For the Love of Matisse

Jun 25, 2021Paige Hanley
For the Love of Matisse

“What I dream of is an art of balance.”

Henri Matisse dedicated his life to uncovering the delicate science behind the relationship between line and color. The joyful color of his works epitomize the French ‘joie de vivre’, and his fluid lines reflect a training in the classical arts mixed with a childlike curiosity of shape and depth. This propensity for understanding deeply what we mean by the “visual arts” gave birth to some of the most revolutionary works the world has and will ever see.


Perhaps his most infamous aesthetic, the cut-paper shape drawing that has led to some of the most iconic images in modern art, is as uplifting as it is decisive, a magnetic combination. Blue Hair is a great example of the strong lines and simple design work Matisse used to carry a strong conceptual theme, allowing him to interact with color the way a scientist interacts with their control group.



One of his most notable, and early works in this style is L’Escargot. Matisse had at his disposal sheets of paper painted in gouache by assistants, in all the colors he used for the 'papiers découpés'. He has combined a muted yellow, varying shades of green, and a warm magenta all surrounded by yellowish/white cutouts. Our perception of this work is focused around the jarring effect of placing large black shapes over the most colorful shapes, giving these particular shapes almost a 3D effect.



In his 1951 stone lithograph Mille et Une Nuits Matisse tells the story of the fictional Scheherazade each evening to avoid death at the hands of a murderous Persian king. The tale is divided into five main panels. The first panel, a lantern with smoke seeping out of its spout, denotes dusk. The second panel has been interpreted as a precursor of sorts to the artist's stark and curvaceous "Blue Nudes," cutouts from 1952 and, perhaps, a reference to Scheherazade herself. Nighttime is suggested through stars, and a second lantern, this one black and without smoke, denotes a rapidly approaching dawn.



Another style which Matisse not only mastered but trailblazed at least in its popularity is the meandering single line, a perfect distillation of form for which he is similarly famous. Nadia Au Menton Pointu is a visage of beauty and simplicity that can augment any surroundings, and a work like Fruits is a no-fail, as fundamental as placing a bowl of fresh fruit on the table.



And for a more painterly take, Matisse was not afraid to delve into realms that on first glance appear like folk art, though spun from the hand of a chieftain as such.  Nice Travail et Joie celebrates the pleasure of pattern and discovery of shape, with descriptions of supposedly mundane objects with a method that is yet full of spirit.



But we cannot write about Matisse without speaking on his love of Jazz and how that translated itself into his work. Matisse once commented that “Jazz is rhythm and meaning,” and the title of this work suggests a connection between the process of making visual art and musical improvisation. Le Lanceur de Couteaux was realized from various shapes cut out of gouache-painted sheets of paper and are accompanied by poetic notes expressing the artist’s thoughts and opinions. The anemone-esque shapes, a major motif throughout his work, are strewn about in various sizes and the colors play with depth in the way the different instruments and tones in jazz play with the way we perceive sound.


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