Decoding Matisse's Color

by Cathy Locke

Henri Matisse, “Bottle Skhidama,”and  “Corsican Landscape. Olive Trees”
Henri Matisse, (left) “Bottle Skhidama,” 1896, oil on canvas; (right) “Corsican Landscape. Olive Trees,” 1898, oil on canvas.

Legendary French artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954) had every intention of becoming a lawyer, until that fateful day in 1889, when his mother brought him art supplies to play around with while he was convalescing. It was at that moment he discovered “a kind of paradise.” Like so many of us, however, he deeply disappointed his father by deciding to become an artist. In 1891, at the age of twenty-two, Matisse began to study art at the Académie Julian in Paris. The impressionable young artist chose to study under two wildly different teachers – William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) and Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). Under the tutelage of Bouguereau, Matisse was introduced to the old masters and spent hours in the Louvre Museum making copies of their paintings. Matisse found it boring to watch Bouguereau repeatedly copy the same painting. After a short amount of time Matisse ended up walking out of his studio feeling he could learn nothing from Bouguereau. In contrast, Moreau’s teaching style gave Matisse license to explore his own individuality, which spoke to the young artist. Matisse began exploring new painting techniques developed by the impressionists and post-impressionists. By the late 1890s Matisse’s work was transitioning from a traditional approach to one that was far more expressive. 

Henri Matisse, “Fruit and Coffeepot,” 1898, oil on canvas
Henri Matisse, “Fruit and Coffeepot,” 1898, oil on canvas

Learning in the Field

Thoroughly bitten by the “art bug” Matisse set out on a quest to learn from fellow artists of his day. It began in 1896, when Matisse joined Australian painter John Russell (1858-1930) on the island Belle Île off the coast of Brittany. Russell introduced him to the work of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). He would later say, “Russell was my teacher, and Russell explained color theory to me.” Due to van Gogh’s influence Matisse started painting with more speed and color intensity. In his painting, Fruit and Coffeepot (1898), we can see the influence of these post-impressionist artists on Matisse. In this painting the artist uses light to draw our attention into the picture plane. Matisse intensifies color by reflecting it on the objects and the shadows on the tablecloth. In this painting we see his brushwork is similar to that of van Gogh’s kinetic mark making. In 1897, Matisse met Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), who introduced him to the work of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). From studying Cézanne’s work he learned how to let go of the details and allow the color to become the dominant factor.

Chevreul's color wheel
Chevreul's color wheel

In 1904 Matisse spent time with Paul Signac (1863-1935), learning new techniques in paint application and color.1 These artists were working with a color wheel developed in 1855 by Michel Chevreul (1786-1889), a French scientist. Chevreul designed a 72-part color-wheel whose radii, in addition to the three primaries of red, yellow and blue, depict three secondary mixtures of orange, green and violet, as well as six further secondary mixtures. The resultant sectors were each subdivided into five zones and all radii were separated into 20 segments to accommodate the different brightness levels. Chevreul’s "chromatic diagram" greatly facilitated the study of complementary colors, which the impressionists employed in their work. Complementary colors are two colors situated opposite from each other on color wheel. Matisse knew and used Chevreul’s color wheel extremely well.

Henri Matisse, “View of Collioure France,” circa 1905, oil on canvas
Henri Matisse, “View of Collioure France,” circa 1905, oil on canvas

Neo-impressionist artists like Signac were influenced by the theories discussed in the book, Modern Chromatics by Ogden Rood (1831-1902). These artists were looking for ways to create luminous effects with color using Rood’s technique of optical mixing, where colors of similar hues are placed next to each other on the canvas but are not blended together. During this period Matisse started working in a technique known as divisionism, where wide brush stokes are placed next to each other to create a rhythmic pattern. An excellent example of divisionism is his painting, View of Collioure France (c.1905). "Everything must be created anew: both object and color, the coloring is unbelievably intense," said Matisse of this work. He created a sense of a hot day by building up brush strokes of pure color and in some areas adding white to the hues to create tints, while allowing the white canvas to show through. The contrast of the white canvas next to the hues filled the canvas with additional light. The antagonism between the red analogous tones used for the landscape next to the blue tones of the water reinforces the sense of sultriness.


Matisse was one of the leaders of the fauve movement, and without him it is doubtful the movement would have been so influential. Though his fauvist period only lasted a short time it was a turning point in his creativity. “In 1905 Matisse and his friends exhibited their work at the Salon d'Automne in Paris, an exhibition which was to go down in history. The artists amazed visitors with their radical daring and undulled colors, their simplified devices and their impulsiveness, which provoked the critic Louis Vauxcelles to describe them as wild beasts - "fauves." Thus the short-lived movement (1905-1907) to which Matisse's paintings at this time belonged is now known as fauvism.”2

Henri Matisse, Crockery on a Table, 1900, oil on canvas, Shchukin Collection
Henri Matisse, Crockery on a Table, 1900, oil on canvas, Shchukin Collection

Still Lifes

Matisse’s entire body of work has been divided into four stages by art historians:  early still lifes, decorative panels, Moroccan cycle and modernism. From his still life period scholars have identified Crockery on a Table (1900), as one of his most important paintings. Most of the works Matisse produced between 1898 and 1903 are undated, but this work is unusual in having both a signature and the date. Here we can see Cezanne’s influence on Matisse. The items in this still life take up very little space; instead large areas of tones (gray added to a color) and shades (black added to a color) dominate the painting.  Everything in the composition is strategically placed to create angles that in turn create movement, directing the viewer’s eye around the picture plane. Matisse developed Cezanne’s method of building form using the same colors in all areas of the canvas. While he was painting this still life Matisse realized that “color is the first element in painting.” From then on color became the most important element in a painting for Matisse.

Henri Matisse, “Red Room,” 1908, oil on canvas
Henri Matisse, “Red Room,” 1908, oil on canvas

Decorative Panels

“Matisse’s most powerful innovations in color were carried out in his commissions for Sergei Shchukin, in the programmatic works Red Room, Dance and Music. Red Room was to become one of the turning points in the history of European art.”3 In this decorative panel series Matisse is testing color for its expressive potential, while pursuing a harmonious balance using pure color. These paintings mark the beginning of Matisse’s post-fauve period. In these works he has abandoned the active brushwork of divisionism, working only with flat organic shapes and color. Red Room was originally titled Harmony in Blue, but Matisse radically reworked it making the saturated red hue primary and the blue secondary. The warm red color comes forward, while the cool green and blue colors recede. This movement with color is achieved without sacrificing the intensity of any of the colors. He pushed the pictorial space by flattening his images to create a visual tension.

Henri Matisse, “Music” and “Dance”
Henri Matisse, (left) “Music” and (right) “Dance,” 1909-1910, oil on canvas, Sergei Shchukin Collection

In his paintings, Dance and Music, Matisse has fully embraced the stylistic approach of primitivism, where everything has been greatly simplified to become more symbolic. Matisse plays games with color in these paintings, finding the perfect “orange” or is that “red” we ask? "Matisse's orange/red" becomes the complementary color to both the blue (orange) and green (red) in both canvases. The compositions of both paintings play off each other: Dance with its dynamic composition created by figures that form a circle, whereas the figures in Music are static. Originally commissioned in 1904, Shchukin (1854-1936) waited five years for Dance and Music to arrive. The milestone creation of these paintings is a tribute not only to Matisse, but also to Shchukin. When asked if his father would have painted the panels on such a scale without Shchukin, Pierre Matisse (1900-1989), who had become one of the major dealers of the age, replied “Why – for whom?” In a letter to Matisse Shchukin wrote, “Your panels have arrived and have been hung. The effect is not bad at all. Unfortunately in the evening the blue changes greatly in the electric light. It becomes rather murky, almost black. Overall, however, I find the works interesting and hope one day to come to love them. I retain full confidence in you. The public may be against you, but the future is yours.”4

Henri Matisse, “Landscape viewed from a Window. Tangier,” “Zorah on the Terrace,” “Entrance to the Kasbah,”
Henri Matisse, (left) “Landscape viewed from a Window. Tangier,” (middle) “Zorah on the Terrace,” and (right) “Entrance to the Kasbah,” 1912, oil on canvas.

Moroccan Cycle

In 1912, at the suggestion of his friend Albert Marquet (1875-1947), Matisse went to Morocco hoping the southern light would stimulate new developments in his art. Recently overshadowed by the revolutionary work of cubism, Matisse needed to prove the value of his work to the Parisian avant-garde. In one of his most famous triptychs, commissioned by Ivan Morozov (1871-1921), he painted three scenes at different times of the day using combinations of complementary colors. Perhaps influenced by cubism, Matisse painted light by dividing it into geometric shapes. Painted in the morning, Landscape Viewed from a Window (1912) is the view from Matisse’s apartment in Morocco. The complementary colors of blue and orange are dominant in this painting: shadows are painted in blue, sunlight in orange. Secondary are the complementary colors of green and red. Painted in the early afternoon, Zorah on the Terrace (1912), depicts a large, blue-green geometric shape, representing shade, balanced by a triangle in red-orange values. We also see blue and orange used in this painting. Painted in the early evening, Entrance to the Casaba (1912), employs red hues for the sunset and green hues for the shadows. The saturated red pathway leads the viewer’s eye directly to various values of green. Embraced on either side of these colors is blue with orange accents. It took Matisse so long to get this commission done that Morozov never commissioned anything from him again. Matisse did come to Moscow to arrange the canvases the way he wanted them at Morozov’s home.


Henri Matisse, “Conversation,” 1908-1912, oil on canvas
Henri Matisse, “Conversation,” 1908-1912, oil on canvas


Considered one of the pinnacles of Matisse’s achievement, Conversation (1908-12), evolves his use of geometric form to a new level, giving birth to modernism. In 1908 Matisse wrote, “We enter into the blue world of the Conversation, sink deep into the atmosphere of color. The blue color does not represent solidity; this is not the color of the carpet or the color of the wall. It is cold; it is emotional and significant.”5 The central figures are Matisse and his wife, Amelie, simplified but depicting a moment in real life. Here color has become symbolic: blue represents a cold, unmoving impasse, while the green strategically placed in the center symbolizes the tree of life. The two figures, a man and a woman, are the two eternal sources of life, yet they are frozen and static. Between them, yet untouchable, are the organic, ever-evolving and moving shapes of life. Matisse envelops the painting in the complementary colors of blue and orange.



Matisse pioneered a revolutionary use of color and form, refusing to accept that color must reflect the real world. Matisse moved around the wheel, using jarring colors to quickly become a ‘bad boy’ of French art. Beginning with the decorative panels, Matisse really started to develop his own voice as an artist. We see that his path to get there involved following the breadcrumbs that led to learning from many different artists. When we start to decode his color work we see large saturated areas balanced by the color’s complement on the color wheel. He tended to work in pairs of color complements: blue/orange, red/green, yellow/violet. Seldom does one color take a back seat in the painting; even if it is used sparingly, the surrounding colors tend to promote each other. Color is never muted, only their values are shifted by adding either white or blue. As an artist, Matisse is to be especially admired because he continued to search for new ways to create, while at all times maintaining that color was his primary focus.


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1. Ogen N. Rood and Faber Birren, Modern Chromatics: Students’ Text-Book of Color with Applications to Art and Industry; Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, page 48.
3.  Albert Kostenevich, French Art Treasures at the Hermitage: Splended Masterpieces, New Discoveries; Harry N. Abrams Publisher, page 300.
4.  Albert Kostenevich, French Art Treasures at the Hermitage: Splended Masterpieces, New Discoveries; Harry N. Abrams Publisher, page 309.
5.  Albert Kostenevich, French Art Treasures at the Hermitage: Splended Masterpieces, New Discoveries; Harry N. Abrams Publisher, page 313.

About the Author
​Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is the editor of

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