Henri Matisse – Odalisque

Essentially based on color, a picture by Matisse must be seen in the original to be appreciated. In black and white, one is at first conscious of little more than the extreme distortions and simplifications: the picture seems only a childish daub. Even in color, it will seem crude and shocking to per-sons used only to the darker, softer tints of conventional painting. Here the effect is violent, barbaric, loud, clashing, like the dress of gypsies and South Sea Islanders. But to persons whose habits are not fixed, these clashes usually come in time to seem refreshing, stimulating and even harmonious in their own way, like the discords of modern music. One of the best ways to approach them is through a study of primitive textiles, the South Sea paintings of Gauguin, and, more especially, Persian miniatures. All these are sources of Matisse’s art, in addition to the impressionists, whose bright, sunny colors and distortions of shape, now accepted, were once thought shockingly ugly. There is little or no richness or realism of texture in Matisse’s individual areas of color; but taken all together, they form a brilliant pattern of contrasts, comparable to the Persian, but full of original and surprising transitions. Like a Persian miniature, also, the picture is divided into definite sections contrasting in texture: the floor a uniform flat red; the couch striped green and brown; the walls brightly decorated in all-over patterns of blue on white, red on yellow; the garments are of red with yellow flowers, and pale green with yellow flowers. Only a few parts are solidly modelled, and these with shadows bizarrely unrealistic; but the picture is not flat, for the planes of wall, couch and figure are carefully arranged in space at different angles. Linear themes further knit the composition together as design: for example, the pointed curves of which the figure is made, against the rectangles of the couch and background. The outstanding differences from Persian art are traceable to impressionism: a broad, rough, sketchy stroke, and an occasional trace of sunshine. The latter, however, is used not for its intrinsic appeal, but as one of many different ways of varying the parts of a design in color and texture.