Henri Matisse 1869 – 1954, Fauve Movement The Joy of Living 1904-5.


Henry Matisse was born in northern France, he studied Law in Paris before realising that he wanted to be an artist, from 1891 he studied in Paris. He wrote that while painting he had discovered ‘ a kind of paradise.’ He was a leading member of the Fauve movement or the Wild Ones, the Fauve painters were revolutionary, Matisse wold develop new styles of painting as the years passed but the Wild Ones were a link to modern art, another bridge. Matisse was a leading figure in this art movement while remaining an upholder of the classical French tradition studying work by artists like Chardin, Poussin and Watteau. He spent time in London and saw the Turners there, when he was more financially secure he lived in Algiers and Morocco absorbing the art of Islam, he knew the work of Van Gough and became a lifelong friend of Picasso whom he met in 1906, he also admired Manet and Japanese art, all these influences will have been stored to use in his own way. He had a daughter called Marguerite with his model Caroline Joblau, he then married Amelie Noelle Paryre, they had a daughter, Emilie took on the care for Marguerite.

Matisse drew what he saw but changed the colour if required to bring balance, ‘the colour became the subject of the painting as well as its expression, ‘ He was a master draughtsman and his colour theory was bold, he would use reds against greens, violets against yellows for example, complementary colours that affected each other making them more vibrant, he wrote that he did not paint what he saw literally but how he felt about it, the emotion it produced in him in an embodied way. I admire Matisse’s work enormously he is one of my favourite painters, his colours are magnificent.

The Joy of Living, Le Bonheur was painted in the years 1905 and 1906, the symbolism is carried in its title, the painting is a nostalgic return to the Garden of Eden where clothes are not necessary, work is not a trial and sadness does not exist, what bliss! The yellow beach stretches out far to sea, tree trunks are coloured aqua marine and violet, the leafy canopy ranges through pale ochre, orange, green and violet, a patch of sky above the tree on the right hand side is a delicate pink/purple. The curves of the figures are echoed by the sinuous tree trunks which form a curtain on this stage, the main lovers are bounded by a shady outline, as though they are immune from what is going on around being only involved with each other. The figures are not to scale, we are invited to enter the painting and view them from different perspectives, there is some perspective we see the distant horizon, the colours are not as we see them, why should a sky be blue in a dream? Matisse wrote ‘ Slowly I discovered the secret of my art. It consists of a meditation on nature,’ the fauna and flora around him. It is ‘the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality’.

Matisse was non-political, his daughter Marguerite was an activist in WW2 she was captured and tortured by the German authorities, it can be imagined how distraught he felt, she managed to escape while being moved to a concentration camp. He became ill in his old age but continued to work in his sick bed, with the help of assistants he created large coloured paper cut outs, many of which were exhibited in London recently. He died after a heart attack in 1954


Image from wikimedia commons.

7 thoughts on “Henri Matisse 1869 – 1954, Fauve Movement The Joy of Living 1904-5.

  1. Interestingly voluptuous images. The perspective is similar to that of a proscenium stage, with a narrowing towards the back and with ‘wings’ at each side. Upstage the backdrop is of a further receding vista, the ‘sea’ and the ‘sky’.

    There are no straight lines, and the colours are – to my mind – predominantly anatomical (red and a kind of livid blue); what little use of green has a yellowish hue.

    I’m very struck by the similarity of the composition to female pudenda, the labial folds, and the vaginal introitus. I’d be reasonably confident in asserting that this image was somewhere in the mind of Matisse as he composed it. It’s notable that, although he drew women’s naked bodies, he was slightly prudish about exposing their genitals. So, I surmise, he drew these transports of joyous abandonment and lust taking place inside a woman’s body, via her pudendal opening, represented as a proscenium stage with actors engaged in sexual foreplay. The bright colours are evocative of the engorgement of sexual organs that accompanies arousal.

    I looked at a few analytic comments, several of which made oblique – and slightly prudish – references to Matisse as a crypto-pornographer. I read these after I had noted my own impression, to see if anyone shared my view. No-one’s view co-incided closely with my own, but I am unusually forthright about such matters.

    I’d be inclined to think that his anatomical references were not at the forefront of his consciousness, but emerged unconsciously, under the influence of his right hemisphere. His left hemisphere perhaps influenced the draughtsmanship that manifested in the human forms, the relationships of these to each other, and to the procreative ‘stage’ on which they appeared.

    I expect some readers will think I’m a dirty old man! But my comments come pretty directly from the embodied meaning I derive from the picture, with a little detachment derived from my background as a nurse, with a professional interest in the human body.

    Any thoughts, Norma?

    1. Hi Peter,
      Thank you for your interesting comment, I was intrigued with your interpretation of this painting, I hadn’t viewed it in the same way, but I see why you came to those conclusions when looking at its lines. I would not be inclined to think of the women portrayed as pornographic images, erotic yes. Matisse had in mind I think in this work the innocence of the conditions in the Garden of Eden that existed before humans gained knowledge – The Fall, in metaphorical terms, unconscious thoughts may have surfaced and been echoed by lines as you imagine. That Matisse admired the human form is very evident, in particular the female figure. His models were mainly women placed in various poses, in order to express his skill at drawing and use of colour, that is what his art is all about, as a result they are powerful female icons. We know that artists throughout time have portrayed women as saints or sinners, victims or heroines, beautiful or ugly, there is little new in art, just new ways of expressing emotions and ideas. Your comment gave me food for thought, thank you.

      1. Hello Norma, and your own comment on mine has given me food for thought, fresh baked ‘migglebread’ in fact. Very chewy and tasty, full of goodness too.

        Like the two mules, each of us seems drawn to our own pile of fodder: yours to an aesthetically technical and contextually historic pile of fragrant straw (there’s probably a lot more to it than that); mine to a sexually-charged and – possibly – a psychodynamically pungent pile. Both interpretations/piles have validity and both points of view are in themselves complex, multifaceted and subjective. I wonder what Henri himself would think? Sacre bleu!

        I’m inclined to challenge, respectfully, your comment as follows: “His models were mainly women placed in various poses, in order to express his skill at drawing and use of colour, that is what his art is all about…..”, because it may well be-founded and based on what he himself said about his motivation. But I nonetheless invite you to consider whether “that is what his art is all about” might seem to discourage other interpretations (like mine).

        Where you see before-the-Fall innocence depicted in those intense and voluptuous embraces and colours, I see unbridled passion, muted only by the painter’s unacknowledged inhibitions; or perhaps his conscious inhibitions: that a more explicit work would be condemned as obscene, beyond the pale, by his society and in the eyes of potential patrons.

        Lots of portrayals of nakedness in art (paintings and, especially, sculpture) seem to be covert, barely disguised, expressions of sexual allure, and invitations to sexual arousal.

        Lastly, I’m not sure what the distinction may be between eroticism and pornography, except that the latter often connotes illicit or depraved appreciations of sexuality, the former a less messy one! I have no issues with pornography or eroticism, both being about the same broad range of behaviours, potent feelings and urgent desires.

        By the way, I was delighted to hear the word “migglism” drop from Robert’s lips in his opening remarks at our last on-line discussion, what a joy! I hope you like migglebread. I’ve got a lot more miggle-related items in a special little fissure in my right hemispheric cortex, all wriggling to get out!

        Yours in friendship, Peter

      2. Hello again Peter,
        I hope you feel that the joy of looking at paintings is that we can project onto them our own impressions of what each one attempts to convey to us, sometimes the symbols/meanings are easy to discover at other times they are hidden at first. I agree with you that each view is valid, they may or may not tally with the artist’s intention at the time, (conscious or unconscious), how can we really know, we have the freedom to let our imaginations get to work, our interpretations are out of the control of the artist once a painting leaves his/her studio, even if the artist writes about them or art critics publish their articles, we have our own thoughts, like the characters in a novel they take on the qualities the reader finds in them.
        The line between what is erotic and pornographic may be fine, I think there is a difference but I would like to hear more views on the subject. My thoughts on Matisse are that the models he employed were the vehicles he chose to produce wonderful art, Cezanne for example often painted apples, their interest in them was the shapes they created from their images, often with Matisse they were not anatomically correct but fitted his sense of design and composition along with his colour theories which were revolutionary.

  2. Hi Norma, and thanks for the care you give to your replies. It’s a pity we can’t discuss these things more freely, face to face, but it’s also good to have time to reflect and reconsider.

    I do agree that paintings are mean for enjoyment, and I don’t have much concern for the painter’s intentions, for these are probably as complex as our own interpretations are when we discuss them.

    I did consider deleting my own interpretation, as it seemed rather florid, but I decided to let it stand, as it’s not (in my opinion) offensive, although it might worry some readers.

    You suggested that Matisse had it in mind to portray the era of innocence before the Fall. As I understand it, this ‘innocence’ has been widely understood as sexual innocence, illustrated by Adam and Eve hiding their genitals with fig-leaves, because they were ashamed. They were understood to be ashamed because they had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge (of good and evil), symbolised by their genitals. This is why I remarked Matisse’s not showing his subjects’ genitals.

    Genitals are not, to my mind, ugly or deserving of concealment or shame. For me, all the body is beautiful, young or old, healthy or diseased. I’m the father of four girls, and I remember the delight I felt at seeing their little bodies when I bathed them or changed their nappies, their little pudenda were like small fruits (I was reminded of little apricots), with juicy insides! I admire Tracey Emin’s slap-dash portaiture because of it’s unashamed depiction of sprawled women’s bodies, and because her slap-dash style defies the conventions of many male artists for closed lines and well-executed surfaces. It’s (for me) a gust of fresh air, as much the North wind through a Spanish fish market, as a breeze across a lily-bed.

    Anyway, I’m in your debt for the part you play in strengthening practice with so many opportunities for opening up the neural connections between the hemispheres, and long may you continue.

    Best wishes, Peter

  3. I agree with that, Norma.

    I have a much deeper understanding of integration – of belief, desire, and meaning – since we began this conversation, and reflecting on it, than I had before.

    Thank you too.

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