How Matisse's Most Treasured Possessions Inspired His Art

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Henri Matisse, ‘Still Life with Shell’, 1940© private collection; © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017

A forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy reveals the artist's great love of collecting, and the impact this had on his radical oeuvre

The objects with which we surround ourselves articulate our lives, our interests, our desires; often our hopes and our fears. An artist’s studio offers a tantalising glimpse into a private ritualised space, often filled with the detritus of a working life but also with personal totems of inspiration. “I have worked all my life before the same objects,” wrote French artist Henri Matisse in 1951. “The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.” 

The Royal Academy’s forthcoming exhibition Matisse in the Studio seeks to contextualise the work of one of modernism's best-loved artists, displaying 65 of his paintings alongside around 35 objects from his studio. Offering what curator Ann Dumas calls an “intimate insight” into Matisse’s world, we are invited to tease out for ourselves the significance of these personal objects and the works of art they inspired.

Matisse didn’t collect rare or valuable objects – he couldn’t afford to. He collected simple, inexpensive items from small-time Paris dealers and flea-markets, often things picked up during his travels in Spain and North Africa. Fascinated by colour, shape, pattern and rhythm, Matisse’s studio in Paris (and later in the South of France) was an eclectic melting pot of materials, styles and traditions: modern postcards and photographs; ancient Roman sculpture; African tribal masks; Chinese porcelain and calligraphic-prints; Andalusian glass; Islamic furniture; wall-hangings and metalwork; a Thai bronze. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Matisse worked from life, and it is the shadows of these treasured personal objects that can be traced across half a century of his work. Here we examine five such possessions and a corresponding artwork they gave rise to, each of which you can see up-close in the Royal Academy's anticipated display.

1. A blown-glass vase from Andalusia (late 19th/early 20th century)

Picked up on holiday with his wife Amélie Parayre in Spain in 1910, this delicate hand-blown glass vase ironically evokes the shape of a strong and determined woman, her hands laid purposefully upon voluptuously fecund hips; her luminous green that of the glittering Mediterranean – a distinctive feature of Matisse’s landscapes from the South of France.

2. Safrano Roses at the Window (1925)

At the opening of the 20th century, Matisse – along with painter André Derain – became a leader of the radical Fauvist group, known to the press and public as the "wild beasts" of contemporary Paris for their vigorous and unrestrained use of colour. In his mature Safrano Roses at the Window, colour is used to erode the apparently immutable distinctions between interior and exterior – the pinks and the greens of the picture mirror reflect both the objects inside the room and the elements outside; the flecked Mediterranean and the changeable sky made of the very same stuff as the feathery petals and the delicate glass. This simple arrangement of fragrant French roses gives striking purpose, volume and subtlety to the adored green Andalusian vase.

3. Jomooniw male and female figures from Mali (late 19th century)

With their impenetrable expressions and awkward positioning these wooden and metal figures from the Bamana region of Mali appear enigmatic to untutored European eyes. They are similar to sculptures collected by Sigmund Freud, placed in his consulting room in order to provoke his own unconscious mind and those of his patients. Along with the clarified essentials of anatomy, the distinguishing features are the male’s hat and the female’s assertive breasts. She is a whisker taller than he, suggestive of her superiority.

4. Two Women (1907-8)

These two embracing woman look intently into one another’s eyes, one with a long pony-tail and the other close-cropped in the masculine style. Each possess powerful, protruding hips, buttocks and breasts suggestive of the double nature of femininity. Executed with sensual simplicity these two female figures boast a solidity not far off the contemporary work of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Constantin Brâncusi.

5. A Muyombo mask from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (late 19th century)

To the Western colonial imagination masks like these problematically offered an unsettling example of mankind’s ‘primitive’ essence. Perhaps bought by Matisse on his travels through North Africa in 1906, curator Ann Dumas believes this could be the mask Matisse famously showed his friend Pablo Picasso in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment in the autumn of 1906; a ‘show and tell’ that inspired Picasso’s proto-Cubist ‘African Period’.

6. The Italian Woman (1916)

Revealed through a misty cloak of oils, this exotic Italian woman is unknowable. Like so many European images of women painted by men and for men, she both encourages and resists. Her tight, determined, mask-like features are delicately abstracted so that she resembles a child’s doll or one of Amedeo Modigliani’s hauntingly inscrutable sitters. The colour palette is markedly restrained – in fact it barely looks like a Matisse at all – but this can be accounted for by wartime restrictions (coloured oils were, naturally, hard to come by during the First World War).

7. A silver chocolate pot from France (early 19th century)

Given as a wedding present to Matisse and his wife Amélie in 1898, this silver chocolate pot with its curious protruding side-handle is perhaps the most bourgeois object on display. Expensive colonial substances like chocolate are expected to be bought, measured and enjoyed by the young couple; silver an integral adornment to the new middle-class home. Matisse initially trained and worked as a lawyer and was never the kind of bohemian his contemporaries tried to be; his clothes were often too conservative and he preferred to maintain a strict – near Puritan – daily routine.

8. Still Life with Shell (1940) 

The materials of this still life suggest the hurried summer of 1940 when the Nazis invaded Paris and Matisse, visiting the capital at the time, was lucky enough to make it back to Nice. The subject matter itself feels significant; fragments of the past become unstable and difficult to grasp. The silver chocolate pot appears symbolic of Amélie, who had the previous year felt forced to end their 40-year marriage. In 1941 Matisse was diagnosed with an abdominal cancer, undergoing surgery that left him chair bound. Unable to move he developed his now-famous ‘cut out’ technique, asserting that “an artist must never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success…”

9. An appliquéd plain-weave cotton cloth from North Africa (late 19th century)

Free to travel as an inquisitive – and privileged – European through the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria, Matisse witnessed Imperial rule at first hand. In 1906 he began studying the rich North African Islamic tradition of colour, pattern, texture and rhythm. The decorative rusticity of this colourful hand-made cotton cloth, with its illusionistic round-arched windows and carved tracery, wouldn’t feel out of place adorning the interiors of a 19th-century Orientalist painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

10. The Moorish Screen (1921) 

At tilted perspective, this painting depicts what appears to be a bed-sitting room containing books, musical instruments and fresh flowers; the kind of space that a fashionable, outward-looking modern intellectual might inhabit. The walls, carpets and furniture are as richly decorative and colourful as the Moorish screen of the title, which seductively reveals a plump bedstead on the further side of the room. Yet three-dimensional space appears to be dissolving. And although the screen itself is in the centre of the painting, amongst the colours and patterns of the other objects in the room it becomes somewhat muted; our attention drawn and held by the two stylishly-dressed women in relaxed conversation.

Matisse in the Studio is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London from August 5 to November 12, 2017.