The Artist and His Objects: Matisse in His Studio

Matisse in studio

Henri Matisse was inspired by exotic art, but also by his own everyday objects which showed up again and again in his paintings.

I’ve just been to a wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It was called Matisse in the Studio, and it shows how the objects that Matisse surrounded himself with appeared in his art.

Henri Matisse was a collector: He had an array of vases, chairs, carpets, furniture, etc. that found their way into his paintings. Also scattered around his studio were examples of non-western art from which he took inspiration. They weren’t necessarily expensive pieces, but they had a quality that spoke to him. All these items kept the artist company in his studio.

Matisse even took some of them with him when he traveled. When he was away from home in 1920, he wrote a letter to his wife saying that he wasn’t lonely because his objects kept him company. Other times, if he felt that a painting needed one of his beloved possessions, he would have it shipped to him.

Matisse vase

The vase that appears in Safrono Roses at the Window, 1925 which was painted in Nice, France

Actors and Inspiration

Some of Matisse’s items became actors in the little scenes that he created. Chairs, tables, vases, etc. made appearances as themselves: sometimes as the stars and sometimes playing a supporting role.

Other objects, such as works of Asian and African art, became inspirational references. Matisse would study them and translate them into his own artwork. The influence of these pieces can be seen in his changing styles.

Matisse table
The table painted in Yellow Odalisque, 1937

Objects as Actors

“I have worked all my life before the same objects… The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.” -Henri Matisse, 1951

Chocolate pot

One of Matisse’s possessions that appears more than most in his works is the “chocolate pot.” Although it was probably intended for coffee, Matisse must have been like me and preferred a good cup of hot chocolate.

The chocolate pot was a wedding gift when he married Amélie in 1898. It appeared for many years after that in his paintings and seemed to represent his wife. Later, when Amélie ended their marriage of forty-one years, she apparently took the chocolate pot with her and it disappeared from Matisse’s work. But Matisse missed his old pot and found himself a replacement: a similar but smaller chocolate pot that appeared in later works.

Matisse chocolate pot 2
Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot, 190

Rocaille Chair

Henri Matisse felt a strong attachment to the objects that inspired him, even expressing love for one special Rococo style chair. In 1942, when the artist was in his seventies, he was walking by an antique shop in Nice, France when he fell in love… with a chair. He wrote to a friend about it saying, “I was bowled over. It’s splendid. I’m obsessed with it.”

Matisse chair
The chair that bowled Matisse over. Rocaille Chair, 1946

Objects as Inspiration

“I do not paint a table, but the emotion it produces upon me.” –Henri Matisse 1912

In addition to the objects that he depicted directly in his paintings, Matisse drew inspiration from other art forms. He found beauty in art from all over the world and was especially inspired by Asia and African art.

Chinese Calligraphy Panel

In some of his later pieces, we can see the influence of the Chinese calligraphy panel that once hung over his bed.

Matisse caligraphy
Nineteenth century Chinese calligraphy panel (top), Panel with Mask, 1947 (bottom left), and Blue Nudes, 1952 (bottom right).

African Masks

Carved masks with strong and simplified features influenced the way Matisse painted portraits.

Matisse mask
Muyombo mask from Congo and The Italian Woman, 1916

Wooden Sculpture

In 1906 Matisse was on his way to visit Gertrude Stein when he spotted a small African sculpture in a curio shop. He was intrigued with its form and bought it. Since Picasso was also a guest that evening, the two artists studied it together and African art became influential in their work.

Matisse wood statues
Jomooniw male and female figures, Bamana region, Mali and Standing Nude, 1907

Matisse in the Studio gives an insight into the artist and his relationship with his possessions. It’s at the Royal Academy of Arts in London through November 12, 2017. Go see it if you get a chance. This exhibition is organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in partnership with the Musée Matisse, Nice.

More Matisse: For more about Matisse, you might like Matisse, a Nun, and a Chapel

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Margo Lestz
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    1. I’m glad you got to see it. It was a joint effort between the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, so it looks like we were both in the right place at the right time. Lucky us!

  1. Many thanks for this article Margo. As I live on the other side of the world, I would never have known about this wonderful exhibition in London. But I love visiting Art Galleries and am interested in Matisse. On a trip to the south of France some years ago I visited the museum in Nice and the beautiful chapel he decorated on the hill just outside St Paul de Vence. Your article has enabled me to see this exciting exhibition through your eyes. Thanks again.
    Best wishes

    1. You’re welcome, Paula. One thing I love about London is that there are always so many exhibitions and events.
      As I’m sure you know, Matisse spent his last 30+ years in the south of France. He planned to stay there just a few weeks, but the light won him over. He wrote, “When I realized that every morning I would see this light again, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.” And so he stayed.
      All the best,

      1. I had forgotten that. The light in the south of France has been so inspirational to so many artists. Earlier this year there was a magnificent exhibition in Melbourne – Van Gogh and the Seasons – his first trip to Arles changed his painting from somber tones to the bright palette he used from then on.
        I see you might be doing another article on Matisse. I look forward to it.
        Best wishes

  2. Would loved to have seen it! You know how I feel about Matisse! Did you see the Van Gogh movie? I just did last night. Remarkable! Hope you are well. Best to you and Jeff. A

    1. You still have two weeks if you want to pop over and see the exhibition. I may be writing a bit more about Matisse next time too, so stay tuned…
      I haven’t seen the Van Gogh film. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it until you mentioned it. Sounds really interesting so I’ll try to see it. Thanks for the recommendation.
      All the best,

  3. What a wonderful exhibition! I love the info about the Chocolate Pot (never even heard of such a thing before). I love the quote: “I do not paint a table, but the emotion it produces upon me.” –Henri Matisse 1912
    You managed to bring a little bit of the exhibit across the Channel, thanks!

    1. Yes, the chocolate pot was interesting – I guess in Henri’s day they didn’t have those little packets that you just add to boiling water. 🙂 I’m glad you got to enjoy the exhibition from afar.
      All the best,

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