Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

Open Window by Henry Matisse, A Closer Look at His Colorful Oeuvre

Open Window by Henry Matisse

Henri Matisse’s Open Window is a riotous explosion of color, showcasing the artist’s fauvist style. Open Window shows us Matisse’s view from his hotel room in Collioure, France, and although the subject matter is conventional, Matisse’s representation is anything but. Singulart will explore the influence of the fauvist movement on Matisse’s work, as well as analyzing the techniques that caused Open Window to be one of Matisse’s most celebrated paintings. 

Open Window and The Life of Henri Matisse 

Henri Matisse was born in Northern France on December 31, 1869. Although he originally studied to become a lawyer, a foray into painting while he was struck with appendicitis brought him “a kind of paradise” and he abandoned law school to enroll at the Académie Julian in 1891.

Under the tutelage of William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Gustave Moreau, Matisse gained experience in painting traditional still life and landscape works. However, his direction changed completely after meeting the Australian painter John Russell in 1896. Russell introduced Matisse to the impressionist movement, in particular the works of Vincent van Gogh. Matisse credited Russell with “explain[ing] color theory to me.”

Throughout his career Matisse was deeply in awe of other artists, going into debt buying artworks he found inspiring. He obtained Cézanne’s piece Three Bathers, which was hugely influential on his work in sense of pictorial structure and color. 

 Paul Cézanne, Three Bathers, 1879-1882. A possible inspiration for Open Window.
Paul Cézanne, Three Bathers, 1879-1882.

While Matisse was responsible for the fauve movement, an offshoot of abstract art, by 1907 – his mature period – he was no longer working in this style, instead using simplified shapes and flat planes of color. World War I greatly influenced his works from 1911 to 1916, leading him to use a muted color palette rather than the bright colors he was famous for. After a creative block left him struggling and frustrated, Matisse was commissioned to paint a mural, The Dance II, for the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, which was completed in 1933. 

Matisse chose to stay in Paris during WWII, writing in a letter to his son Pierre, “If everyone who has any value leaves France, what remains of France?” During the Nazi occupation Matisse was still permitted to exhibit his work, though he was forced to sign an oath swearing his ‘Aryan’ status. 

Matisse was diagnosed with duodenal cancer in 1941. Following complications from surgery, he began to create pieces with paper cut outs, or decoupage, which for Matisse represented the synthesis of drawing and painting. Although he had used the technique while creating decor for the opera Le chant du rossignol, it was the pieces created for his book Jazz where he truly began to explore the cut-outs as an art form. 

In 1954 Matisse died of a heart attack, and was buried in the cemetery Monastére Notre Dame de Cimiez. 

Open Window and the Fauvist Movement

While there were only three exhibitions showcasing the fauvism movement, it proved to be an important precursor to cubism and expressionism. The name was coined by critic Louis Vauxcelle upon viewing the 1905 Salon d’Automne, stating that the proximity of a traditional Italian bust next to the brightly colored paintings on show was “Donatello parmi les fauves” (Donatello among the wild beasts). As with the impressionists, a name that was intended to be derogatory was adopted by the artists. 

Matisse is generally considered to be the father of fauvism, though the movement was heavily inspired by the teachings of Moreau. The movement is defined by the artists’ use of intense color and painterly qualities over the realism portrayed in other artworks of the period. Similarly to the impressionists, fauvists aimed to evoke emotion through their work, which they did through their liberal use of color. The artists freed color from only being used in a representational way, instead using it as an independent element to project a certain mood. 

Although the paintings were quite traditional in their subject matter, the works still caused a stir when exhibited at the Salon D’Automne. Critic Camille Mauclair wrote that “A pot of paint has been thrown in the face of the public.” It was Matisse who garnered the most derision and contempt for his pieces, with Nu Bleu being burned in effigy in Chicago in 1913. 

The movement had all but died out by 1910, but its lasting impact can be seen in the following cubism and expressionist movements. 

The importance of Open Window 

Open Window was first exhibited at the Salon d’Automne of 1905, and is considered one of the most important works showcasing the fauve style. Although the subject of the artwork can be considered quite traditional – an open window, surrounded by plants, showing boats floating on a lake – it is Matisse’s use of color which sets the painting apart from the more realistic depictions more commonly found in this time period. Matisse stated, “When I put a green, it is not the grass. When I put a blue, it is not the sky.”

Henri Matisse, Open Window, 1905.
Henri Matisse, Open Window, 1905.

It is clear what we are viewing, but it is almost surreal with the use of a bright color palette. The vivid colors and thick lines portray an almost abstract form. Matisse veers away from chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark that suggests volume and depth in a painting. In Open Window, Matisse creates contrast with his palette – the blue hulls of the boats with their orange masts, the red blossoms among the green foliage of the plants on the windowsill, and the blue-green and fuchsia reflections in the window. 

The bold use of colors is contrasted by the minimal detail in the work. He wrote “We move towards serenity through the simplification of ideas and form… Details lessen the purity of lines, they harm the emotional intensity, and we choose to reject them. It is a question of learning – and perhaps relearning the ‘handwriting’ of lines. The aim of painting is not to reflect history, because this can be found in books. We have a higher conception. Through it, the artist expresses his inner vision.” Each section of the artwork is created with different brushstrokes, causing the painting to have a vibrant energy and a sense of spontaneity.   

The Legacy of Matisse’s work 

Matisse has been named as an influence by a number of artists including Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland. He had a particular influence on abstract expressionists, who were inspired by his use of color and the ways that Matisse created the illusion of space in his work. 

Do you love Matisse’s paintings? See similar artwork by contemporary artists in the official Inspired by Matisse collection on Singulart.

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