Let the light in: Matisse’s windows

Though many artists before him used windows as momentary motifs, once Henri Matisse had seized upon them as a source of light, he experimented with them for decades. Charged with expressive colour, his window-inspired paintings are some of his finest works.

Open Window, Collioure, 1905 

Open Window, Collioure, 1905, Henri Matisse 

Matisse’s early Fauvist paintings focussed on colour and creative viewpoints. In 1905, whilst travelling with fellow painter André Derain through the southern French town of Collioure, he painted Open Window, Collioure

Positioning the spectator in front of two inviting, long French windows, Matisse offers a view of a serene seascape ahead. Luminous and energetic, the artwork achieves its chromatic brilliancy by borrowing from the experiments of Paul Signac.

The founding father of Pointillism, Signac was interested in the optical effects of conflicting pure colours to create the form. Speckled with bright flecks of pure green, purple, pink, and orange – colours from opposing poles of the colour wheel – Open Window, Collioure translates the exuberant sea light of the Côte d’Azur onto the canvas.

Window at Tangiers, 1912, Henri Matisse

Arresting with its dominant, cobalt blue colour palette, Window at Tangiers invites the viewer to peer out from behind an opened window onto a breathtaking Moroccan cityscape. Notice the typical white stone buildings high on the hilltop, the subtle suggestion of a sandy bay below with mules carrying their loads, and a set of charming, potted flowers in the foreground.  

Such scenes aimed to project a sense of soothing, colour harmony: ‘I would like’, Matisse once said, ‘people who are weary, stressed and broken to find peace and tranquillity as they look at my pictures.’ 

French Window at Nice, 1919, Henri Matisse

As Matisse’s career matured, the function of the his windows shifted. Whereas before they served as the sole protagonists for his painting, offering a view onto the outside world, his later works used windows to frame interiors, figures and still life objects. 

French Window at Nice, 1919, depicts an interior view of the Hôtel Mediterranée, a Rococo-style building with large floor-to-ceiling window shutters, and a seated, reading figure (thought to be Matisse’s mistress and Russian model Lydia Delectorskaya). 

Though the spectator focuses on the intimacy of the interior, the eye inevitably wanders to the propped open shutter to the right of the model‘s head, offering an enticing view of the sunlit seaside below. 

Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table,1947, Henri Matisse

In the closing decades of his life, Matisse blurred the lines between the interior and exterior world with increasingly simplified, abstracted forms. Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table, 1947 is a wonderful example of his creation of harmonious flatness. 

Matisse was fascinate by depth: the tantalising dichotomy between the three-dimensionality of the world he wanted to render and the two-dimensionality of the canvas surface. 

Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table plays with perspective by adding an energetic zig-zag pattern. It spreads across the floor, up the walls, and outside onto a vibrant green garden which is made even more luscious by the contrasting red of the interior.

Because the space of the room is so narrow, the window cleverly invites the spectator to merge and separate the landscape and the interior simultaneously. Inside and outside are linked into a continuum. 

Matisse made such feats of perspective look easy but, in reality, they demanded a great deal of imagination. Reflecting on his experiments, he once claimed, ‘I have always tried to hide my efforts and wished my works to have a light joyousness of springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labours it has cost me.’

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