Vibrancy, harmony, sensuality — The art of Henri Matisse
From his love of textiles to his mastery of colour and the ‘elegance of his line’ in his paintings, prints, drawings and cut-outs. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s
‘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’.
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 influences and turned to a wild use of colour, aiming to express his feelings on the material word.
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 that 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
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.
The ‘Odalisques’, and comparisons with Picasso
Matisse’s art was often so bold that it drew criticism from
his contemporaries. The monumental painting
Dance (1909/10) — of five naked figures, with electric-red
bodies — was met with jeers and catcalls when shown
at the Salon d’Automne in Paris.
‘Without voluptuous pleasure, nothing
exists,’ said the artist. Nowadays we associate Matisse with vibrancy,
harmony and sensuality. Arguably no series of work exemplifies these three qualities better than his ‘Odalisques’ from the
1920s and 1930s, when he was living in Nice.
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.
The work depicts 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.
‘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,’ says Fertig. (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 linocuts to woodcuts, lithographs, etchings and aquatints
Matisse is highly regarded as a painter, of course, but he was also a dedicated draughtsman and printmaker, producing more than 800 prints in a range of techniques, from linocuts and woodcuts to lithography and etching.
‘In many cases, particularly his 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,’ says Adam McCoy, Vice President of the Prints & Multiples department at Christie’s in New York.
‘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.
‘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 voile, with 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.’
The drawings: a range of price points, and the best way into the Matisse market
Matisse produced 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.’
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
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 the most popular exhibition in
Tate’s history (since surpassed by its 2017 David Hockney retrospective).