A Living Art: Henri Matisse’s Boundless Interiors

Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse, The Swimming Pool, installation view in his Nice apartment, 1952, image via The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Henri Matisse, The Swimming Pool, installation view in his Nice apartment, 1952, image via The Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

French artist Henri Matisse lived and breathed art, surrounding himself with sumptuous textiles, objects and artworks from all around the world. The decorated spaces he lived in spilled out into his paintings, framing windows or forming riotous, joyous displays of colour and life. He even came to see this art as a form of lavish décor, famously describing it as a “soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair.” Later in life, when confined to his house with ill health, Matisse found the most adventurous approach yet, bringing bold colours and simplified shapes leaping off the canvas and out into the space beyond. 

From his early days as a student in Paris, Matisse was well-known as an avid collector. Though he had limited means he sought out inexpensive objects including African wall hangings, woven rugs, colourful cushions, patterned ceramics and glass jugs. Some were collected during trips to Algeria, Morocco and Tahiti, others gifted to him by family and friends. Such was the extent of his archive he came to call it “my working library.” Patterned textiles and objects made their way into his art, allowing him to experiment with the interplay between flat, decorative design and the invocation of light, space and movement. A prime example of his early work is Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, where electric blue floral patterns seem to come alive and curl across the crimson room.

Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, image via The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, image via The Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia
 

Although Matisse found early success as a Fauvist in Paris, it was the Mediterranean region of Nice that truly lit up his imagination. Entranced by the fluorescent blue water and azure skies during several extended visits, he described the place as “fake, absurd, amazing, delicious.” In 1917 he moved permanently to Nice to escape war-ridden Paris, setting up his own private Shangri-La with his vast archive of objects. Many paintings of this era demonstrate his fascination with the balance of opposites between indoor and outdoor space, flat and three-dimensional form, and movement and stillness, as seen in the richly patterned Interior at Nice, 1919-1920.

Interior at Nice, 1919-1920, image via the Art Institute of Chicago

Interior at Nice, 1919-1920, image via the Art Institute of Chicago

 

Other works of this period revealed Matisse’s fascination with eastern culture, particularly his ‘Odalisques’ which were inspired by earlier visits to the harems of Morocco. He posed nude or partially clothed models in his apartment like actors on a stage, set amongst lively theatrical backdrops made from clashing textiles and objects, forming a fantastical vision of eroticism and escape. 

In the 1930s Matisse travelled to the United States, where he painted a huge interior mural for the mansion home of art collector Dr Albert Barnes of Merion in Philadelphia. His design, titled The Dance II, 1932, featured silhouetted dancers floating across patterns of rhythmic, pulsating colour, whose organic white shapes echo the curved architecture around them. In the years that followed Matisse became increasingly attracted to the separation of line and colour, making artworks with flat, bright panels and loose, flowing lines that seem suspended mid-motion. He described this yearning to transcend traditional representation as a desire to “feel in spirit above myself, above motif, studio, even home; a cosmic space in which one no longer feels the walls, any more than do the fish in the sea.”

The Dance II, 1932, mural at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, image via Architectural Digest

The Dance II, 1932, mural at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, image via Architectural Digest

 

In his later years a spell of illness left Matisse bedridden and temporarily unable to paint. Ever resourceful, he turned to paper-cut-outs initially as a means of working out ideas from his bed, but in this new medium he discovered a world of possibilities. From snails to dancers and blue nudes, these elegant paper cut-outs would become the most distinctive and revolutionary aspect of his career yet. These paper cut-outs allowed Matisse to merge his mutual interests in art and design, appearing as illustrations for Verve Magazine and various poetry publications.

Cover Design for Verve Magazine, 1937

The free-spirited, lively simplicity of these paper cut-outs became the launchpad for Matisse’s stunning interior murals and stained-glass windows at the Chapel du Rosaire de Vence in Nice, completed in 1951. Referred to by Matisse himself as his great “masterpiece”, the chapel allowed Matisse to consolidate his lifelong passion for enlivening interior space with the iridescence of colour, movement and light. Following on the success of his chapel, Matisse was commissioned by Life magazine in January 1952 to create an 11-foot stained glass Christmas window for celebrations at Rockefeller Center, filling the entire space with glowing spirituality.

Chapel du Rosaire de Vence, 1951, Nice, image via The Independent

Chapel du Rosaire de Vence, 1951, Nice, image via The Independent

Chapel du Rosaire de Vence, 1951, Nice, image via The Independent

 

Nuit de Noel, 1952, installation view at the Museum of Modern Art New York, featuring paper cut out design and the original stained-glass window, image via Daphne Nash and the Museum of Modern Art New York

Nuit de Noel, 1952, installation view at the Museum of Modern Art New York, featuring paper cut out design and the original stained-glass window, image via Daphne Nash and the Museum of Modern Art New York

 

In the same year, Matisse constructed a spontaneous, improvised installation in his home, purely for his own pleasure. After watching a series of divers at a pool on Cannes, the now elderly and fragile Matisse declared, “I will make my own pool.” After lining the walls of his dining room with a circuit of paper, he then cut out a series of flowing abstract forms in blue paper to convey the energised movement of the divers, before pinning them to the walls as if caught in a state of constant flux. In doing so, he was able to completely transform his domestic living space into an alternate reality, one ruled entirely by the realms of dreams, fantasy and imagination.

The Swimming Pool, 1952, re-installed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2014, image via Daphne Nash and The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The Swimming Pool, 1952, re-installed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 2014, image via Daphne Nash and The Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

This amazing article written by Rosie Lesso.


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