Art Review

At the MFA, objects of Matisse’s artistic affection

Matisse’s “Interior With Egyptian Curtain”
The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C.
Matisse’s “Interior With Egyptian Curtain”

A black-and-white photo of mostly bowls, pitchers, and vases hangs in the entryway of “Matisse in the Studio,” a sparkling new exhibition opening April 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts.

“Objects which have been of use to me nearly all my life,” Henri Matisse wrote on the back.

It looks like a class picture. The modest drinking glass is the shy kid; a brawny tobacco tin, the captain of the wrestling team; and a saucy vase, arms akimbo, is the girl so possessed of her own sexuality the rest of the class holds her in awe.


She — excuse me, it — is on display between two paintings as you walk in. I’d read about this Andalusian vase, seen photographs, knew what it conjured up for Matisse. Still, I wasn’t prepared.

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The wide mouth opens at a slight tilt — invitingly, disconcertingly. The shape is of a woman with her hands on her hips, a woman half alluring, half commanding. The vase exudes feminine authority.

“Matisse in the Studio” maps the artist’s growth and vision using objects from his personal collection as blazes along the trail. Thirty-nine textiles, vessels, and more are on view alongside more than 80 artworks.

Helen Burnham, curator of prints and drawings at the MFA, Ann Dumas, curator of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, and Ellen McBreen, associate professor of art history at Wheaton College, have organized a nimble show. It’s loosely chronological, and built around themes inspired by groups of objects — chocolate pots, African masks, and textiles and furniture from North Africa and the Middle East. It calls back and forth across the artist’s life and oeuvre, evoking his discerning, evolving aesthetic.

The son of a seed-shop owner, Matisse grew up in humble circumstances, and as a young man resisted collecting things. He didn’t like the connotations of wealth and elitism.


But certain objects, pots and pitchers that winked with energy and personality, pulled him. He felt compelled to paint them. Modernism prompted artists to value the essence of subjects over their literal details. Matisse did that by sensing the life in them, and seeing what they provoked in him.

“Things that are acquired consciously,” the artist wrote in 1933, “permit us to express ourselves unconsciously with a certain richness.”

The womanly Andalusian vase glimmers in the painting “Vase of Flowers” as soft light passes through her green glass: She’s a lover at a picnic on a sunny day. But in “Safrano Roses at the Window,” she’s darker, mottled; the curve of her arms turns defiant. Beware.

In 1906, Matisse, in his 30s, purchased a small African sculpture on his way to visit Gertrude Stein. While he likely shared many Europeans’ projections about the so-called primitivism of African art, he was among several artists captivated by the formal qualities of such works. Crisp lines zigzag, pulling the eye every which way. Negative space carves form from air.

Henri Matisse’s “Goldfish and Sculpture”
Museum of Modern Art, New York/Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney 1955
Henri Matisse’s “Goldfish and Sculpture”

African art led his friend Picasso to Cubism. It liberated Matisse, as well. But where African art prodded Picasso to spurn any semblance of decoration — he saw in it a response to unknown hostile forces, a way to give form to fear, horror, desire — the decorative qualities of North African textiles catalyzed Matisse. The brash colors helped spark his Fauvist bent, and their dance over the entire surface radicalized his conception of how a painting works.


Matisse pushed for that overall effect, attempting to imbue everything on the canvas with equal, throbbing energy. This vision comes into full flower in an exuberant gallery spotlighting North African and Middle Eastern textiles and furniture.

Imagine the dappled energy of the artist’s Moroccan screen as it filtered light through his own window, or as he choreographed it into paintings. Its delicate pattern wheels and thrums, its arching design welcomes and frames.

That flickering pale blue pattern cuts across the corner of a room where two winsome women chat in “The Moorish Screen,” interrupting and flattening the space. It clatters against other patterns on the carpet and in the wallpaper.

Foregrounding background, as he does here, Matisse makes the entire canvas radiate. Earlier artists invited us inside worlds cemented by perspectival space. Matisse’s world pulsates beyond the frame, shining on everything around it, us included.

His North African textiles recalled those depicted in Orientalist odalisques, the sultry, dusky, exotic-seeming nudes of the 19th century. Matisse wanted to ignite the rest of the canvas, make it as eye-catching as a nude. In several efforts, model Henriette Darricarrère lies on a green carpet with vibrant textiles buzzing behind her.

I can’t say Matisse’s experiment was entirely successful. It’s hard to quash a well-rendered nude, which marks a languorous still point on each of these busy canvases.

Yet it succeeded in broadening his approach, and in later paintings, such as the gorgeous, humming “Purple Robe and Anemones,” figure, background, and floral still lifes vibrate at the same high frequency, here swirling like a dream from the undulant lines on one of the artist’s pewter jugs.

“Purple Robe and Anemones” by Henri Matisse
The Baltimore Museum of Art: The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore/Photograph © The Baltimore Museum of Art/Museum of Fine Arts
“Purple Robe and Anemones” by Henri Matisse

An Egyptian tent curtain patterned with appliqués jives with an explosive fern outside a window in the dazzling “Interior With Egyptian Curtain.” It, too, likely sparked innovation — Matisse’s effervescent, late-in-life cutouts, on view at the end of the final gallery.

But first, we circle back through “The Serpentine,” an early, attenuated bronze, which rhymes with a spare, wild, late drawing, “Acrobat.” Both nod to a carved panel of Chinese calligraphy given to Matisse by his wife.

All link figuration to writing. The artist was paring down his work to what he called signs — an animate, graphic shorthand that came to fruition in ravishing cut-outs such as “Mimosa,” in which the yellow and blue multi-pronged forms of mimosas and philodendrons tangle and drift over a red ground.

“Matisse in the Studio” winningly re-creates the artist’s own keen, intuitive process. It starts with the energy of a single object, the saucy vase, and builds on that with crosscurrents, juxtapositions, and callbacks. The energy burgeons, splashes, and morphs. For Matisse, that process appears to have been a joy. So it is for us.


At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., April 9-July 9. 617-267-9300,

Cate McQuaid can be reached at