Beastly Color! "Les Fauves" (Wild Beasts).

Henri Matisse The Green Stripe 1905
oil and tempera on canvas
Form: Oil on canvas, broad strokes of thick impastos, using non- local color, and visible brush strokes. Vivid, saturated colors. "He has used color alone to describe the image. Her oval face is bisected with a slash of green and her coiffure, purpled and top-knotted, juts against a frame of three jostling colors. Her right side repeats the vividness of the intrusive green; on her left, the mauve and orange echo the colors of her dress. This is Matisse's version of the dress, his creative essay in harmony." (

Iconography: Here the subject matter wasn't so much his wife as it was playing eith color. With this he's moving away from representation and is now playing with the idea of color. "The green stripe down the center of Amélie Matisse's face acts as an artificial shadow line and divides the face in the conventional portraiture style, with a light and a dark side, Matisse divides the face chromatically, with a cool and warm side. The left side of the face seems to echo the green in the picture's right, the corresponding is true for the right side of the face, where the pink responds to the orange on the left. The natural light is translated directly into colors and the highly visible brush strokes add to the sense of artistic drama."

Context: "Matisse was born the son of a middle-class family, he studied and began to practice law. In 1890, however, while recovering slowly from an attack of appendicitis, he became intrigued by the practice of painting. In 1892, having given up his law career, he went to Paris to study art formally. His first teachers were academically trained and relatively conservative; Matisse's own early style was a conventional form of naturalism, and he made many copies after the old masters. He also studied more contemporary art, especially that of the impressionists, and he began to experiment, earning a reputation as a rebellious member of his studio classes. Matisse's true artistic liberation, in terms of the use of color to render forms and organize spatial planes, came about first through the influence of the French painters Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne and the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, whose work he studied closely beginning about 1899. Then, in 1903 and 1904, Matisse encountered the pointillist painting of Henri Edmond Cross and Paul Signac. Cross and Signac were experimenting with juxtaposing small strokes (often dots or “points”) of pure pigment to create the strongest visual vibration of intense color. Matisse adopted their technique and modified it repeatedly, using broader strokes. By 1905 he had produced some of the boldest color images ever created,  including a striking picture of his wife, Green Stripe (Madame Matisse) (1905, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen). The title refers to a broad stroke of brilliant green that defines Madame Matisse's brow and nose. In the same year Matisse exhibited this and similar paintings along with works by his artist companions, including Andre Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck. Together, the group was dubbed les fauves (literally, “the wild beasts”) because of the extremes of emotionalism in which they seemed to have indulged, their use of vivid colors, and their distortion of shapes."
"What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter - a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue."~Henri Matisse


Matisse Woman with the Hat 1905
oil/canvas 31.75"x 23.5" SF MOMA
Form: Oil on canvas, broad strokes of thick impastos, using non- local color, and visible brush strokes. Vivid, saturated colors. He used bright, saturated analogous colors to create the lights and darks, instead of traditional skin tones. The hat itself is wild and abstract looking, perched precariously atop her head. The composition is symmetrical, she looks directly over her shoulder at the viewer from the center of the canvas. "Brisk strokes of colour--blues, greens, and reds--form an energetic, expressive view of the woman. As always in Matisse's Fauve style, his painting is ruled by his intuitive sense of formal order". (

Iconography: "The painting exemplifies the fundamental characteristics of fauvism with its choice of subject (a portrait), energetic paint strokes, and use of unnatural colors. Madame Matisse’s dress, skin, and feathered hat — as well as the background — are all portrayed with unrealistic shades of vivid colors applied with active brushwork." ( The portrait wasn't made for just a portraits sake. It was used as a "pretext for pictorial innovation sometimes leading toward pure abstraction".

Context: "Matisse's portraits are almost always of family, or of friends - people in his circle, painters, painters wives, musicians, actresses, collectors who had become friends. There are very few commissioned portraits. And as to his models, it is only occasionally that he made portraits of them. The family, Mme Matisse and Marguerite in particular, are like hard driven laboratory assistants. During the crucial years 1905/6 his wife is the model for the paintings in which he summarized the Fauve style, The Hat and The Green Stripe. And it is she again who sits through endless sittings for the great portrait that is his major response to cubism. These paintings mark radical turning points. She had supported him through thick and thin. These sittings which stretched her nerves to breaking point, and the results of which brought down storms of ridicule from conservative critics and the ardent support of critics like Appolinaire, were strenuous tests of her support and understanding." 
(Full text at

Van Gogh Self-Portait September 1889
oil/canvas 65"x54"cm 
Saint-Rémy, Paris
Musèe d'Orsay
Form: Oil on canvas. Painting done with thick impastos of paint in a very 'painterly' manner, which means that the brush stroke is visible. This piece was done in hues of blues, greens, and red. The composition is symmetrical, and the colors used are non-local.

Iconography:  "The compulsive, restless alluvia ornament of the background, recalling the work of mental patients, is for some physicians an evidence that the painting was done in a psychotic state. But the self-image of the painter shows a masterly control and power of observation, a mind perfectly capable of integrating the elements of its chosen activity. The background reminds us of the rhythms of The Starry Night, which the portrait resembles also in the dominating bluish tone of the work. The flowing, pulsing forms of the background, schemata of sustained excitement, are not just ornament, although related to the undulant forms of the decorative art of the 1890's; they are unconfined by a fixed rhythm or pattern and are a means of intensity, rather, an overflow of the artist's feelings to his surroundings. Beside the powerful modeling of the head and bust, so compact and weighty, the wall pattern appears a pale, shallow ornament. Yet the same rhythms occur in the figure and even in the head, which are painted in similar close packed, coiling, and wavy lines. As we shift our attention from the man to his surroundings and back again, the analogies are multiplied; the nodal points, or centres, in the background ornament begin to resemble more the eyes and ear and buttons of the figure. In all this turmoil and congested eddying motion, we sense the extraordinary firmness of the painter's hand. The acute contrasts of the reddish beard and the surrounding blues and greens, the probing draughtsmanship, the liveness of the tense features, the perfectly ordered play of breaks, variations, and continuities, the very stable proportioning of the areas of the work - all these point to a superior mind, however disturbed and apprehensive the artist's feelings." 

Context: Vincent VanGogh is famous for his self portraits, he painted 24 during a two year stay in paris 1886-88. . He has done many over the years, all chronicling his unstable state of mind and descent into madness and depression. Van Gogh, as a mentally disturbed individual, seemed committed to painting the world the way that he experienced it in his mind, not the way it truly was. His self portraits are often disturbing and bizarre, and share a glimpse into his own distorted self perception. "He sold only one painting during his lifetime (Red Vineyard at Arles; Pushkin Museum, Moscow), and was little known to the art world at the time of his death, but his fame grew rapidly thereafter. His influence on Expressionism, Fauvism and early abstraction was enormous, and it can be seen in many other aspects of 20th-century art. His stormy and dramatic life and his unswerving devotion to his ideals have made him one of the great cultural heroes of modern times, providing the most auspicious material for the 20th-century vogue in romanticized psychological biography." (



Matisse, Harmony in Red (La Desserte), 1908
Oil on canvas 180 x 200 cm The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Form: This painting is done with a very saturated color-pallete, it has a flattened picture plane and little attention is paid to concepts of proportion or depth. Has a feel of graphic design.

Iconography: Matisse was interested in making things 'happy'. He wanted his paintings to show the joy he felt for life, so they are often whimsical and filled with patterns and scenes of everyday life, the thing that he enjoyed the most. "Matisse also limits his perspective in this work. He makes elisions in the line around the table, frames the chair, the window, and the little house in an innovative manner by cutting them off, and encloses two of the planes, the green and the blue in a window." (

Context: Matisse was often sick at various times throughout his career, but it did not seem to dampen his passion for creating. This painting started out as 'Harmony in Green', then it became 'Harmony in Blue'. The canvas was actually painted entirely blue to begin with, and then he decided it was better as 'Harmony in Red'. This may be a motivating factor in the choice of red used, as it had to cover a whole lot of blue without it peeking through.As he gets older, his works simplify. 

Matisse, The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown,
Plate V from the Jazz series, 1947
Color pochoir. 25 5/8 x 16 9/16 in. (65 x 42 cm)
Form: An early form of stencil, these images are actually cut-out shapes. The colorful cut-out shapes known as pochoir.

Iconography: "The two principal themes to be found in Jazz are the noise and excitement of the circus (the series was originally named Le Cirque, but Matisse changed it before publication) and the syncopated rhythms of  popular jazz music. In the The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown the horse is the only distinct figure; the equestrienne is implied by her fan shaped skirt, overlapping the horse's flank, and the clown by his vibrant costume in green, black, and yellow." (

Context: "Matisse's twenty cut-outs called Jazz, depicting circus scenes, folklore subjects, life in Parisian  music halls, and the artist's own travel experiences. It was in the early 1940s, when he was confined to his bed for most of the day, that Matisse began to pursue the cut-out as an art form. His assistants painted opaque watercolor onto white sheets of paper, which Matisse in turn cut into a variety of shapes, often retaining both the primary form (the "positive") and the cut-away piece (the  "negative"), arranging them  in vibrant juxtapositions. He pinned and re-pinned the pieces to the wall of his studio until he was finally satisfied with the overall harmony of the composition."
( Matisse is once again  focusing on what he observes, what is lighthearted, what makes him feel "happy." He is also going beyond painting and pioneering new ways to create his images.

Matisse Icarus 1947
Form: The colorful cut-out shapes known as pochoir. Gouche on paper. It was also screen printed and used as an illustration for a book entitled "Jazz". 

Iconography: "In his Jazz series, Matisse used prepared, gouache-painted papers of various vibrant colors to compose collages that related to his memories of the circus, popular stories, myths and journeys he took. They are very personal expressions of his imagination, feelings, and inspirations." ( 

Context: The story of Icarus is an old one, in which a man and his son wanting to fly to escape a certain doom,  fashions wings for his son and his self with wax and feathers. The father warns him not to fly too close to the son. But Icarus, becoming  too confident and perhaps rebellious, flies to close to the sun, the wax melts, the wings fall apart, and he falls to the ground far below. Here, Matisse has Icarus falling against a night sky filled with stars, and the figure looks more joyful than death bound. This may have been Matisse's' way of changing the story to make the context one of happiness and salvation rather than death and defeat. Being confined to his bed did little to dampen his love for life or the energy of social events such as the circus or musical performances. Matisse was determined to not allow politics or social mores affect the message of his work. "Like many artists of his time, Matisse took an active interest in creating artwork to accompany written texts. The resulting illustrated books are works of art in their own right and exemplify his style. Matisse's Jazz, printed in 1947, is such a book."