Henri Matisse

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For my part I have never avoided the influence of others. I would have considered it cowardice and a lack of sincerity toward myself.

Henri Matisse (31 December 18693 November 1954) was a major French artist of the 20th century. Particularly noted for his striking use of colour, Matisse is one of the very few indisputable giants of modern art, alongside Pablo Picasso and Kandinsky.

Quotes of Henri Matisse[edit]

chronologically, by date of the quotes

1905 - 1910[edit]

Notes of a Painter (1908)[edit]

"Notes d'un Peintre" in La Grande Revue, Henri Matisse (Paris, 25 December 1908); as translated by Jack Flam in Matisse on Art (1995)
For me all is in the conception. I must therefore have a clear vision of the whole from the beginning.
A work of art must carry within itself its complete significance and impose that upon the beholder before he recognises the subject matter.
  • The simplest means are those which best enable an artist to express himself.His means of expression must derive almost all of necessity from his temperament.


  • Expression for me does not reside in passions glowing in a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive; the place occupied by my figures, the empty space around them, the proportions, everything has its share. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter's command to express his feelings. In a picture every part will be visible and will play its appointed role, whether it be principal or secondary. Everything that is not useful in the picture is, it follows, harmful. A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety: any superfluous detail would replace some other essential detail in the mind of the spectator.


  • Suppose I want to paint a woman's body: first of all I imbue it with grace and charm, but I know that I must give something more. I will condense the meaning of this body by seeking its essential lines. The charm will be less apparent at first glance, but it must eventually emerge from the new image which will have a broader meaning, one more fully human.


  • I simply put down colours which render my sensation.


  • For me all is in the conception. I must therefore have a clear vision of the whole from the beginning.


  • There is an impelling proportion of tones that may lead me to change the shape of a figure or to transform my composition. Until I have achieved this proportion in all the parts of a composition I strive towards it and keep on working. Then a moment comes when all the parts have found their definite relationships, and from then on it would be impossible for me to add a stroke to my picture without having to repaint it entirely.


  • What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman was well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.


  • Rules have no existence outside of individuals: otherwise a good professor would be as great a genius as Racine.


'Notes d'un Peintre', (Notes of a Painter), H. Matisse (1908)[edit]

'Notes d'un Peintre' (Notes of a Painter), Henri Matisse, 'La Grande Revue', Paris, 25 December 1908; as quoted in Artists on Art – from the 14th – 20th centuries, ed. by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves; Pantheon Books, 1972, London
  • What I am after, above all, is expression. Sometimes it has been conceded that I have a certain technical ability but that, my ambition being limited, I am unable to proceed beyond a purely visual satisfaction such as can be procured from the mere sight of a picture. But the purpose of a painter must not be conceived as separate from his pictorial means, and these pictorial means must be the more complete (I do not mean complicated) the deeper is his thought. I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have for life and my way of expressing it.
    • pp. 409-410


  • Expression, to my way of thinking, does not consist of the passion mirrored upon a human face or betrayed by a violent gesture. The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. The place occupied by figures or objects, the empty spaces around them, the proportions – everything plays a part. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of his feelings
    • p. 410


  • In a picture every part will be visible and will play the role conferred upon it, be it principal or secondary. All that is not useful in the picture is detrimental.
    • p. 410


  • Composition, the aim of which is expression, alters itself according to the surface to be covered. If I take a sheet of paper of given dimensions I will jot down a drawing which will have a necessary relation to its format – I would not repeat this drawing on another sheet of different dimensions, for instance on a rectangular sheet.. ..a drawing must have a power of expansion which can bring to life the space which surrounds it.
    • p. 410


  • I want to reach the state of condensation of sensations which constitutes a picture. Perhaps I might be satisfied momentarily with a work finished at one sitting, but I would soon get bored looking at it; therefore, I prefer to continue working on it so that later I may recognize it as a work of my mind..
    • p. 410


  • I try to condense the meaning of this body [of a woman] by drawing its essential lines. The charm will then become less apparent at first glance, but in the long run it will begin emanate from the new image. This image at the same time will be enriched by a wider meaning, a more comprehensively human one, while the charm, being less apparent, will not be its only characteristic. It will be merely one element in the general conception of the figure.
    • p. 411


  • If upon a white canvas I jot down some sensations of blue, of green, of red – every new brush stroke diminishes the importance of the preceding ones. Suppose I set out to paint an interior.. .If I paint a green near the red, if I paint in a yellow floor, there must still be between this green, this yellow, and the white of the canvas a relation that will be satisfactory to me. But these several tones mutually weaken one another. It is necessary, therefore, that the various elements that I use be so balanced that they do not destroy one another..
    • p. 411


  • I am forced to transpose until finally my picture may seem completely changed when, after successive modifications, the red has succeeded the green as the dominant color. I cannot copy nature in a servile way, I must interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture – when I have found the relationship of all the tones the result must be a living harmony of tones, a harmony not unlike that of a musical composition
    • p. 411


  • The chief aim of color should be to serve expression as well as possible. I put down my colors without a preconceived plan. If at the first step and perhaps without my being conscious of it one tone has particularly pleased me, more often then not when the picture is finished, I will notice that I have respected this tone while I have progressively altered and transformed the others. I discover the quality of colors in a purely instinctive way.
    • p. 412


  • To paint an autumn landscape I will not try to remember what colors suit this season, I will only be inspired by the sensation that the season gives me; the icy clearness of the sour blue sky will express the season just as well as the tonalities of the leaves. My sensation itself may vary, the autumn may be soft and warm like a protracted summer or quite cool with a cold sky and lemon yellow trees that give a chilly impression and announce winter.
    • p. 412


  • My choice of colors does not rest on any scientific theory; it is based on observation, on feeling, on the very nature of each experience. I… …merely try to find a color that will fit my sensation. There is an impelling proportion of tones that can induce me to change the shape of a figure or to transform my composition. Until I have achieved this proportion in all the parts of the composition I strive towards it and keep on working. Then a moment comes when every part has found its definite relationship, and from then on it would be impossible for me to add a stroke to my picture without having to paint it all over again.
    • p. 412


  • What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape but the human figure. It is through it that I best succeed in expressing the nearly religious feeling that I have towards life. I do not insist upon the details of the face. I do not care to repeat them with anatomical exactness. Though I happen to have an Italian model whose appearance at first suggests nothing but a purely animal existence, yet I succeed in picking out among the lines of his face those which suggest that deep gravity which persists in every human being.
    • p. 413


  • A work of art must carry in itself its complete significance and impose it upon the beholder even before he can identify the subject-matter. When I see the Giotto frescoes at Padua I do not trouble to recognize which scene of the life of Christ I have before me, but I perceive instantly the sentiment which radiates from it and which is instinct in the composition in every line and color.
    • p. 413


1911 -1920[edit]

  • "I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me."
    After a pause full of intense thought on my part, I asked: "But if one hasn't always emotion. What then?"
    "Do not paint," he quickly answered. "When I came in here to work this morning I had no emotion, so I took a horseback ride. When I returned I felt like painting, and had all the emotion I wanted.
    • Interview with Clara T. MacChesney (1912), in Matisse on Art (1995) edited by Jack D. Flam, p. 66


  • I know that Seurat is completely the opposite of a romantic, which I am, but with a good portion of the scientific, of the rationalist, which creates the struggle from which I sometimes emerge the victor, but exhausted.
    • In a letter to Camoin, Autumn 1914; as quoted in Matisse on Art, Jack Flam, University of California Press 1995 p. 275, note 5


  • Delacroix's composition is more entirely created, while that of Seurat employs matter organized scientifically, reproducing, presenting t our eyes objects constructed by scientific means rather than by signs, coming from our feeling. As result there is in his works a positivism, a slightly inert stability, coming from his composition, which is not the result of a creation of the mind, but of a juxtaposition of the objects. It is necessary to cross this barrier to re-feel light, colored and soft, and pure, the noblest pleasure
    • In a letter to Camoin, Autumn 1914; as quoted in Matisse on Art, Jack Flam, University of California Press 1995 p. 275, note 5


  • The work of Renoir, after that of Cézanne whose great influence had been manifested among artists, save us from whatever drying effect there is in pure abstraction. The rules that one might deduce in considering the work of these two masters appear to be more difficult to discover in the work of Renoir, who hides his efforts better. Whereas the continuous tension of the mind of Cézanne, his lack of self-confidence, prevent him from giving himself to us entirely even though he shows the evidence of his corrections, from which are easily (too easily) deduced rules that have a mathematical precision. [critical quote on Cubism ].
    • In a short text of Matisse, 1918, written for the catalogue of 'Den Franske Utstilling', 1918, Copenhagen; as quoted in Matisse on Art, Jack Flam, University of California Press 1995 p. 272, note 2


  • A little while ago I took a nap under an olive tree, and the color harmonies I saw were so touching. It's like a paradise you have no right to analyze, but you are a painter, for God's sake! Nice is so beautiful! Alight so soft and tender, despite its brilliance.
    • In a letter to a friend, Nice 1918, as quoted in 'Matisse & Picasso', Paul Trachtman, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2003, p. 6

1920 -1940[edit]

Slowly I discovered the secret of my art. It consists of a meditation on nature, on the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality.
  • Slowly I discovered the secret of my art. It consists of a meditation on nature, on the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality. With more involvement and regularity, I learned to push each study in a certain direction. Little by little the notion that painting is a means of expression asserted itself, and that one can express the same thing in several ways. Exactitude is not truth, Delacroix liked to say.
    • "Interview with Henri Matisse" by Jacques Guenne, L'Art Vivant (15 September 1925), translated by Jack Flam in Matisse on Art (1995)


  • I will repeat what I once said to Guillaume Apollinaire: "For my part I have never avoided the influence of others. I would have considered it cowardice and a lack of sincerity toward myself."
    • Je vous répéterai ce que je disais naguère à Guillaume Apollinaire : "Je n'ai, pour ma part, jamais évité l'influence des autres, j'aurais considéré cela comme une lâcheté et un manque de sincérité vis-à-vis de moi-même."
    • "Interview with Henri Matisse" by Jacques Guenne, L'Art Vivant (15 September 1925)


  • At each stage I reach a balance, a conclusion. At the next sitting, if I find that there is a weakness in the whole, I make my way back into the picture by means of the weakness — I re-enter through the breach — and I reconceive the whole. Thus everything becomes fluid again.
    • Statement to Tériade, quoted by Tériade in "Constance de Fauvisme," Minotaure (15 October 1936), translated by Jack Flam in Matisse on Art (1995)


1941 - 1954[edit]

An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythms, by effort that will prepare the mastery which will later enable him to express himself in his own language.
You study, you learn, but you guard the original naiveté.
There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.
  • Tomorrow, Sunday, at 4 o'clock, visit from Picasso. As I'm expecting to see him tomorrow, my mind is at work. I'm doing this propaganda show [at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, 1945] with him. I can imagine the room with my pictures on one side, and his on the other. It's as if I were going to cohabit with an epileptic.
    • Quote in his notebook, circa April 1945; as quoted in 'Matisse & Picasso', Paul Trachtman, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2003, p. 6


  • An artist must possess Nature. He must identify himself with her rhythms, by effort that will prepare the mastery which will later enable him to express himself in his own language.
    • In a letter to Mr. Clifford, February 14, 1948; as quoted in Letters of the great artists – from Ghiberti to Gainsborough, Richard Friedenthal, Thames and Hudson , London, 1963, p. 238


  • The future painter must feel what is useful for his development – drawing or even sculpture everything that will let him become one with Nature, identify himself with her, by entering into the things – which is what I call Nature – that arouse his feelings. I believe study by means of drawing is most essential. If drawing is of the Spirit and color of the Senses, you must draw first, to cultivate the spirit and to be able to lead color into spiritual paths.
    • In a letter to Mr. Clifford, February 14, 1948; as quoted in Letters of the great artists – from Ghiberti to Gainsborough, Richard Friedenthal, Thames and Hudson , London, 1963, pp. 238-239


  • You study, you learn, but you guard the original naiveté. It has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard or love is within the lover.
    • In; Time magazine (26 June 1950)


  • There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.
    • As quoted in obituaries (5 November 1954)


Jazz (1947)[edit]

Matisse had written the following notes to accompany his prints, based on paper cutouts, in Jazz (1947); as translated by Sophie Hawkes in the 1992 George Braziller edition - ISBN 0-8076-1291-X
  • Drawing with scissors: To cut to the quick in color reminds me of the direct cutting of sculptors.
    • Dessiner avec les ciseaux: découper à vif dans la couleur me rappelle la taille directe des sculpteurs.


  • The vertical is in my spirit. It helps me to define precisely the direction of lines, and in quick sketches I never indicate a curve, that of a branch in landscape for example, without being aware of its relationship to the vertical.
    My curves are not mad.
    • La verticale est dans mon esprit. Elle m'aide à préciser la direction des lignes, et dans mes dessins rapides je n'indique pas une courbe, par exemple, celle d'une branche dans un paysage, sans avoir conscience de son rapport avec la verticale.
      Mes courbes ne sont pas folles.


  • A musician once said: In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled and compressed. It is therefore necessary to present oneself with the greatest humility: white, pure and candid with a mind as if empty, in a spiritual state analogous to that of a communicant approaching the Lord's Table. Obviously it is necessary to have all of one's experience behind one, but to preserve the freshness of one's instincts.
    • Un musicien a dit: en art la vérité, le réel commence quand on ne comprend plus rien à ce qu'on fait, à ce q'uon sait, et qu'il reste en vous une énergie d'autant plus forte qu'elle est contrariée, compressée, comprimée. Il faut alors se présenter avec la plus grande humilité, tout-blanc, tout pur, candide, le cerveau semblant-vide, dans un état d'esprit analogue à celui du communiant approchant la Sainte Table. Il faut évidemment avoir tout son acquis derrière soi et avoir su garder la fraîcheur de l'Instinct.


  • Do I believe in God? Yes, when I am working. When I am submissive and modest, I feel myself to be greatly helped by someone who causes me to do things that exceed my capabilities. However, I cannot acknowledge him because it is as if I were to find myself before a conjuror whose sleight of hand eludes me.
    • Si je crois en Dieu? Oui, quand je travaille. Quand je suis soumis et modeste, je me sens tellement aidé par quelqu'un qui me fait faire des choses qui me surpassent. Pourtant je ne me sens envers lui aucune reconnaissance car c'est comme si je me trouvais devant un prestidigitateur dont je ne puis percer les tours.

posthumous, after 1954[edit]

For a long time now I've been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light.
I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me...
I have been no more than a medium, as it were.
  • We are born with the sensibility of a period of civilization. We are not masters of our production; it is imposed upon us.
    • As quoted in Abstract Painting, Michel Seuphor, Dell Publishing Co., 1964, p. 9
  • A picture must possess a real power to generate light.. ..for a long time now I've been conscious of expressing myself through light or rather in light.
    • As quoted in Matisse (1984) by Pierre Schneider
  • Impressionism is the newspaper of the soul.
    • As quoted in Matisse (1984) by Pierre Schneider
  • [I wouldn't mind turning into] a vermilion goldfish.
    • At age 80, as quoted in Matisse (1984) by Pierre Schneider
  • Drawing is like making an expressive gesture with the advantage of permanence.
    • As quoted by in the review of "The Drawings of Henri Matisse" exhibit at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, by Theodore F Wolff in The Christian Science Monitor (25 March 1985)
  • It is only after years of preparation that the young [artist] should touch color — not color used descriptively, that is, but as a means of personal expression.
    • As quoted by Theodore F. Wolff in The Christian Science Monitor (25 March 1985)
  • I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have the light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost me..
    • As quoted by Theodore F. Wolff in The Christian Science Monitor (25 March 1985)
  • I have been no more than a medium, as it were.
    • As quoted in Smithsonian (November 1986)
  • The artist begins with a vision — a creative operation requiring effort. Creativity takes courage.
    • As quoted in Artist to Artist : Inspiration and Advice from Visual Artists Past & Present (1998), p. 62

Quotes about Matisse[edit]

chronologically, by date of the quotes
We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or an extremist undertaking: Matisse's art is eminently reasonable. ~ Guillaume Apollinaire
  • My verse forms are relatively traditional (traditions alter). In general they have moved away from strict classical patterns in the direction of greater freedom — as is usual with most artists learning a trade. It takes courage, however, to leave all props behind, to cast oneself, like Matisse, upon pure space. I still await that confidence.
    • Fleur Adcock, New Zealand poet, as quoted in Contemporary Poets 3rd edition (1980) by James Vinson
  • We are not here in the presence of an extravagant or an extremist undertaking: Matisse's art is eminently reasonable.
  • Years later he [ Picasso ] would tell the French writer w:André Malraux of something else that shaped his Demoiselles [made in Paris, June-July 1907]. Matisse had shown him an African statue he'd bought. Then Picasso went to the dingy ethnographic museum in Paris, the 'Trocadero', with its collection of primitive artifacts. It smelled like a flea market, but it opened his eyes to the magic of masks and fetishes. 'If you give spirits a shape, you break free from them', he said. 'Suddenly... I grasped why I was a painter. All alone in that museum, surrounded by masks, Red Indian dolls, dummies covered with dust. The Demoiselles must have come that day.. ..because it was my first exorcising picture.'
    • Quote in 1940's, in 'Matisse & Picasso', Paul Trachtman, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2003, p. 4
  • Civilization is an active deposit which is formed by the combustion of the Present with the Past. Neither in countries without a Present nor in those without a Past is it to be encountered. Proust in Venice, Matisse's birdcages overlooking the flower market at Nice, Gide on the seventeenth-century quais of Toulon, Lorca in Granada, Picasso by Saint-Germain-des-Prés: there lies civilization and for me it can exist only under those liberal regimes in which the Present is alive and therefore capable of assimilating the Past.
    • Cyril Connolly British critic, in The Unquiet Grave Pt. 2 (1944, revised 1951)
  • I have seen Matisse's that were more 'unfinished' and yet more 'finished' than any American painters. Matisse was obviously in a terrific emotion at the time and he was more’’unfinished’ than 'finished'.
  • Picasso is taking Cézanne's elements — the cone, cylinder and sphere — into Cubism. Matisse is taking Cézanne's interest in the wholeness and the clarity of figures. They're taking almost opposite interpretations of what they see in Cézanne: Picasso is understanding it as decomposition, and Matisse is understanding it as composition.
    • w:John Elderfield, MoMA-curator and Matisse scholar, as quoted in "Matisse & Picasso" by Paul Trachtman, in Smithsonian Magazine (February 2003), p. 4
  • When Matisse died, he left me his Odalisques 'as a legacy', he proclaimed.
    • Pablo Picasso, in 1954, shortly after the death of Matisse, as quoted in "Matisse & Picasso" by Paul Trachtman, in Smithsonian Magazine (February 2003), p. 7
  • Matisse makes a drawing, then he makes a copy of it. He recopies it five times, ten times, always clarifying the line. He's convinced that the last, the most stripped down, is the best, the purest, the definitive one; and in fact, most of the time, it was the first. In drawing, nothing is better than the first attempt.
    • Pablo Picasso, in 1964, as quoted in Picasso and Company (trans. 1966) by Gyula Brassaï
  • You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.
    • Pablo Picasso, in the 1960's, as quoted in "Matisse & Picasso" by Paul Trachtman, in Smithsonian Magazine (February 2003), p. 1
  • Matisse said, you have to read between the lines. When he would stop a line, say, at the ear, and beginning it again at the neck, he was really exercising the viewer's mind to fill in the blanks.
  • Though produced by a very old man, who was mortally ill, they seem to come from the springtime of the world.
    • John Russell, on Matisse's paper cut-outs, in The New York Times (25 November 1984)

External links[edit]

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