Fauvist Still Life: Henri Matisse
HENRI MATISSE (1869 -1954)
'The Egyptian Curtain', 1948
(oil on canvas)
‘The Egyptian Curtain’ is a wonderful example of Matisse's still life painting at the height of his powers. It is a work whose colour radiates sunshine. Matisse understood that the more you reduced and simplified the drawing of an image, the more you could increase the expressive power of its colour. He would extract a few of the key colours from a scene and use them to intensify our experience of the subject. Matisse also realized that the simplification of his drawing and the looseness of his brushwork added to the joy and vitality of the work.
Although 'The Egyptian Curtain' is a simplified and stylized Fauvist image, it is still an accurate reflection of the way we look at things. If you stand inside a room on a sunny day and stare through the window at something outside, your eyes become adjusted to the brightness of the sunlight. Then, when you turn to look at something inside the room, you are partially blinded while your eyes adjust to the change of light. By contrasting the sunlit objects in 'The Egyptian Curtain' with its dark interior, Matisse uses the same optical phenomenon to increase the luminance of his colour to an extreme pitch. The palm outside explodes in a sunburst against the black window frame and the vitality of its brushstrokes emphasise the energy of its light. This colorful drama continues inside the room through contrasts of the fruit bowl and curtain with the dark interior.
The tone and colour of the painting, elements traditionally used by artists to describe form and depth, are simplified and flattened to amplify their expressive power. To counterbalance this abstraction, Matisse returns to traditional methods in order to define the organization of space in the painting. The illusion of depth is conveyed by the shape of the table, the ellipse on the bowl of fruit and the suggestion of a wall to the left of the window, whose angles all roughly conform to the rules of perspective drawing.
Depth is further suggested by the scale and position of the objects in relation to one another. The curtain, which is the largest object and emblazoned with the boldest shapes, fills the foreground of the painting. It overlaps both the table and the window indicating that it is the nearest object to the viewer. The position of the window as the highest object in the picture suggests that it is in the background and subsequently the fruit bowl and table take up the middle ground. The tone and colour of the painting may have been flattened for expressive effect but its shapes are arranged in a hierarchical order to allow a spatial reading of the work.