Henri Matisse in his studio, Nice, August 1949. Photo © Robert Capa © International Center of Photography  Magnum Photos. Artworks  © Succession H. Matisse  DACS 2019

Vibrancy, harmony, sensuality — The art of Henri Matisse

From his love of textiles to his mastery of colour and the ‘strength and elegance of his line’, via his paintings, prints, drawings and cut-outs. Illustrated with works previously sold at Christie’s, and more offered this May

‘A flight towards the brilliant light’

Henri Matisse was born in 1869 in the small town of Bohain-en-Vermandois, in the flatlands of north-east France. Its skies were grey, its houses of dull brick, and its fields devoted to acre after acre of sugar beet. According to Matisse’s biographer, Hilary Spurling, his whole career represented a rejection of that early sobriety and ‘a flight towards the brilliant light’.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo © 2019. AlbumScala, Florence. Artwork © Succession H. Matisse  DACS 2019

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: © 2019. Album/Scala, Florence. Artwork: © Succession H. Matisse / DACS 2019

Early Fauve paintings

Matisse’s earliest work, from the 1890s, bore the influence of realism and naturalism. His first creative breakthrough came in the middle of the next decade, at the vanguard of Fauvism. Matisse rejected his early influence and turned to a wild use of colour unassociated with naturalist representation. His palette aimed to express his personal feelings on the material word. This shift was so dramatic that art critic Louis Vaucelles divisively dubbed the new style ‘fauve’ [French for wild animal].

Among Matisse’s great works in this style was 1905’s portrait of his wife Amélie, Woman with a Hat  (now part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collection). Another was 1907’s still-life, Les Pivoines  (sold for just over $19 million at Christie’s New York in 2012), in which Matisse flattened the composition, and the wall behind the vase of peonies all but dematerialises into a cascade of colour.

‘Fauve paintings by Matisse don’t come onto the market too often,’ says Jessica Fertig, Senior Vice President of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s New York. ‘But when they do, there’s always a great deal of interest. There’s a recognition this was a transformative period both for Matisse and for all Western art.’

The collector of textiles, from Persian carpets to African wall hangings

Many of Matisse’s ancestors had been weavers. As Spurling put it, ‘textiles were in his blood’. He collected Persian carpets, Arab embroideries and African wall hangings throughout his life, his studio becoming a treasure trove of exotic and vibrant pattern.

The collection was practical — he called it his ‘working library’, with textiles appearing and reappearing in a large number of his paintings, drawings and prints. They also contributed to a key development in Matisse’s art in the run-up to the First World War, when he rejected the old laws of perspective and three-dimensional illusion for internalised, purely pictorial spaces.

Textiles became much more than mere fabric: they were now all-over patterned fields that dominated a composition. In 1911’s still life Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose, for example, the chief function of the vase of cowslips seems to be to pin down the exuberantly decorated blue tablecloth, which looks as though it might otherwise float away at any moment.

The most radical paintings of this period, too, are rare on the market. They were assiduously purchased from Matisse by Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936), whose art collection was divided up decades later between the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Henri Matisse with his model at 1, place Charles Félix, Nice, 1928. Photo Archives Henri Matisse, all rights reserved

Henri Matisse with his model at 1, place Charles Félix, Nice, 1928. Photo: Archives Henri Matisse, all rights reserved

The ‘Odalisques’, and comparisons with Picasso

Matisse’s art was often so bold that it drew criticism from his contemporaries. The monumental painting Dance — of five naked figures, with electric-red bodies, dancing — was met with jeers and catcalls when shown at the Salon d’Automne in Paris.

The artist himself, however, never sought discord. Quite the opposite, in fact. ‘Without voluptuous pleasure, nothing exists,’ he said. Nowadays we associate Matisse with vibrancy, harmony and sensuality. And arguably no series of work boasts these three qualities more than his ‘Odalisques’ from the 1920s and 1930s, when he was living in Nice.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, painted in Nice, 1923. 23¾ x 31⅞  in (60.5 x 81.1  cm). Sold for $80,750,000 on 8 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York © Succession H. Matisse DACS 2019

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Odalisque couchée aux magnolias, painted in Nice, 1923. 23¾ x 31⅞ in (60.5 x 81.1 cm). Sold for $80,750,000 on 8 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York © Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2019

Having fled Paris for the French Riviera at the end of the First World War, Matisse began painting exotic-looking females in richly decorated, indoor settings. More often than not, they were in a state of luxurious repose.

In May 2018, one of these canvases — Odalisque couchée aux magnolias  (1923) — realised $80,750,000 in the The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller: 19th and 20th Century Art  sale at Christie’s New York, establishing the world-record price for a Matisse at auction.

Depicting one of the artist’s favourite models, the dancer Henriette Darricarrère, relaxing on a stunningly green chaise longue as Mediterranean sunlight pours into his studio, ‘it is quite simply the greatest Matisse ever to have come to market’, says Fertig.

‘The Odalisques as a whole are very popular with collectors. Aside from their qualities as artworks in their own right, there’s a great interest in terms of the comparison you can draw between the careers of Matisse and Picasso.’ (After the former’s death, in 1954 aged 84, the latter claimed that ‘Matisse left his Odalisques to me, as a legacy’ — and Picasso duly started a set of odalisques of his own.)

Other examples by Matisse sold at Christie’s in recent years include Odalisque, mains dans le dos  and L'Odalisque, harmonie bleue, which itself set a world record for the artist at auction, back in 2007.

Printmaking: from linocut to woodcut, lithographs, etchings and aquatints

Matisse is highly regarded as a painter, of course, but he was also a dedicated draftsman and print maker.  In the graphic arts, he produced over 800 prints in a range of techniques, from woodcuts to lithography and etching. ‘He believed an artist should pursue multiple, creative approaches,’ says Adam McCoy, Vice President of the Prints department at Christie’s in New York.


Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Torse a laiguiere, 1927. Lithograph. Sheet 514 x 354 mm. Estimate £10,000-15,000. Offered in 
Modern Edition, 9-16 May 2019, Online

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Torse a l'aiguiere, 1927. Lithograph. Sheet: 514 x 354 mm. Estimate: £10,000-15,000. Offered in Modern Edition, 9-16 May 2019, Online

‘In many cases, particularly his etchings and later lithographs of ‘Odalisques’ — such as Repos sur la banquette and Odalisque, brasero et coupe de fruits — he kept all the texture, lavish detail and patterned accoutrements you see in his paintings of the same subject.

‘By contrast, in his etchings — such as Jeune fille au chapeau devant la glace (1931) — Matisse pared subjects down to a few fluid lines to suggest a figure or form.


Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Jeune fille au chapeau devant la glace, 1931. Etching. Sheet 335 x 250 mm (D 307). Estimate £6,000-8,000. Offered in 
Modern Edition, 9-16 May 2019, Online

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Jeune fille au chapeau devant la glace, 1931. Etching. Sheet: 335 x 250 mm (D 307). Estimate: £6,000-8,000. Offered in Modern Edition, 9-16 May 2019, Online

‘People, understandably, praise Matisse as a master of colour, but what his prints prove is that he could work just as expressively — and with just as much versatility — in black and white.’

He also never stopped learning new printing techniques. He made his first aquatints, for example, in the early 1930s at the age of 62, and does not engage seriously with the medium until his late seventies. These works, such as Bedouine au grande voilewith their bold black lines against fields of unprinted white paper, look strikingly like his brush and India ink paintings.

As for the market for Matisse’s prints, ‘it’s strong across the board’, says McCoy. ‘Generally speaking, the aquatints command the highest prices, followed by lithographs, and then the etchings, but they all do well.’

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Nu assis les bras étendus, 1925. Lithograph. Sheet 560 x 451 mm. Estimate £15,000-20,000. Offered in 
Modern Edition, 9-16 May 2019, Online

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Nu assis les bras étendus, 1925. Lithograph. Sheet: 560 x 451 mm. Estimate: £15,000-20,000. Offered in Modern Edition, 9-16 May 2019, Online

The drawings: a range of price points, and the best way into the Matisse market

Matisse was also a prolific draughtsman, producing several thousand drawings over the course of his career. What typified these were lines that managed to be classically simple yet dreamily unfettered at the same time.

The artist himself claimed that drawing was ‘the purest and most direct translation’ of his creativity. According to the late New York Times art critic John Russell, meanwhile, the Frenchman was ‘among the most seductive draughtsmen who ever lived’.

The drawings also offer, for many, the best way into the Matisse market. ‘The prospective buyer can enter at a variety of price points,’ says Allegra Bettini, Head of Works on Paper at Christie’s New York. ‘Some drawings sell for more than $1 million, while others go for a few thousand dollars. There is something for everyone.

‘The top end of the market tends to be dominated by atmospheric charcoal drawings from the 1930s — such as Étude pour La Dormeuse (Le Rêve) — and by his bold-lined works in brush and India ink.

‘It just isn’t possible to understand Matisse as an artist without considering his drawings. The art-history books tell us Matisse was one of the great colourists, but his whole process was rooted in the strength and elegance of his line.’

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Nu sur coussin, vase de fleurs, drawn in 1927. Pen and India ink on paper. 10⅞ x 14⅞  in (27.5 x 37.8  cm). Estimate $50,000-70,000. Offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Works on Paper Sale on 14 May 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Nu sur coussin, vase de fleurs, drawn in 1927. Pen and India ink on paper. 10⅞ x 14⅞ in (27.5 x 37.8 cm). Estimate: $50,000-70,000. Offered in Impressionist and Modern Art Works on Paper Sale on 14 May 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The cut-outs: ‘drawing with scissors’

Drawing was also at the heart of the last, stunning advance of Matisse’s career: his ‘cut-outs’. These consisted of painted sheets of paper, which he cut (with scissors) into forms of varying shapes and sizes, and then arranged into lively compositions.

In the process, he invented a new artistic medium — though, in a sense, it was just the conclusion of Matisse’s long quest to balance perfectly the formal elements of line and colour. He described the process of making cut-outs as both ‘drawing with scissors’ and ‘cutting directly into colour’.

These works dominated Matisse’s art in the final decade and a half of his life. They appear at auction less regularly than his drawings, but tend to fetch prices at the high end of the works-on-paper market when they do — especially those from the 1950s.

In 2014, the cut-outs were the subject of a blockbuster exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, which later transferred to MoMA in New York. Attracting 563,000 visitors, it became — and remains — the most popular exhibition in Tate’s history.