matisse in the studio

matisse, picasso, braque… we all know and love them. but, have we every sat down to think about what really inspired them? i’m not talking about emotionally or historically (although those are important, too). i’m talking about the actual objects that caught their eye.

to us, a chair is just something to sit on. to matisse, it meant something completely different. through matisse in the studio, an exhibit currently on view at the museum of fine arts boston, we discover the objects that shaped matisse’s life work.

when you know an object profoundly, you are able to portray it with a contour that defines it entirely.

a fragment of a thing could stand just as well for the entirety of it.

i don’t want to spoil the exhibit, so i’ll just quickly run through some of my favorite pieces and snippets i gathered when i visited a few weeks ago. 


  • the exhibit begins with two chocolate (or coffee) makers, which have quite a unique story of their own. both were gifts obtained at very different points in matisse’s life. the large one is celebratory – a gift when he wed anna heloise. the small one is a little more melancholy – a gift that was given to him during the time of his divorce.


  • this painting was bought by matisse’s rival/friend, pablo picasso. isn’t that neat?


  • whenever he traveled or lived away from his studio in paris, matisse would have his objects shipped to him. the pewter jug, which is the star of this image, is in a picture within a picture. it’s one of matisse’s devices “to remind us that art is made up of different levels of representation.” (quote taken from the exhibit). 
  • avant garde artists, like matisse, admired african art for its emotional authenticity. just like paul gaugin a few years prior, they understood the simplicity and sexual freedom those cultures offered. this small african sculpture was purchased by matisse as he was on his way to meet picasso for dinner. i guess you can say he really did “bring something to the table” that night. 😉


  • to matissee, his objects and textiles had distinct personalities and characteristics. so, it’s no surprise that faces (with actual personalities) also interested him. he enjoyed making portraits of his daughter marguerite since she was young. however, in some of his later work, you’ll notice she is always wearing a chocker. while it was the style, just as it is today, she wore it particularly to hide a tracheotomy scar.


  • however, it seems he didn’t care so much about his own facial features. throughout his lifetime, matisse only every made four self portraits.
  • in painting before his time, the human figure was always the visual center of an artwork. here, matisse challenges that by including very detailed and colorful textiles in the background. for example, the charcoal heater in the first image mirrors the models grey culottes – making it hard for the eye to distinguish which “object” is of more importance.
  • his cut-outs are amongst some of his most famous pieces. however, not many know the reason behind them. during what he calls his “second life”, after his fight with stomach cancer, he became immobile and was unable to draw like he used to. so, he moved on to cutting out pieces of paper and expressing himself through the bright colors and fun shapes.


  • the vence chapel or the matisse chapel, as some call it, was matisse’s “masterpiece”. he began to design the chapel at age 77 and spent four years making it perfect with stained glass windows, furniture, and even the designs for the priests’ robes.

a drawing must have an expansive force which gives life to the things around it.

the exhibit is long, particularly if you read every single piece like i did. so, i suggest going when you have a lot of time on your hand and when the mfa isn’t so packed.

have you visited the exhibit? what was your favorite object/painting pair? 


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