Henri Matisse (January 2022)

Portrait of Henri Matisse standing at his easel
Portrait of Henri Matisse standing at his easel via Alvin Langdon Coburn Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Matiesse painted Le Bonheur de vivre, also called The Joy of Life, between October 1905 and March 1906. His uninhibited use of color was labeled fauvism from the French word for ‘wild beast’, using color arbitrarily and not based on an object’s natural appearance. When Henri Matisse sent “Le Bonheur de vivre” to the 1906 Salon in Paris, he made it clear that the painting was meant to be a major statement—a “masterpiece.” It was the only painting he sent, and was by far the largest and most ambitious one he had ever painted.

The Joy of Life by Henri Matisse.
The Joy of Life by Henri Matisse. Image in public domain

He had worked on this imposing pastoral scene for six months and had done numerous studies for it—drawings, watercolors and oil sketches. He had even prepared a full-size drawing. The response is not what he expected. It was greeted with mockery and indignation.

In this painting, Matiesse imagines an earthly paradise in which existence is devoted to sensual pleasures: music, dance and love. We see nude figures recline luxuriously in the landscape, some amorous couples, while others dance in a circle (a motif that reoccurs in Matiesse’s work). Two figures play the pipes, one lying casually in the foreground and another standing back with goats (some cave-like drawings) possibly alluding to the Greek God Pan. The work draws on a mythical Golden Age and a dream of the classical Acadia (From Greek mythology, “Golden Age” denotes a period of primordial peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During this age peace and harmony prevailed, people did not have to work to feed themselves, for the earth provided food in abundance. They lived to a very old age with a youthful appearance, eventually dying peacefully, with spirits living on as “guardians”). Matiesse took a traditional subject and made it something of his own.

Matiesse was born in 1869 in the north of France in a town famous for its luxury fabrics. Born into generations of weavers, this early exposure to fabrics would shape his visual language. He collected carpets and cloth from around the world which added to the sense of color and pattern that would appear in his works.

So powerful is the visceral effect of this painting, that when you stand before it you can easily comprehend why critics were so hostile toward it when it was first shown, and why the collectors Gertrude and Leo Stein reserved judgment for a full week before they decided to buy it. Leo then declaring it “the most important painting done in our time.” Even now, a century after it was created, “Le Bonheur de vivre” remains a surprisingly original and provocative picture—as fresh, as exhilarating and as disturbing today as it was a hundred years ago.


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