Painting of the Day

24 Mar


Still Life with Compote, Apples, and Oranges. by Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Oil on canvas, 1899. Belongs to the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland.

Notes from

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.
My comments:
This was one of the first paintings visitors saw when the entered the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently closed exhibition titled “Matisse: In Search of True Painting.” To me, it was the best painting in the exhibition. This digital image makes the painting lose nearly all of it magic; it almost feels like I’m looking at a different painting when I look at the reproduction above compared to how it looked when I saw it in person at the exhibition. Nevertheless, you get a hint of the mastery of Matisse’s ability to use color. His choices of color and the way he blends them here is truly sublime, in every sense of the word. None of the colors he uses would really appear in real life, so it’s amazing to me that he was able to imagine the perfect color relationships essentially all in his head and mix the paints in just the right way to achieve the really perfect tones. He is able to communicate light here in such an amazing, expressive way, it’s so remarkable. And the composition itself is really nicely arranged as well; there is a sense of calmness amidst utter beauty here. It’s so easy to forget that this is quite mundane subject matter. It’s something that we all see every single day and which doesn’t have much inherent value. But Matisse is genius enough in his ability to handle formal elements as to render these oranges and dishware in a stunning way. It’s one of the most beautiful paintings I’ve ever seen, let alone one of the most beautiful still lifes I’ve ever seen. And I think it’s also one of my favorite works by Matisse. I like it much better than his other paintings that get much more fanfare, such as “Bonheur de vivre” or “Woman with a Hat.” What makes those works more special, I’m not exactly sure. I have a feeling it has to do with the fact that those were more shocking to the public and to art critics when they were first exhibited, but does shock value or even historical significance make them better? I guess that’s where the work of art historians departs from the work of art critics: Art historians concentrate on artwork based on their historical/cultural value rather than their perceived aesthetic quality, while art critics do just the opposite. What would happen if these two approaches merged, or their takers switched approaches?


One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara March 24, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    [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.”] compare to: [Art historians concentrate on artwork based on their historical/cultural value rather than their perceived aesthetic quality, while art critics do just the opposite.] which of the two would have found a comment about wanting art to be soothing and calming controversial-the art historian or critic? does this give insight into the weekly standard point of view?

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