Henri Matisse sought to produce "an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be for every mental worker" (Matisse, Notes 42). Upon reading these words written by Matisse, it became nearly a fashion for art critics of his time to disparage Matisse's works as an art "of elegant hedonism," a condemnation which "for years… hindered appreciation and understanding of…Matisse" (Schneider 495). Yet, Matisse's genius is found in his ability to apply color to create paintings with unprecedented, peaceful elegance; he does not paint with simple superficiality or ostentation. How does Matisse use color to achieve this serenity in his paintings?
Matisse did not want to paint "passion bursting from a human face or… violent movement" (Matisse, Notes 38). In his art, the demeanor of the subjects and the overall bearing of the painting is one of harmony and serenity. Pierre Schneider proposes that Matisse expresses this feeling through an "oneiric" use of color (513). Furthermore, Schneider suggests that the "best approach [to understand how Matisse achieves this effect through color] is to concentrate on the artist's treatment of flowers" (513). Schneider goes on to observe that to create a feeling of serenity, Matisse "ton[ed] down the intensity of pure colors" in the flowers or anemones (513). Using this technique, which Schneider terms "anemonism," Matisse's moderation and softening of color in the anemones actually "extends to the motif itself" (513). Schneider recognizes this as something new to Matisse's art after 1921, as seen in Anemones and Chinese Vase (1922). He further explains that Matisse's work exhibits restrained colors in the anemones that are reflected in the overall tones of the painting. The subdued colors of the petals of the anemone in the foreground meld with the pastel reds, blues, and yellows of the background in a manner that exudes serenity and peacefulness. The soft colors that compose the painting help Matisse achieve "a work of art [that is] harmonious in its entirety" (Matisse, Notes 38). Anemonism, as proposed by Pierre Schneider, works exquisitely to explain how color infuses a sense of tranquility in Matisse's paintings during the 1920s, the time during which Anemones and Chinese Vase, along with a cohort of other works like it, was painted. But Schneider's term anemonism does not explain Matisse's work during the 1930s and 1940s, when his art still uses anemones and elicits a feeling of tranquility, yet no longer achieves this effect through employing soft and muted colors.
Purple Robe and Anemones (1937) shows a definite change from the subdued colors of the twenties to the bolder, brighter colors characteristic of Matisse's work during the thirties and forties. Bright bursts of color explode out from the anemones. Vibrant and pure red, purple, and white petals splash the center of the painting. This brilliance of color is repeated throughout the work. In the left portion of the wall, bright yellow is striped with red, while green appears in several elements, specifically the stems of the anemones, the pedestal, and the skirt of the woman. The woman, too, dons color with a radiant purple robe. The painting emanates vivacity, yet the arrangement of these bold colors still manages peacefulness, balance, and harmony. One must look at the choice and placement of these brilliant colors in order to further understand how Matisse uses them to achieve serenity in some of his later art.
Instead of using the muted tones and soft colors characteristic of Schneider's anemonism, Matisse evolves into choosing bright, vibrant colors in order to produce harmony in his art. Nevertheless, more important than the brilliance of the colors is the simplicity of the tones in his paintings. For example, the main colors Matisse uses in Purple Robe and Anemones are basic: red, green, white, yellow, and purple, with little variation. Matisse is able to skillfully use these colors to produce harmony throughout his paintings. In contrast, other painters such as Van Gogh use similar bright, bold colors that instead produce dissonance within some of their work. Van Gogh's Coal Barges (1888), Café Terrace on the Place du Forum (1888), and Night Café are examples of his works that exhibit this effect. In Night Café, Van Gogh tries "to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green…. Everywhere there is a clash and contrast of the most alien reds and greens" (Sayre 41). Van Gogh uses this visual imbalance in Night Café to achieve his desired effect. Broad red and green stripes, which make up the wall and the ceiling respectively, predominate in the upper half of the work, making this part of the painting visually heavy. He employs little repetition of these bright colors throughout the lower half, which remains a light amalgamation of colors. Thus, through a visually imbalanced painting, Van Gogh is able to create uneasiness within the viewer.
Like Van Gogh, Matisse uses bright colors; however, instead of painting contrasting colors that sit predominately in one area of the painting, Matisse applies "repetition… to organize, or order the work" (Sayre 48). In Purple Robe and Anemones, the bright colors of the anemone are repeated throughout the painting. The vivid red that composes the flowers is echoed in both halves of the couch and also in the stripes of the wall. The brilliant purple of the petals is the same tone of that used in the purple robe. The snow white purity of some of the anemones is also apparent in the blouse of the woman. The technique used in Purple Robe and Anemones, while not representative of all of Matisse's later work, is repeated in other Matisse paintings after the 1920s. Striped Robe, Fruit, and Anemones (1940) is another of Matisse's later paintings exemplifying his use of bold, bright colors in the anemones and in the painting as a whole to achieve a peaceful ambiance. Red, blue, and green forming the anemones are reflected within the red tablecloth and the strong strokes of the green plant and blue background. Matisse's reds and blues in the woman's wide-sleeved robe are expressed in vibrant stripes that are repeated within the garment and correspond to colors of the anemones. Once again as in Purple Robe and Anemones, the repetition of basic colors creates a work of balance and harmony. Therefore, in his work of the 1930s and beyond, Matisse achieves the opposite effect seen in Van Gogh's Night Café, creating visually balanced art, leaving the viewer with a sensation of concordance and harmony.
Throughout Matisse's paintings, he looks to achieve visual balance and equality in order to create works of art that convey serenity. While Matisse's paintings in the 1920s achieve serenity through anemonism or the use of softer, muted tones, after the 1920s he is able to attain this same effect through a repetition of brighter colors in a fashion that can aptly be called "neo-anemonism." Therefore, if one is to use the definition of anemonism proposed by Schneider, it must be qualified to specifically encompass Matisse's art during the 1920s, instead of ubiquitously including all of Matisse's work during the last half of his career. Neo-anemonism then should be used to define Matisse's new and later experimentation with the repetition of pure, bold color.
Matisse's shift from anemonism to neo-anemonism can be explained as a change from reserved and almost cautious post World War I art to a radically different form of art which included the understanding that "color exists in itself, possessing its own beauty" (Matisse, Path 177). The post World War I era was, as Schneider quotes from Roger Bissiére, "a period in the history of art when, after having put in a great deal of effort and undergone unbelievable upheavals, our people desires [sic] peace and wants [sic] to take stock of the treasures that have been amassed" (502). Matisse's art during this time reflected this sentiment. He was not experimental; instead, he favored a more traditional and subdued approach toward color in his artwork as seen in Anemones and Chinese Vase. Nevertheless, during the 1930s as the post World War I sentiment wore off, Matisse took a different direction in his artistic exploration. He began to realize that unadulterated color - bright and bold basic colors - possess "eloquence even more powerful, more direct when the means are coarser" (Matisse, Path 178). Thus, in Matisse's work of the 1930s and beyond, he attempts to capture the beauty of pure color as seen in Purple Robe and Anemones and Striped Robe, Fruit, and Anemones. Matisse's ability to express serenity through anemonism, and later through neo-anemonism, is part of his professional exploration and evolution. And underlying his lifelong artistic search is the understanding that "in all the tones there must result a living harmony of colors, a harmony analogous to that of a musical composition" (Matisse, Notes 40).
Matisse, Henri. "Notes of a Painter, 1908." Matisse on Art. Ed. Jack Flam. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995. 30-43.
Matisse, Henri. "The Path of Color, 1947." Matisse on Art. Ed. Jack Flam. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995. 177-178.
Sayre M., Henry. Writing About Art. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1989. 24-55.
Schneider, Pierre. Matisse. Trans. Michael Taylor and Bridget Strevens Romer. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1984. 496-521.