Henri Matisse stands out in the world of modern art for his masterful use of color as both a dominant tool for composition and a deeply expressive medium. His work, instantly recognizable and profoundly personal, showcases an affinity for themes that evoke joy, leisure, and beauty. Matisse frequently returned to subjects that captured his imagination, from the elegance of the female form to the serene complexity of interiors and still lifes. These choices reflect his continuous exploration of form’s essence, making each piece a window into his creative soul. 

Matisse’s journey through Fauvism, his exploration of movement and harmony, and his innovative cut-out techniques during his illness illustrate a relentless pursuit of artistic evolution. Moreover, the enduring appeal and financial acclaim of his work, from the groundbreaking “Jazz” series to the record-setting sales of his paintings, underline the lasting impact of his legacy on both art and culture.

Fauvist Portraits and Matisse’s Color Revolution

"Femme au Chapeau" (Woman with a Hat) by Henri Matisse, painted in 1905, is a Fauvist oil painting displaying an avant-garde portrait of the artist's wife, Amelie. The painting is notable for its radical use of color, characteristic of Fauvism. It features a woman with a stylized face rendered in bold hues, including a green stripe down her forehead, a blue hat with vivid floral embellishments, and accents of orange, purple, and red on her attire. The background consists of loosely applied pastels. Adjacent to the painting, a color palette strip shows the range of colors used in the artwork, including teal, seafoam green, dark purple, violet, bright orange, red, pale pink, beige, and navy blue.
Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat), 1905 by Henri Matisse, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

“Femme au Chapeau,” or “Woman with a Hat,” is a vibrant portrait by Henri Matisse, depicting his wife, Amelie. Upon its 1905 debut at the Autumn Salon in Paris, the painting became the center of controversy for its radical use of color and brushwork. Matisse’s audacious application of paint, with non-representational hues splashed across his wife’s face—a bold green stripe down her nose, and a dab of yellow at the tip—shocked the conservative art audience of the time. This portrait, created rather quickly as a substitute for an unfinished landscape, was initially advised against being exhibited for fear of the artist’s potential embarrassment. Despite the backlash and the concern of his contemporaries, Matisse showcased his work, inadvertently giving birth to the term “Fauvists” or “wild beasts,” coined by critic Louis Vauxcelles. This term later came to signify a pivotal moment in the emergence of modern art. The portrait’s audacious color scheme, including the surprising revelation that Amelie was actually wearing black during her sitting, was a daring move away from the observed reality, marking the painting as a significant milestone in the evolution of artistic expression.

This image shows "Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line," a Fauvist painting from 1905 by Henri Matisse. It is a striking portrait of Matisse's wife with bold, non-representational colors and a distinctive green stripe down the center of her face. Her features are rendered in patches of color rather than with detailed realism, with her skin tones varying from pale to pink, and her dress featuring splashes of red with green accents. The background is divided into blocks of color, with a pinkish hue to the left and a warm orange to the right, exemplifying the Fauvist color palette. The overall effect is one of dynamic and vibrant color contrasts that encapsulate the Fauvist movement's release of color from descriptive accuracy, allowing it to act with its own expressive power.
Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line, 1905 by Henri Matisse, Statens Museum for Kunst

The “Portrait of Madame Matisse. The Green Line” (1905), presents a bold use of color and simplified geometric structure emblematic of Matisse’s Fauvist period. This striking portrait of Matisse’s wife is notable for its reduction of spatial modulation to a bare minimum, eschewing traditional effects of light and shadow in favor of flat planes of vivid color. The painting, which likely emerged from the artist’s productive season in Collioure, a time of fervent experimentation alongside André Derain, showcases Matisse’s revolutionary aim to liberate color from its descriptive role. The eponymous green line dividing Madame Matisse’s face serves as a declaration of independence for color, elevating it to a dynamic and autonomous element within the composition.

Harmonic Motion in Matisse’s Art

This image displays two panels by Henri Matisse, "Music" (top) and "Dance" (bottom), created in 1910. "The Dance '' features a circle of five nude figures holding hands against a vibrant blue background, dancing atop a lush green hill. The figures are rendered in a striking red, symbolizing their inner vitality and passion. "Music" presents four figures seated in a line and one standing engaged in playing musical instruments and singing, set against a similarly intense blue backdrop with a green base, suggesting a connection to earth and cosmos. Both works exemplify Matisse's bold Fauvist style, with a reduced color palette of green, red, and blue, and simplified, almost abstracted human forms. The paintings radiate a dynamic contrast between the frenetic energy of "The Dance" and the serene concentration of "Music," capturing the essence of human creativity and its harmony with nature.
Music and Dance, 1905 by Henri Matisse, The State Hermitage Museum

“Dance” and “Music,” created by Henri Matisse between 1908 and 1913, stand as pivotal works within the artist’s prolific period of creativity. Commissioned by a Russian art collector Sergey Shchukin, these panels adorned the staircase of his Moscow mansion until the Revolution of 1917. Matisse draws inspiration from the primal essence of folk dances, capturing the ritualistic fervor reminiscent of pagan celebrations. In “The Dance,” this fervor is manifested through the intense interplay of red, blue, and green—symbolic colors that forge a visceral connection between Man, Heaven, and Earth. The five figures, rendered with firm yet intentionally deformed outlines, encapsulate the raw, rhythmic energy of nature and cosmos. Their movements are a dance of instinct and consciousness, a balance of forces that resonate with the viewer’s own sense of life’s rhythm.

“Music,” the counterpart to “The Dance,” offers a contrasting tableau of serenity and introspection. Where “The Dance” exudes the wild abandon of movement, “Music” explores the profound tranquility of creative expression. Matisse meticulously worked on this canvas, iterating its composition to capture the purity of this thematic harmony. The figures, each immersed in their act of making music, are at once separate and united—individuals contributing to a collective symphony. The static calm of the musicians contrasts with the dynamic energy of the dancers, yet both panels are intrinsically linked by the same vibrant color palette and the portrayal of humanity’s ascent to a higher state through the passionate pursuit of art.

Contemplation in Color with Matisse’s Still Lifes

This image features Henri Matisse's 1910 painting "Still Life with Geraniums." The painting showcases a vibrant and colorful interior scene with a focus on a potted geranium plant. The geraniums, with lush green leaves and bright pink blooms, sit on a table covered with a decorative floral textile that twists through the painting's center. In the background, a blue wall is adorned with Matisse's own artwork, and the scene is completed with a detailed wooden floor and wall paneling. The use of color is bold and expressive, typical of Matisse's Fauvist period, with shades that don't conform to naturalistic colors, instead offering a more emotional and imaginative representation.
Still life with Geraniums, 1910 by Henri Matisse, Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Germany

“Still Life with Geraniums,” painted by Henri Matisse in 1910, represents a pivotal piece in the evolution of modern art, being the first of his works to enter a public collection at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, Germany in 1912. Matisse’s reputation as an exceptional colorist is vibrantly on display in this piece, where the rich, vivacious colors of the geraniums captivate the viewer, acting as a visual anchor that radiates throughout the canvas. His love for plants, reflected in his personal garden, translates onto the canvas as he breathes life into the colors, letting the bright hues of the flowers inspire the energetic palette of his studio surroundings.

The painting stands as a clear demonstration of Matisse’s innovative approach to color and form. Here, he liberates himself from the constraints of realistic depiction, allowing the wood plank floors and panel walls to transform into a playground of color. The textile, with its dynamic floral pattern, weaves through the painting, contorting and twisting, creating a sense of movement amidst the stillness. Matisse’s attention to the inanimate—flowers, pottery, and textiles—imbues these objects with as much personality and emotional significance as a human subject.

This image displays Henri Matisse's painting "Goldfish" from 1912. It portrays a vibrant scene focused on a glass bowl on a table, containing brightly colored orange goldfish swimming against a contrasting pale yellow background. Surrounding the bowl are lush green plants with broad leaves, and in the background, there is a decorative floral curtain with pink and purple accents. The entire composition is set against a backdrop of a dark floor, with the bold use of complementary colors creating a lively and dynamic still life.
Goldfish, 1912 by Henri Matisse, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

Henri Matisse’s “Goldfish,” painted in 1912, vividly captures the beauty and serenity of goldfish swimming within an aquarium, a subject that found its way into at least nine of his paintings. This particular piece, part of a series created in the spring and early summer of 1912, places a special emphasis on the goldfish themselves, drawing the viewer’s gaze to their bright orange hue. This striking color, set against the subdued pinks and greens of the fishbowl and the blue-green backdrop, demonstrates Matisse’s continued fascination with the bold use of complementary colors—a technique that goes back to his Fauvist years. 

The symbolism of the goldfish in an aquarium during this period suggests a contemplative escape, reflecting the artist’s own search for inner peace amid the complexity of modern life. Introduced to Europe from East Asia in the 17th century, goldfish carry a wealth of cultural symbolism, often associated with prosperity and tranquility. In Matisse’s work, these silent, gliding forms become a meditative focal point, inviting the viewer to pause and reflect.

Window Views – Matisse’s Interior Exterior Blend

In the early 20th century, Henri Matisse embarked on a series of travels to study art from different cultures, venturing to Algeria to explore African Art and Primitivism, to Spain to examine Moorish art, and onward to Morocco. These journeys profoundly influenced his artistic style, infusing it with a newfound audacity characterized by the use of vibrant, unmodulated colors and the significant incorporation of black into his color palette.

This image is Henri Matisse's painting "Interior with a Goldfish Bowl" from 1914. It depicts a room bathed in shades of blue and grey, featuring a clear goldfish bowl on a table in the foreground. Inside the bowl, vibrant orange-red goldfish contrast sharply with the muted tones of the interior. The room opens onto a view of the Seine and the Île de la Cité through a large window, with the outdoor scene rendered in warm sunlight. The curved lines of the bowl echo the arches of the Pont Saint-Michel bridge outside, integrating the interior with the exterior.
Interior with a Goldfish Bowl, 1914 by Henri Matisse, Le Centre Pompidou

In 1914, Henri Matisse found himself in an apartment at 19 Quai Saint-Michel in Paris, a space below the studio where he had previously worked from 1892 to 1908. The familiar surroundings of this place, with its window overlooking the Seine and the Île de la Cité, provided a comforting return to a view that had previously inspired his work. “Interior with a Goldfish Bowl,” painted that year, immerses the viewer in a world of blues and grays that sharply contrast with the warm glow of the late-day sunlight that bathes the landscape visible through the window. The scene outside seems to permeate the room, blurring the boundary between the interior space and the world beyond. Central to this painting are two vibrant orange-red spots—the goldfish—swimming in a bowl where the transparency of the water merges seamlessly with the window’s glass, cleverly connecting the curved lines of the bowl with the arches of the Pont Saint-Michel outside.

This painting begins a series of four canvases that explore variations on the theme of the artist’s interior and his progression toward abstraction. “Interior with a Goldfish Bowl” emphasizes Matisse’s fascination with windows as connectors of internal and external worlds.

This image is Henri Matisse's painting "Studio, Quai Saint-Michel" from 1916. It shows a somber interior scene with a reclining figure, likely his model Laurette, on a couch with a red patterned cover. The room is defined by dark vertical and horizontal lines, with dark, muted colors. On the left, artworks are faintly visible against the shadowy wall. A large window opens to a view of Paris, with the Palais du Justice and Sainte Chapelle visible in the distance, bathed in a soft lavender hue. The painting captures the blend of the interior studio space with the exterior urban landscape, unified through Matisse's window motif. Shadows on the figure and the wall indicate reworking by the artist, and a propped canvas on a chair suggests the presence of the artist himself. The work is a study in the integration of representational and abstract elements, reflecting the complex relationship between the artist's inner world and the external environment.
Studio, Quai Saint-Michel, 1916 by Henri Matisse, The Phillips Collection

In “Studio, Quai Saint-Michel,” painted in 1916, Henri Matisse presents a scene from the same studio depicted in his earlier work “Interior with a Goldfish Bowl.” Matisse skillfully blends representational and abstract elements to convey the intimate themes of the artist’s studio life. The painting, characterized by a pronounced use of vertical and horizontal lines, offers a glimpse into the Parisian studio at 19 quai Saint-Michel, captured during the somber period of World War I. The artist’s favorite model at the time, Laurette, is depicted reclining on a couch, her form showing evidence of Matisse’s thoughtful revisions.

The exterior view through the studio’s window includes the Palais de Justice and Sainte Chapelle, both subjects of the artist’s reworking, mirroring the creative process that unfolds within the studio walls. The play of light and shadow across the canvas, particularly in the discarded attempts at depicting balcony grillwork, emphasizes Matisse’s experimental approach to capturing space. This painting is one of four related works that explore the artist’s environment and his pictorial inquiries into abstraction. It subtly acknowledges Matisse’s presence through a strategically placed picture propped up on a chair, suggesting an easel. Matisse’s contemplation of the open window as a unifying space is profound; he perceives it as a continuous expanse that seamlessly connects the distant horizon to the immediacy of his workroom, challenging the notion of separate worlds divided by the glass pane.

Matisse’s Illness and the Birth of Cut-Outs

This image showcases "Jazz," the complete set of twenty pochoirs in colors, created by Henri Matisse and published in 1947. The collection features a variety of abstract designs with bold colors and playful forms. Each piece combines bright and contrasting colors with simple, yet expressive, black silhouettes and shapes, often accompanied by handwritten text. The artwork is a mix of dynamic compositions that includes figures, animals, and faces, as well as purely geometric shapes, reflecting Matisse's innovative paper cut-out technique developed during his late creative period.
Jazz, the complete set of twenty pochoirs in colors, 1947, by Henri Matisse, Christie’s

During his struggle with cancer and the resulting surgery that confined him to bed, Henri Matisse began the “Jazz” series, reflecting the vibrancy and resilience of the human spirit.

This series of twenty pochoirs served as a bold reply to his declining health and a continuation of his artistic expression through the innovative medium of papiers découpés. These cut-outs afforded Matisse a way to bridge the gap between his dual identities as a colorist and a draftsman, synthesizing line, form, and color into a unified, expressive dance of cut paper.

This period of convalescence in the late years of Matisse’s life became one of the most prolific, marked by the creation of “Jazz” between 1943 and 1944. Spurred by the encouragement of the publisher Tériade and inspired by themes of the circus, adventure, and memory, Matisse’s work on “Jazz” was both an improvisational act and a structured composition that mirrored the characteristics of the musical genre itself. Published to critical acclaim in 1947, “Jazz” is celebrated for its vivid pochoirs which feature the intense, glowing colors from Matisse’s original gouache-painted paper cut-outs. These pieces stand as a significant milestone in the narrative of modern art and highlight Matisse’s relentless pursuit of creation, undeterred by the challenges of illness.

Financial Situation and Art Sales of Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse’s early days were marked by the all-too-familiar narrative of a talented artist grappling with the dual challenge of earning recognition and achieving financial stability. Matisse’s engagement with the avant-garde circles in Paris won him critical acclaim, yet this did not immediately translate into financial success. To sustain his family and fund his artistic pursuits, he took on various odd jobs, including decorative work on the Grand Palais for the Exposition Universelle in 1900. Meanwhile, his wife Amélie Parayre supported their financial needs by opening a dress shop, underscoring the economic hardships they endured.

The breakthrough in Matisse’s fortunes coincided with the rise of Fauvism around 1905, where his distinctive use of color and form earned him the status of a principal figure in the movement. This period brought a growing number of collectors and art lovers to his exhibitions, notably the Stein family, who became key patrons, providing both financial backing and enhancing his social standing in the art community.

By 1906, Matisse’s financial situation saw a significant turnaround as his work began to garner attention in prominent galleries, and his participation in esteemed art salons such as the Salon des Indépendants and the Salon d’Automne further solidified his burgeoning reputation, leading to increased sales and commissions.

Matisse’s acclaim surged internationally, especially after the New York Armory Show in 1913. Despite mixed reviews, his art gained demand across the globe, which, in turn, brought a more stable and prosperous financial situation. He reaped the rewards of success in the post-World War I era and the 1920s, a period marked by his ability to spend winters on the French Riviera, signifying his financial well-being. His work from this period, “Odalisque with Magnolias,” achieved a record sale of $81 million USD in 2018, confirming its continued prestige as the highest-selling piece among his works to date.

"Odalisque with Magnolias" by Henri Matisse, depicting a reclining female figure on a vibrant green and red patterned divan, adorned with a yellow necklace, against a backdrop of magnolia flowers and a bowl of oranges, Matisse's highest-sold painting.
Odalisque couchée aux magnolias (Odalisque with Magnolias), 1923, by Henri Matisse, Christie’s

In the later years of his career, Matisse’s pioneering use of techniques like the cut-out method kept him at the leading edge of modern art, enhancing both his acclaim and financial achievements. Works such as the “Jazz” series, crafted amidst his battle with illness, consistently achieve sale prices that surpass their initial estimates at auction. For instance, the “Jazz” lot, previously estimated at $400-$600,000 USD, was sold for $630K in 2023.