Les roses Safrano is from the great series of still-lifes that Matisse painted in Nice in 1924 and 1925. This group includes some of the finest still-lifes of Matisse's career. As Alfred Barr has written, "Among the paintings of 1924-25, the most characteristic are the sumptuous still-lifes and studio interiors" (A. Barr, Matisse: His Art and His Public, New York, 1951, p. 212). Furthermore, Barr called the 1920s one of the highpoints of Matisse's life and art:
"During the years 1920 to 1925, Matisse worked with unabated energy, producing scores of paintings...in which daring combinations of patterns and colors are achieved with a virtuosity beyond the powers of any other living artist. For many, this period is the most attractive and satisfactory in Matisse's entire career" (ibid., p. 208).
Other critics have shared Barr's enthusiasm for the work of this period. Roger Fry wrote:
"Matisse's great popularity is based mainly on the work of the years 1920-1925. At this period in the clear light of his atelier at Nice, amid an Oriental dcor and the spoils of the inexhaustible Provenal gardens, he developed richer, more alluring arabesques of gay and sonorous color than ever before... Matisse is always serenely joyful, always utterly free, always responsive to sensual delights" (quoted in J. Flam, ed., Matisse, A Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 249).
Likewise, Michel Sembat, the author of the first scholarly monograph on the artist, has said, "Those years in Nice marked a supreme moment in Matisse's work... The new gift, the supreme expertise, is that Matisse's masterpieces are now perfect wholes" (quoted in ibid., pp. 179-180).
One key factor in Matisse's extraordinary creativity at that time was his strong reaction to the light of the Mediterranean. Matisse was struck by the dazzling, almost palpable sunlight in Nice from the moment he arrived there. In a letter to Charles Camoin from May of 1918, only a few months after Matisse first rented a room in Nice's Htel Beau-Rivage, the artist discussed his impression of the southern light:
"A little while ago I took a nap under an olive tree, and the color harmonies I saw there were so touching. It's like a paradise you have no right to analyze, but you are a painter, for God's sake! Nice is so beautiful! A light so soft and tender, despite its brilliance" (quoted in ibid., p. 170).
Decades later, Matisse was still captivated by the brilliant, pulsating light of southern France. In an interview with Louis Aragon in 1943, the artist recalled the effect which his light-filled environs had upon his painting in Nice:
"Nice, why Nice? In my work, I have tried to create a translucent setting for the mind. I have found the necessary limpidity in several places around the world: New York, the South Pacific, and Nice... Everything becomes clear, translucent, exact, limpid. Nice, in this sense, has helped me. What I paint, you see, are objects conceived with plastic means. When I close my eyes, I see the objects better than I do with my eyes open, stripped of accidental detail, and that is what I paint" (quoted in ibid., pp. 158-159).
With its vibrant coloration and warm illumination, Les roses Safrano exemplifies the canvases of these years, exuding the freshness and energy of the Cte d'Azur. The painting captures the light "so soft and tender, despite its brilliance" that fascinated the artist. One aspect of the picture's beauty is the contrast between the warm light filtering through the window and the relatively cool shadows cast by the objects in the room. Evidently, Matisse painted the picture when the sun was low in the sky, when effects of this kind are most common. Furthermore, the contrast of light and dark makes for unusually bold modeling. As we have already heard, in relation to his Nice pictures Matisse said, "What I paint...are objects conceived with plastic means." Although Matisse is often thought of exclusively as a colorist who tended to flatten pictorial space, many of the still-lifes and odalisques from his Nice period display powerful modeling--none more so than Les roses Safrano.
Indeed in his book on Matisse, Roger Fry praised the color harmonies and strong modeling of the present work:
"He [Matisse] has an almost uncanny gift of situating each colour in its place in the scheme viewed as a vision of plastic reality, as a world of volumes in a space. That is to say, the colour of, let us suppose, a painted window shutter seen on a house in the distance out of a window as in Fig. 44 [Les roses Safrano], remains at the distance from the eye which the whole design indicates; and the colour of a pot or a flower on the table is just the due amount nearer to the eye. At each point its colour holds the plane in its due position. What is peculiarly uncanny about this gift is that Matisse can give the most willful interpretations to natural colour-making a distant bridge bright magenta perhaps-and yet not violate the plastic consistency. It is in this power that he goes far beyond the pure decorator" (R. Fry, op. cit., p. 22).
The perspective of Les roses Safrano is another noteworthy element. A series of upright rectangles receding into depth dominate the upper portion of the picture--from right to left, the window, shutter, and framed print or drawing on the wall. Each of the rectangles is in a different plane, at a different angle to the viewer; and the rate of recession is rapid. The result is a powerful, plunging space like that of a Hiroshige print or of japoniste Impressionist paintings. Matisse had been interested in such spatial effects earlier in his career, for example in the paintings he made of Notre-Dame in 1902 (fig. 3). Furthermore, the table and the stack of books in the background of Les roses Safrano are projected from different viewpoints. The work, of course, is not in academic perspective; rather, Matisse seems to have adjusted the projection of each section of the picture to take into consideration the changing focus of the eye as it moves within a visual field. Many of the master's still-lifes display his experimentation with spatial effects of this kind.
From early in his career, Matisse was interested in creating pictures that represent a still-life before a window; playing with contrasts of near and far, he also often included details of what was seen outside the window in these pictures (fig. 2). Such elements are characteristic features of his still-lifes at Nice (fig. 4).
(fig. 1) Henri Matisse in Nice, 1921
Photo by Man Ray
(fig. 2) Henri Matisse, Intrieur, bocal de poissons rouges, 1914 Muse National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Ntre-Dame, fin d'aprs-midi, 1902
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo
(fig. 4) Henri Matisse, Vase de fleurs devant la fentre, 1924
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston