All Henri Matisse artwork brings joy and pleasure to anyone lucky enough to view it. Perhaps no other artwork expresses such pure delight than The Joy of Life, however.
Painted between October 1905 and March 1906, The Joy of Life is one of the most famous Matisse paintings. Alongside Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, it’s widely lauded as one of the most beautiful (and joyful) works of modernist art ever created.
At over 176 by 240 centimeters, it’s an exceptionally large artwork. First exhibited at the 1906 Paris Salon des Indépendants, its monumental size and vivid color caused significant scandal.
In addition, Matisse’s composition ignored traditional pictorial perspective. Indeed, the figures seem to almost float in a two-dimensional plane. They recline, relax and cavort amidst the lurid jungle landscape.
Critics were appalled by the artwork’s apparent lack of theme and stylistic consistency. One reviewer even went so far as to call it the “end of French painting”.
Even fellow artists were of the same opinion. Notably, the French Pointillist Paul Signac commented that Matisse’s artwork had “gone to the dogs”. The artist also critiqued the “strange characters” as well as the “disgusting” flatness of Matisse’s coloring.
Despite this, other artists found the painting inspirational. Picasso (attempting to outdo Matisse) created Les Demoiselles D’Avignon in response. From the 1920s onwards, the public at large came to appreciate the painting as well.
Known in French as “Le Bonheur de Vivre”, the painting depicts men and women embracing, dancing and playing music amidst a luminous dream-like scene.
Whilst tracing artistic links explains Matisse’s motivations to some extent, he primarily aimed to create a joyful artwork.
Art historians suggest possible links to Agostino Carracci’s Love in the Golden Age engraving. This work, in turn, copied a sixteenth century painting of the same name, created by Paolo Fiammingo.
Similarities between these works and Henri Matisse’s The Joy of Life include the bucolic pastoral setting combined with a strong fantasy element. Even more significant however, is the compositional device of a circle of dancers in the background.
Transfixed by this compositional element, Matisse not only featured dancers in The Joy of Life, but also in another masterpiece The Dance (1909-10).
The Joy of Life is currently owned by the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Foundation exhibits this artwork alongside several other of the Fauves paintings.
For Henri Matisse, Fauvism was an integral influence. He established the movement alongside André Derain. The Fauves treated color and artistic self-expression as paramount. These aspects took precedence over traditional figurative representation and compositional elements.
As an extreme progression of the Post-Impressionist movement (exemplified by Vincent Van Gogh), the Fauves encountered significant art-world hostility. The Joy of Life was Matisse’s response to a particularly hostile critical reaction at the previous Salon d’Automne in 1905.
Despite its prominence at the time (and to Matisse), Le Bonheur de Vivre is relatively little-known amongst Matisse artworks. This is primarily due to the Barnes Foundation not allowing color reproductions for many years, as well as the gallery’s comparatively suburban location.
Henri-Emile-Benoit Matisse was born in Picardy, France, in 1869 into a wealthy family.
In 1889, whilst Matisse was recovering from an operation his mother provided him with some art materials. It was during this period that he decided he wanted to be an artist, thereby greatly disappointing his Grain Merchant father.
Matisse studied at the Academy Julien as a student of William-Adolphe Bouguereau where he became acquainted with John Russell, the Australian artist. It was Russell who introduced him to Impressionism and the art of Vincent van Gogh.
Upon the advice of Pissarro, Matisse visited London to learn more about the artist Joseph William Mallord Turner. Upon his return to Paris he painted with Albert Marquet and Andre Derain and it was with Derain that Matisse formed Les Fauves or the "The Wild Beasts" as they became known. The name was derived from a derogatory comment by a French art critic who implied that their art consisted of primitive bold clashing colors.
The Fauve Art Movement was brief but influential in the history of art, and it only influenced Matisse' paintings for a short time. However, his use of bright colors and over-emphasized form prevailed throughout his artistic life.
Henri Matisse is recognized as one of the greatest influences on modern art. He was a prolific artist and the diversity of his work is matched only by that of Picasso. His incredible 65 year career as an artist encompassed drawing, painting, and sculpture and paper cut-outs.
Le Bonheur de Vivre, or Joy of Life was painted in c1905 and was shown at the 1906 Exhibition Salon des Artistes Independants. It is the greatest of Matisse' Les Fauve paintings, capturing a pastoral scene in harmony with nature.
Red Room aka Harmony in Red is another fauve painting which was derided when it was exhibited at the Salon Automne. However, is now considered by Matisse art lovers as one of his finest paintings.
In 1904 Matisse was staying in Saint-Tropez as the house-guest of Paul Signac and there he painted Luxe Calme et Volupte. This early Matisse Pontillism Movement painting was inspired by Georges Seurat who devised the technique of painting with small dots of color to form an image.
The Dance 1910 was commissioned by Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin and subsequently bequeathed to the Hermitage Museum St Petersburg, where it remains and forms part of their permanent collection. An earlier version with a palette of lighter colors, Dance 1 1909 is held by MoMa.
Matisse worked intermittently on Bathers by a River 1917 over an 8 year period. It is considered an important painting as it harks back to Cubism an art movement which Matisse had previously rejected.
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