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The Joy of Life: Matisse’s Early Modern Masterpiece

Henri Matisse’s The Joy of Life (1905-1906) is a radical Fauvist work that placed him as one of the leaders of early modernism, with its expressive use of color, fluid lines and distorted perspective. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look at the masterpiece, its Fauvist style and its influence on modernism. 

Who was Henri Matisse? 

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a French artist, renowned as a draughtsman, printmaker, sculptor and painter. Matisse was born in Northern France and was the oldest son of a wealthy grain merchant. He grew up in Picardie and in 1887 moved to Paris to study law and worked as a court administrator in Le Cateau-Cambresis. He began to paint in 1889 after his mother bought him art supplies to entertain him while he was recovering from appendicitis. Matisse described the experience of painting as “a kind of paradise” and it was then that he decided to become an artist. Matisse studied at the Academie Julian in Paris from 1891 and was a student of Bouguereau and Moreau. His early works were traditional still lifes, influenced by a wide range of artists, from Manet to Chardin. In 1896, Matisse, an unknown student at the time, was introduced to Impressionism and the work of Van Gogh, by the Australian painter John Russell, who also taught him about color theory which had a profound effect on the development of Matisse’s style. 

Matisse had a daughter with his model Caroline Joblau in 1894 and in 1898 he married Amelie Noelie Parayre with whom he raised Marguerite and their own two sons. The same year as his marriage, Matisse traveled to London and Corsica and worked extensively. He was also an avid collector of other artists’ works and his personal collection included pieces by Rodin, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne

Matisse was one of the leaders of the Fauvist movement alongside André Derain. As he developed this neo-impressionist, expressive style, Matisse’s success grew and his reputation spread. In 1905, he travelled to the South to work with Derain in Collioure and his work began to embrace flat shapes, controlled lines and a more fluid brushstroke. In the same year he exhibited with the Fauves at the Salon d’Automne. The Fauvist movement was controversial and was met with strong reactions. At the Armory Show in Chicago in 1913, Matisse’s painting Nu bleu was burned. Despite dividing opinions at the time, today most of what are considered to be Matisse’s great masterpieces were painted during his Fauvist period. 

Henri Matisse

In 1917, Matisse moved to the French Riviera were his style softened, in line with the Post-War Neoclassical trend. This period of Matisse’s work is characterized by the theme of the oriental odalisque. After surgery for abdominal cancer in 1941, Matisse was left unable to walk or stand which significantly hindered his creative process. He began to create large scale paper cut-out collages with the help of his assistants. His most famous cut-out work was the book Jazz, created in 1943. In 1948, Matisse applied this technique to the design of the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence. Matisse died of a heart attack in 1954, aged 84. 

What’s happening in The Joy of Life? 

Matisse’s monumental Fauvist masterpiece The Joy of Life secured him a place as one of the masters of early modernism alongside his rival, Pablo Picasso. The Joy of Life was first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1906 where it caused great controversy and outrage. 

The Joy of Life depicts the relatively traditional subject of the Arcadian landscape, on the large scale of 176.5 x 240.7 cm. However, it was not the subject matter that was controversial but rather its style. Matisse portrays an imaginary landscape, that he based off his studies made in the South of France. In amongst the trees and by the sea, are sensual nude figures, a group in the midground link hands in a similar pose to his 1910 work Dance, in the foreground figures embrace, lounge and play music. The Joy of Life combines a variety of influences, from Ingres’ odalisques to Cezanne’s use of the landscape as a stage. 

The Joy of Life (1905-1906)

The Joy of Life epitomizes Fauvism, as Matisse combines the sensuality of the figures with fluid lines and an expressive use of vibrant, non-natural color. It was his use of color, from the bright oranges, blues, yellows and greens that most perturbed the audiences of 1906. Matisse also played with the perspective of the composition, distorting the figures and their anatomies in a radical accentuation of the sensuality and theme of joy that pervades the painting. 

The Joy of Life was bought by Gertrude and Leo Stein, two siblings from a wealthy American expatriate family who were patrons of the avant-garde in Paris at the time. Gertrude Stein displayed The Joy of Life in their apartment in Paris, where artists and intellectuals including Matisse, Apollinaire and Picasso came together for Stein’s salons. Consequently, many artists came into contact with The Joy of Life and it had a profound influence on the development of modern art, inspiring Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and making it one of the most influential works of early modernism. Gertrude Stein described the work, stating: “Matisse had painted Le Bonheur de Vivre and had created a new formula for color that would leave its mark on every painter of the period.”

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