Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River marks a moment of stylistic transition and demonstrates his exploration of Cubism. In this article, Singulart discusses Bathers by a River in the context of Matisse’s life and the development of his style.
Who was Henri Matisse?
Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a French artist, renowned as a draftsman, 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-Cambrésis. 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 his daughter Marguerite and their own two sons. The same year as his marriage, Matisse traveled to London and Corsica and worked profusely. 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 traveled 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.
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 Bathers by a River?
Matisse considered Bathers by a River to be one of the most “pivotal” works of his career as it is a work which had a profound effect on the development of his style. It began as a commission by the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin in 1909, for two large canvases for his home in Moscow. Matisse created three pastoral paintings, of which Schukin purchased two on the theme of dance and music. Matisse returned to the rejected image four years later and altered it in a new, experimental Cubist style. Consequently, he divided the composition into vertical panels of color, fragmented the figures and made them more column-like and their faces more oval, emphasizing the geometry of the figures. In the center of the canvas, a white snake creates a fluid vertical in the black central panel which, combined with the figures and the landscape, suggests biblical symbolism that Matisse however deliberately left vague and uncertain. The restricted color palette of greens, blues, grays, pinks and black, is unusual for Matisse and adds a more somber tone to his normally joyous and exuberant works. This combination of abstract and figurative in Bathers by a River is one of the reasons for the “pivotal” nature of this work.