Matisse in the Studio. Royal Academy, London

Art and auctions, Exhibitions, Paintings and Sculpture — By on August 2, 2017 at 9:07 PM

The Italian Woman. by Henri Matisse – detail

Matisse in the Studio. Royal Academy, London

By James Brewer

Taking ship for North Africa in 1906 marked a turning point in the development of Henri Matisse, one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, who at the time had already chalked up success in Paris.

The Italian Woman. by Henri Matisse

Matisse had become artistically speaking the king of the Fauves when his paintings and those of his rebellious contemporaries were described by a critic as ‘wild beasts.’ From his sojourn in Algeria he brought back local artefacts, and from then on in France he insatiably collected sculptures and curios from other parts of Africa which along with magazine photos played a huge influence in his best-known works.

Two Women. Bronze. By Matisse.

In the absorbing new exhibition Matisse in the Studio, the Royal Academy has juxtaposed 35 of the objects he collected with 65 of the paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and cut-outs in which they featured.

Matisse (1869-1954) transformed his studios in a succession of residences into cabinets of curiosities and the great London arts house tells the story graphically and sympathetically.

His eclectic collector’s items were picked up from his travels and from markets, sales and junk shops. They ranged from African masks and sculpture and Chinese porcelain to elaborate North African textiles from the 19th and 20th centuries. He selected these objects simply because he took a fancy to them. Representations of them adorned many of his works, and in others were central to them.

Most of the objects on show have been loaned by the Musée Matisse, Nice, and several others from private collections are exhibited outside France for the first time.

Four years in the preparation, the exhibition explores how Matisse constantly turned to his collection and reinterpreted the pieces in setting after setting. The new show goes a considerable way beyond a 2005 Royal Academy exhibition which linked the art of Matisse to his prized collection of textiles.

Chocolate or coffee pot, France, early 19th century.

In 1951 Matisse summed up the importance of his accumulation of items when he said: “I have worked all my life before the same objects…. The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in 10 different plays; an object can play a role in 10 different pictures.”

One of the three excellent curators, Ann Dumas of the Royal Academy, remarked: “His collection of objects is particularly revealing.  It offers an extraordinary insight into his mind. He is not collecting material for its value, he is collecting for the effect of being visually excited.

“He lived surrounded by these objects. He found a personality in them,” said Ms Dumas. “He would move them from one home to another, from one room to another.”

In addition to artefacts of wood, metal and porcelain, there were African, Eastern and Middle Eastern tapestries, cushions, carpets and clothing, complemented by mirrors, decorative screens, patterned wall-hangings and exotic costumes for his models.

Still Life with Shell. By Matisse.

In his paintings, he sought to array examples from the miscellany ‘in tune’ with each other. We know a lot about his thinking because fortunately, said Ms Dumas, “he was an extraordinarily eloquent commentator about his own art.”

Matisse had these boldly defined objects before him when he was delineating and sculpting the human form. It is a rational relationship that mirrors the belief that the success of the Coca Cola brand is attributed in part to its curvy bottle as a metaphor for the female shape, heightened by the flowing script favoured by that company.

He could not live without the intellectual stimulation of his army of curios. In his letters, he urged members of his family to send them on from Paris to Nice, when he moved there in 1917.

Jomooniw male and female figures. Wood and metal. Mali.

Another of the trio of curators, Ellen McBreen, associate professor of art history at Wheaton College, Massachusetts (the third is Helen Burnham of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), speaks of the “poetic back and forth between Matisse’s work in his studio, and his collection.” This helped establish the style that distinguished him from others of the avant-garde schools in Paris, and had much to do with his portrayal of women, in sympathetic if sometimes stark manner.

While he admired Paul Cézanne’s 1882 post-Impressionist composition, Three Bathers, his women are of a different mould, symbols of the joys of life, as reflected in the title of one of his most important works. Critics have viewed as “twin opposites” Matisse and Picasso, who was 12 years younger. At first, they were wary of each other, but from that critical year of 1906 when they met, they developed mutual respect. Their characters differed greatly, and it came out in their works: the brash, confrontational oeuvre of Picasso as against the lightness, and the celebration of life conveyed by the modest Matisse.

He saw little difference between painting and sculpture, saying: “I sculpted as a painter. I did not sculpt like a sculptor.” Viewed in that light, the canvases take on an extra dimension, especially because he was so fascinated by what was then called the “primitive” art from Africa and elsewhere.

The Moorish Screen. Oil on canvas. By Matisse.

One of the exhibition’s five sections is entitled The Nude and on view is some of his collection of African sculpture. The presentation in that gallery clearly shows the ways in which the artefacts were the source of his portrayal of the human body, especially the female. He spurned the naturalistic representation, saying on one occasion: “I will condense the meaning of this body by seeking its essential lines.” Matisse took his cue from the central and west African statuettes with their bountifully-proportioned body profile, from photos in erotic-ethnographic journals, and from classical sculpture.

Ms McBreen said that his approach to anatomy was more about design than recording the idealistic form. The ethnographic journals were working tools for the artist, enabling a borrowing from multiple traditions.  In the early 20th century, the then-recent introduction of cheaply-produced half-tone photography had changed the way in which the image of a woman could be shown. “We see a more fluid approach to the body,” noted Ms McBreen, and in the way the magazines took new angles, there could be an ambiguity of gender.

From the pivotal year 1906 and his early engagement with African art come one large woodcut and one small of the female nude, respectively lent by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. An affinity is suggested between these woodcuts and a pair of small ivories owned by the artist. The ivories were made by the Lega people, who live in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Venetian chair.

Sculptures include Two Women, modelled in 1907-8, from Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC.  There are Bamana figure sculptures in wood and metal from Mali, lent from a private collection, and a statue of the goddess Nang Thorani from Thailand (Musée Matisse, Nice).

Another thematic section, The Object as an Actor, shows how Matisse reconceived elements of his collection throughout his career. A simple pewter jug from 1917, an Andalusian glass vase (Musée Matisse, Nice), and a pot for making hot chocolate given to Matisse as a wedding present reappear in varying forms over a long period, including Safrano Roses at the Window in 1925 and Still Life with Shell, 1940 (both from private collections).

Among his treasures was a rocaille (shell-like) chair which captivated him but which he wrongly described as baroque. It is probably 19th century Venetian. He said he had been longing for such a piece for a year, and “when I found it in an antique shop a few weeks ago I was bowled over. It’s splendid. I’m obsessed with it.” The chair, of pinewood with silver plating and gilding, has been immortalised in several drawings and a strong late painting Rocaille Chair distilling its essence, cropped so that its swirling forms fill the entire frame. This painting, a bequest of Mme Matisse, is loaned by the Musée Matisse.

The section headlined The Face explores how he conveyed the character of his sitters without resorting to physical likeness. Many of Matisse’s portraits borrow motifs and ideas from traditions emphasising the simplification of human features, particularly from the African masks that he owned. One painting, The Italian Woman, 1916 (Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York) had for a model a young woman migrant about whom little is known, although she sat for him more than 50 times.  She is known as Lorette, which might be the French version of her Italian name.

Ann Dumas interviewed.

This and other portraits are hung alongside objects such as a Pende mask, from the Congo a small bronze bust of the Buddha from Thailand, and a French medieval head of a saint (both from Musée Matisse, Nice).

The 1906 trip across the Mediterranean was just one more spur to his interest in textiles, for he came from a tradition of silk weavers in northern France, near the border with Belgium. He was the son of a grain merchant from a family of weavers. His mother who was a skilled painter on porcelain managed a section of their establishment which sold house paints, and to her, Henri attributed his sense of colour. He was as a boy familiar with fabrics, which were “my working library,” and paper patterns.

All this came into play when Matisse decorated an alcove of the studio in his Nice apartment with a divan, mirrors, screens, garishly patterned wall hangings and other props from the Islamic world to resemble the Moorish interiors he had seen during a visit to Morocco in 1912. Hence the Royal Academy’s title for this section, The studio as Theatre.

Two woodcuts by Matisse. 1906.

This was the background throughout the 1920s for his many paintings of comely Odalisques (the term comes from the Turkish odalik, meaning female harem slave). The concubines are dressed exotically and recline against a decorative background of fabrics and rugs that owes everything to his personal collection. His model in many of these pictures was Henriette Darricarrière, who lived nearby and was skilled in ballet, piano, violin, and painting.

The intriguing atmosphere of this era in his life is vividly captured by the 1921 oil on large canvas, The Moorish Screen, from Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Finally, The Language of Signs links some of Matisse’s late works and the inventive language of simplified sign. A Chinese calligraphy panel in lacquered wood given to him by his wife on his 60th birthday was a lead-up to the spatial concepts developed in his renowned cut-outs, as are kuba textiles, handwoven from raffia palm leaves, originating in what today is the Democratic Republic of Congo.


Captions in detail: Henri Matisse, The Italian Woman, 1916. Oil on canvas. Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo © The Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation/Art Resource, NY. © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.

Two Women. Bronze. By Matisse. Modelled 1907-8, cast 1908. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Joseph H Hirshhorn, 1966. Photograph by Lee Stalsworth. © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.

Still Life with Shell, 1940. Gouache, coloured pencil, and charcoal on cut paper, and string, pinned to canvas. By Matisse. Private collection. Photo © Private collection. © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.

Coffee or chocolate pot, France, early 19th century. Silver, handle in wood. Musée Matisse, Nice. Photo © François Fernandez, Nice.

Jomooniw male and female figures, Bamana region, Mali, 19th-early 20th century. Wood and metal. Former collection of Henri Matisse. Private collection. Photograph by Robert Monnier.

The Moorish Screen, 1921. Oil on canvas. By Matisse. Philadelphia Museum of Art. Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950. Photo © Philadelphia Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY. © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2017.


Matisse in the Studio. The Sackler Wing of Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts. until November 12, 201710am–6pm, Fridays until 10pm.

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