Henri Matisse Color and Light

By Brenner, Carla | School Arts, May 1999 | Go to article overview

Henri Matisse Color and Light


Brenner, Carla, School Arts


Henri Matisse painted Open Window, Collioure in the summer of 1905, when he and Andre Derain worked together in the small Mediterranean fishing port of Collioure, near the Spanish border.

The scene is filled with light, vibrant and inviting. The vermillion masts of blue-hulled boats float on pink waves below a sky banded with turquoise, pink, and periwinkle. Reflected in the glass of the open window, the scene becomes rectangular blocks of bright green, watery cyclamen, and lilac, and the walls framing the view are violet and turquoise. These are hardly the colors of nature and they provoked an outrage when Matisse exhibited Open Window, Collioure later in the year at the Salon d'Automne in Paris.

Eyewitness accounts tell of laughter emanating from Room VII, where audiences saw this painting and similar works by Matisse, Derain, their friend Maurice de Vlaminck, and others. Gertrude Stein reported that people scratched at the canvases in derision, and a critic, noting the presence of a Renaissance style statuette in the center of the room, quipped "Tiens, Donatello chez les fauves" (Well, well, Donatello among the wild beasts). Soon, these artists were being called the fauves, and Room VII, le cage. It was one of the first places where the world got a glimpse of what art would be in the twentieth century.

The Fauves liberated color from any requirement other than those posed by the painting itself. "When I put a green," Matisse would later say, "it is not grass. When I put a blue, it is not the sky." He was painting pictures, not things. Color was a tool of the painter's artistic intention and expression, no longer limited by the imitation of nature.

Though he was inspired by what he saw around him, for Matisse the imperative was to "interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture." Derain later called the Fauves' color "sticks of dynamite," but the serious and hard-working Matisse was an unlikely revolutionary. It was something of an accident that he became an artist at all. Growing up in the bleak, industrial regions of northern France, he had shown no talent or even interest in painting.

In 1887 he was sent by his father to study law in Paris. Working diligently he completed his certificate in a year and returned home to a job copying legal documents. It took a case of appendicitis in 1890 to turn Matisse into an artist. His mother gave him a box of paints during his long convalescence; he recalled sixty years later, "it was as if I had been called. Henceforth, I did not lead my life. It led me."

In 1892 Matisse announced his intention to become a painter. He returned to Paris, this time to study painting. He found a congenial atmosphere at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where Gustave Moreau gave students the freedom to discover their own artistic personalities. "Think your color," Moreau told Matisse. "Know how to imagine it."

A New Look at Color

Already in the late 1880s, a number of painters dissatisfied with Impressionism's reliance on purely sensory effects had begun to use color in new ways. They wanted to paint with the intellect and the emotions as well as the eye. Georges Seurat and the neo-impressionists applied color systematically, according to current theories about optics. Vincent van Gogh, seeking greater expressive power, used color in a manner he described as "arbitrary." And Paul Gauguin looked at color symbolically, massing it into large flat areas and advising other painters, "don't copy nature too literally." All three artists influenced Matisse's evolving approach to color.

When he first arrived in Collioure in 1905, Matisse had been working in the neo-impressionist manner of Seurat, experimenting with small touches of pure pigment in a regular arrangement. He found the technique limiting, however, and did not like the way the brilliance of the individual colors blended in the eye to make more muted tones. …

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