“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject-matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” – Henri Matisse
Balance is an important element of art, not only in composition, but as Matisse suggests, also in its effect upon the viewer. Yet his own works were often disorienting and uncomfortable in many ways. This came about primarily because of his approach to color.
Matisse is regarded as one of the most important colorists in the post-impressionist period, and his best-known works are bright, vivid celebrations of hue — and of life itself.
The human figure was central to Matisse’s work. He felt that the subject had been neglected in Impressionism. In his art he treated the figure in many different ways, sometimes harsh and angular, other times in a curvilinear fashion. For Matisse, the human figure was an expression of his own feelings rather than those of his models.
Matisse is noted for his vibrant use of colors rather than shading and tonal values to create depth and volume in his paintings. He was influenced by the art of many cultures and incorporated the decorative qualities of Islamic art, the angularity of African sculpture, and the flatness of Japanese prints into his own unique style.
One of his most shocking paintings was “Femme au Chapeau” or “Woman with a Hat” which was a portrait of his wife, Amelie. Although the pose was typical for portraiture at the time, the unusual colors caused Leo Stein to remark that it was “the nastiest smear of paint” he’d ever seen. All the same, Leo and Gertrude purchased the painting knowing it would become valuable in the world of modern art.
My favorite Matisse is The Dance. There are two different canvases, known as Dance 1 — which resides at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — and La Danse, a large oil housed at the Hemitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Although the subject is the same, the two paintings are very different. Although both are oil on large canvases, Matisse considered his first treatment as a “preparatory” work. He had been commissioned by a Russian art collector to provide two large murals.
Here is the bright, playful Dance 1 with commentary from MoMA:
In Dance I, the figures express the light pleasure and joy that was so much a part of the earlier Fauve masterpiece. The figures are drawn loosely, with almost no interior definition. They have been likened to bean bag dolls because of their formless and unrestricted movements. The bodies certainly don’t seem to be restrained by way. But don’t let this childlike spontaneity fool you. Matisse works very hard to make his paintings seem effortless. Imagine for a moment, that instead of this childlike style, Matisse had decided to render this figures with the frozen density of Jacques Louis David. Would the sense of pure joy,… the sense of play have been as well expressed? Matisse has done something that is actually very difficult. He has unlearned the lessons of representation so that he can create an image where form matches content.
Now, contrast this with the much-different “final” creation, Le Danse, again with commentary from MoMA:
The final version of The Dance has a very different emotional character. It has been described as forbidding, menacing, tribal, ritualistic, even demonic. Drum beats almost seem to be heard as the simple pleasure of the original is overwhelmed. What causes these dramatic changes in mood? Beyond the color shift, which is pretty obvious, the figures of the 1910 canvas are drawn with more interior line, line which often suggests tension and physical power. See for instance, the back left figure. Another more subtle change occurs where the two back figures touch the ground. In the 1909 canvas, the green reaches up to the feet of the two back most dancers, in the 1910 canvas, something else happens, the green seems to compress under the dancer’s weight. This subtle change creates either a sense of lightness or a sense of weight and contributes to the way we perceive each painting. So be careful before concluding that Matisse was actually drawing like a child, he knew exactly what he was doing.
Color, obviously makes a very big difference in how we perceive a painting.
I enjoy the works of Matisse for their boldness. I’m studying color theory, as you know, and I’m attempting to bring more boldness and brightness into my paintings. Although I don’t wish to go so far as Matisse did, I do find it valuable to look at his paintings and see the many ways in which color became an instrument for him to use.
Perhaps for Matisse, his paintings did bring balance, purity, and serenity. I don’t see those things in his art, but that’s all right. I’m free to interpret his works as I choose. I can appreciate Matisse for his boldness and daring, and I can admire his ability to see the world in such a colorful way.