many movements, from impressionism, cubism to fauvism, tracing their origin to the country. While some of the major artworks by Matisse highlighted in the article are displayed outside France, you could still visit Centre Pompidou (External link) , Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (External link) and Musée d’Orsay (External link) to learn more about Fauvism. So, the next time you are standing in front of a fauvist work, use this article as a reference to appreciate the nuances associated with this movement.

Luxe, Calme et Volupté ©mcs.csuhayward.edu
© mcs.csuhayward.edu

Matisse painted Luxe, Calme et Volupté - a major creative breakthrough, while working in Saint-Tropez in the French Riviera 1904. The artist used the Divisionist technique whereby broad strokes are cleverly applied throughout the landscape, which only makes sense when looked at from distance. The unnatural colours (bluish peninsular), artificial composition (tree trunk perched on the open bay) and the incomplete brushwork are some of the unacademic features of the painting. Moreover, the warm colours, laid-back attitude of the women and the beached yacht successfully boast the relaxed Mediterranean vibe.


View of Collioure ©HermitageMuseum
© HermitageMuseum

In summer 1906, Henri Matisse travelled to Collioure, a small town in South of France, where he painted Les toits de Collioure. The kaleidoscope of colours (orange, reddish-lilac, blues) reflects the joy that artist experienced during his sojourn. With impulsive brushstrokes, primitive layout and just primary colours, the painter was able to sketch the bell tower of the church, exterior of the houses and vast expanse of the sea. When Henri Matisse exhibited this work in Paris, visitors were shocked by his rendition and one of the renowned critics openly proclaimed him as a Fauve- “wild beast”.

Woman-with-a-Hat ©www.sfmoma.org
© www.sfmoma.org

Woman with a Hat painted in 1905, depicts Matisse’s wife Amelie donning a colourful costume; however, when the artist was questioned about the colour of the dress, he replied “Black, of course”. Unlike his previous works, the brushwork here is very patchy, unfinished and expressive, rendering the portrait flat, without any depth. Meanwhile, the artist gives us a glimpse of major fashion trends (gloved hand, decorative hat and extravagant costume) prevalent in France in the early twentieth century. Henri Matisse was disappointed by the harsh reviews, but when Gertrude and Leo Stein bought the painting for 500 francs, his mood uplifted.

Open window-collioure ©nga.gov
© nga.gov

The dazzling display of colours and the hulled boats floating along the coast line transport viewers to South of France, where Matisse visualised this landscape in 1905. The artist left the door of his room open to convey the feeling of belongingness every time he visited the region. Many eyewitnesses account spectators breaking into laughter when they entered the room where Open Window, Collioure was displayed. The composition of the painting is unique and ground-breaking, with multiple frames (balcony, harbour view, door panels) interspersed together to create the final image.


Blue Nide ©Observer.com
© Observer.com

In 1907, inspired by a sculpture seen in Algeria, Matisse painted the Blue Nude and exhibited it in the same year in a salon in Paris. Many critics and viewers were scandalised by the manner in which a colonial woman was represented, leading to questions being raised about race, race relations and colonialism. Rather than painting a woman with soft features, which was considered normal back then, the artist carved muscles to her anatomy and gave her an androgynous appeal. Thick outlines used to define the silhouette of the model, brings in the foreground her nudity, which was a recurring and a celebrated theme in French paintings.


Dance by Henri Matisse
© Hermitage Museum

Dance painted in the 1909 is the crescendo of the Fauvist movement, was commissioned by a wealthy Russian art collector for decorating his mansion. The painting featuring only three colours (red, blue and green) and three elements (earth, water and flesh), is an ode to life, to emotional liberation and hedonism- an amalgamation of French ideals. The artist emphasises on the dancers’ rhythmic movement and emotional state rather than on the physical appearances and elaborate background. Unfortunately, Fauvism lasted only for few years, but it liberated the western artists from the conventions of traditions and ushered a new era of modern art.