Matisse the Master of Colour

Updated: Jun 6, 2020

It is no secret that I am completely in love with Henri Matisse – the remarkable painter, sculptor and trailblazer, who is heralded as the master of 20thC Art, alongside Picasso. He was the  leader of the Fauvist movement (1905-1912) which involved a radical group of artists known for their wild use of colour, favouring the expression of emotion over representation. This idea became a core concept in his work in which he expressed a vision of colour that corresponded to his feelings.

I was lucky enough to witness his painterly magic at the Royal Academy back in 2017. I can still vividly recall his vibrant and luxurious palette comprised of amethyst purples and goldfish oranges juxtaposed with buttercup yellows and cobalt blues, not to mention the rest of the rainbow mixed into an array of glorious hues. His magnificent colour combinations and juxtapositions point to a rigorous understanding of colour theory. A great example is his renowned work, ‘Goldfish’ 1912, in which we see an aerial view of a goldfish bowl surrounded by various pond plants.

The warmth of the orange fish contrasts with the coolness of the green vegetation; the colours enhancing one another, resulting in a visual feast that really pops!

Matisse stated that ‘the chief function of colour should be to serve expression’, which was certainly evident in his portraiture. Although considered unconventional at the time, his portraits traded realism for a deeper, more visceral likeness, found through emotion and colour. In ‘Portrait de Madame Matisse’ 1905 we see his wife positioned amongst contrasting areas of colour. A strip of emerald green down the right opposes blocks of pink and red. These colours interact with the ochre, lemon, green and pink tones in her face as well as her midnight blue hair and pink blouse. Matisse includes a plethora of colours that suggest another level of mood and intensity. The resulting image being, in his eyes, a more honest and representative interpretation of his muse. It is certainly one filled with fervent expression! His sculptural portraits were similarly candid and original, not favouring beauty or perfection. The series of busts I saw depicting the model Jeanette were rather grotesque looking creations complete with jutting jaw lines and bulbous features. For me, these sculptural exaggerations play the role of colour in his paintings – helping to reveal a deeper more emotive likeness.

Beyond the colour, I admire his penchant for patterns, which have been a huge source of inspiration for me.

The exhibition was a blaze with oriental swirls of blue and red, and the clashing of pattern on pattern. The use of patterns not only added dynamism and energy to his paintings, but also allowed him to take his colour exploration to another level, by allowing the interplay of a plethora of colours on the picture plane. A particular favourite was ‘Le Paravent Mauresque’ 1921 in which we see two figures engulfed in a whirl of gorgeous Islamic patterns and motifs. Despite the chaotic array of patterns, there’s a coherent unity between the shapes and colours.

I realised from this magnificent exhibition that Matisse harnessed colour in a way that hadn’t been seen in the History of Art.

It was a lifetime’s obsession which resulted in the most exhilarating body of work, that strives for ultimate colour harmony like that of a musical composition.

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