An Art of Balance – Henri Matisse

“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.

Le Bonheur de Vivre – Henri Matisse

The human figure was central to Matisse’s work. He felt that the subject had beenΒ neglected in Impressionism.Β 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.

woman-with-a-hatOne 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,Β  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:

Dance 1“In Dance I, the figures express the light pleasure and joy that was so much a part of the earlier 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. 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 these 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-dance“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.




    1. La Musique was the companion painting to La Danse, wasn’t it? And, ooh, yeah, The Red Chamber. Now, that will wake you up in the morning πŸ™‚ I’m learning to be bolder with my colors so Matisse is a big influence for me right now.


    1. Thanks. I know the feeling. I’ve been so busy lately I barely have time to keep up with the blog. I’m making a little time to paint — almost every day — but there’s so much more I’d like to do. I’m having fun getting my new business going, but I miss doing art all day 😦

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      1. Oh – I see – that seems to be the thing lately – I’ve had several friends start selling this. ENJOY! Years ago, I was a Pampered Chef consultant, while being a stay at home mom. I had fun with it, made some extra money, earned free vacations, and now have a kitchen full of great tools. Hope you do well.

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  1. I can appreciate his love of color…I like his still life art. The people and nudes kinda creep me out. I am not sure how they are like a comfortable arm chair and they kinda make me anxious but I can see how other people would view some of his stuff that way maybe?

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    1. Hi! How was the camping? Yeah, I totally agree. I don’t get anything comfortable or relaxing about Matisse, although I love his boldness. That’s one of the fascinating things about him, I think, how he says one thing, but his work seems to do exactly the opposite.

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      1. Camping was really nice. We fished and ate and played board games and made blow darts from wire and paper and tape and used the ore handle as a mouth piece…made some batchi balls (spelling?) that my sister painted with her acrylics while I tried to paint…lots of round rocks out there that make good balls. It rained and there was some wind and tons of bugs and mosquitos. My legs are still itching!

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      2. I just might. I might even post my first try at outside painting. I am not sure about painting outside. Not easy that is for sure! I felt rushed and I am a slow kind of person at painting. I don’t know how many times I had to adjust myself. I started on one side of the campsite and ended up at the other by the time it started raining and I just kinds stopped at that point. Plus, the light changes constantly and them dang mosquitos ate me alive! You don’t notice them sucking you dry when you are occupied but you sure pay for it later. There is this lady, Dee Sanchez, who does all of her stuff outside and it is georgeous…I bet she is fast!!!

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      3. I’ve done a little sketching outdoors, but I haven’t tried painting yet. Either it’s raining, or it’s too hot, or it’s too cold. Maybe when autumn is here the weather will be perfect. πŸ™‚


    1. He’s an interesting artist to study. I don’t think I want to go quite so bold, but his work can always remind me to be a little more forthright, to take a few chances.

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

    How interesting.

    One of the questions I’ve been pondering this week is the role of intention in art. My husband and I have very different ideas about this. He takes an “open-up-a-vein-and-catch-whatever-pours-out” approach to creation; whereas I tend towards beginning with an intention.

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    1. I’m definitely more in the “intention” category, although as often as not my intentions evolve into something altogether different. For me, the “open vein” approach doesn’t quite work because I find that too much pours out, it all gets jumbled up, and just like colors, it all gets muddy and meaningless. I need some bit of “structure” for my imagination and creativity to latch on to, otherwise I just flounder around, a bit like a fish out of water, flopping here and there.

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  3. Thank you for the discussion. I like the balance in work by Matisse in the sense that to me the canvas always seams perfectly occupied with no need or room for anything more.

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    1. Good way to look at “balance”. I’m always a bit thrown off by the colors in his paintings. His works are very interesting, yet more and more I find myself a bit uncomfortable with his art. But I certainly admire his attitude and his approach!


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