Cutting into Colour: Matisse’s Blue Nudes

“A certain blue enters your soul.” Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse loved the colour blue: it was a vital lifeblood running through almost all his art. He also loved women, drawing and painting them with an increasingly abstract and pared back language as his career and mature style developed, yet always retaining the same quality of loose, fluid movement. The blue nudes Matisse made during the later half of his career rolled both these passions into one; perhaps this is why they are now among his most iconic and celebrated work of art. Describing the process of making these women as “cutting into colour,” Matisse discovered how striking ultramarine blue and sharp, crisp contours could enliven human bodies in a way like never before, bringing dynamism and energy off the page into the space beyond.

Henri Matisse, The Joy of Life, 1925, image via

Henri Matisse, The Joy of Life, 1925, image via

Matisse began making paper cut-outs in the latter part of his career in around 1941, initially experimenting with various vegetal or floral plant forms in vivid rainbow colours, a process he called “drawing in colour.” It would be 11 years before he dared to create the ‘Blue Nudes’ series; seemingly effortless in design, they in fact took months of preparation and hard work. Before beginning the series, Matisse filled a notebook with studies to help him find simplified designs to work from. He also looked back to the figures in his earlier and much celebrated painting The Joy of Life, 1905, emulating the same dynamic and energised poses. 

Blue Nude I, 1952

Blue Nude I, 1952 | Buy this prints >>>

The paper Matisse used to create these female forms was painted onto with blue gouache paint, which Matisse then “drew” into with his scissors, shearing apart strands of blue in flowing, organic shapes – this painted surface lent the works a greater visceral and hand-made quality. Matisse chose the colour blue here for its allusions to the sea and sky, to represent volume and distance, lending the works an aura of tranquillity and harmony. Studio assistants who helped Matisse create the works described the gruelling process of making Matisse went through before arriving at his final motifs; he would spend weeks pinning and unpinning cut out shards and strips of paper to build a believable sense of volume and form, sometimes going back to drawing to help him further evaluate and consolidate his ideas.

Blue Nude II, 1952

Blue Nude II, 1952 | Buy this prints >>>

In Blue Nude I, Blue Nude II and Blue Nude III, we see how Matisse forms a white strip or gulley between the woman’s torso and legs, a technique which allows the sweeping curve of the leg to come forward. In each work, these white, ‘negative’ spaces between the blue forms are vitally important, forming sinuous, flowing lines that vary from gaping spaces to skinny, narrow strips. They echo the linear language that defined so much of Matisse’s art, but they also allow him to create the invocation of cast light, shadow and movement, as seen in Blue Nude VII, where a white shard splits the model’s back into two as she leaps into the air. 

Blue Nude III, 1952

Blue Nude III, 1952 | Buy this prints >>> 

As well as leaving gaps, Matisse also overlapped patches of blue on top of one another to build a greater sense of weight and volume and because of the time and care he put into these masterpieces we can really believe that these are living, breathing humans on the page. Finally, Matisse arrived at a complete set of four designs; they came to form a fitting closing chapter to his career, encapsulating his love affair with colour, invention and the magical spirit of human life.

Blue Nude VII, 1952

Blue Nude VII, 1952 | Buy this print >>>


This amazing article written by Rosie Lesso.

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