Matisse in the Studio: Pairings of His Masterpieces with Objects of Inspiration

A new exhibition on Matisse has recently opened at the MFA, and it is such a treat for the senses. Matisse is one of my absolute favorite painters, and has had a huge influence on the development of modern art. This particular exhibition (the first major Matisse exhibition at the MFA in 50 years!) brings together a large group of his work — 34 paintings, 26 drawings, 11 bronzes, 7 ‘cut-outs’, three prints and an illustrated book. Alongside these works of Matisse, we are presented with objects from his studio or home which are represented in some of his pieces or had an influence on his artistic point of view. Viewing Matisse through the additional lens of his favorite objects allows us to really understand how much he was influenced by materials and objects he was surrounded by, including those from France as well as those from other cultures.

Vase, Andalusia, Spain, early 20th century, Blown glass
Former collection of Henri Matisse, Musée Matisse, Nice.
Bequest of Madame Henri Matisse, 1960. Photograph by François Fernandez
Courtesy, Musée Matisse / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The vase above, purchased on a trip to Spain, was one of a number of objects Matisse included in a 1946 photograph he titled “objects which have been of use to me nearly all my life.” It can be seen in several of his paintings, changing form and color slightly depending on the context.

Vase of Flowers, Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954), 1924, Oil on canvas
Bequest of John T. Spaulding.
© 2011 Succession H. Matisse, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), 
New York.
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The jug below has a prominent place in the work Purple Robe and Anemones, where we can see Matisse’s interest in pattern reflected in a composition where both patterns and the model are given equal weight. The two play off each other, with the dynamic lines of the jug reflected in the woman’s robe and the walls behind.

Jug, Northern France, late 18th century, Engraved pewter
Former collection of Henri MatisseMusée Matisse, Nice. Bequest of Madame Henri Matisse, 1960.
Photograph by François FernandezCourtesy, Musée Matisse / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Purple Robe and Anemones, Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954), 1937Oil on canvas
The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, MarylandPhotograph © The Baltimore Museum of Art
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The exhibition also displayed some of Matisse’s African sculptures and masks. Matisse’s borrowing from African art came less from what it looks like but rather from a conceptual appreciation of it’s “scuptural language” and and lessons in abstraction. His exposure to Punu, Yoruba, and Kuba masks, among others, led him towards a simplification of features in his portraiture.

Boom mask, Artist Unknown
Kuba kingdom, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 19th‑early 20th century
Former collection of Henri Matisse, Musée Matisse, Nice . Bequest of Madame Henri Matisse, 1960.
Photograph by François FernandezCourtesy, Musée Matisse / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In portraits such as the self-portrait below, Matisse works with a simplicity of lines to create a sculptural quality and capture the essence of a person. The sitters’ faces in some cases become almost mask-like. Here Matisse also abandons the traditional narrative representations that often accompany a portrait: we see no brush or easel to identify him as a painter, rather only the figure itself. The intense gaze of this self-portrait follows the viewer around the room — this piece drew me in, and I returned to it a few times during my visit.

Self‑Portrait, Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954), 1906, Oil on canvas
Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Gift of Johannes Rump, 1928
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Matisse was very appreciative of Islamic art. His love of pattern found lots of inspiration in the textiles and furnishings from North Africa. In many of his paintings, these textiles and furnishings, are given equal weight as the model, making evident his love of abstract design and pattern. Textiles would often be draped along walls to create almost a “set” for paintings. In viewing these paintings over many years, these patterns are familiar, however my eye had always interpreted them as architecture when they were instead architecturally-inspired textiles that Matisse owned and displayed in his studio, layering patterns upon patterns to create sumptuous interior scenes.

Window screen (Haiti), North Africa, late 19th‑early 20th century
Cotton plain weave cut and appliquéd to bast fiber cloth
Former collection of Henri Matisse en dépot, Musée Matisse, Nice.
Photograph by François FernandezCourtesy, Musée Matisse / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Moorish Screen, Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954), 1921, Oil on canvas
Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Lisa Norris Elkins, 1950.

Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2017 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

What a treat to be able to see this impressive collection of Matisse’s work along with some of his influences. I absolutely suggest you catch this exhibition while it is in town through July 9! See more about the exhibition and how to visit on the MFA website.

Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) of Matisse with his collection of Kuba cloths
and a Samoan tapa on the wall behind him, Villa La Rêve, Vence, 1944
© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum PhotosCourtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

  1. Molly Galler says:

    I absolutely loved this post! A professor at Wheaton College (my alma mater) was the curator for this exhibit. Can’t wait to see it for myself.

    • Laura Chassaigne says:

      Hi Molly! How cool! :) I was at a talk that included your professor — she had such an interesting perspective! Hope you are well! xo Laura