Art History 101: Color and Cut-Outs

By Austin Bowes

via Blendspace
via Blendspace

Today, I want to talk about an artist who becomes closer and closer to me the more I view his work and learn about his life – Henri Matisse.

This article may be coming a little late, as his largest exhibition in recent history just ended at the Museum of Modern Art (I went twice, but I wish I had gone once more). However, his work is far from irrelevant. In fact, he is entirely relevant to most art developed after the first half of the 20th century. He is known mostly for his paintings and for his use of color; however, he also worked in an assortment of mediums, such as sculpture, prints, and the now famous cut-outs (decoupage).

Matisse was born in northern France in 1869. He studied law in Paris and worked as a lawyer’s clerk. This changed in 1889: while suffering from appendicitis, his mother brought him art supplies to cheer him up. Little did she know that painting would become “a kind of paradise” for Matisse. He realized that he should be an artist, disappointing his father.

Matisse began to study under Gustave Moreau, who was taken to a more traditional style of painting. Matisse’s largest influences were Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau, and our friend Édouard Manet. Matisse quickly changed his style when he visited John Peter Russell who introduced Matisse to Impressionism and the work of his friend, the unknown Vincent Van Gogh. Immediately, Matisse was drawn to color theory and how colors were presented in painting. Although this style took some years to initially develop as its own, I would like to think that this is where Matisse began Fauvism.

The Fauvism movement lasted only a few years in perspective, but it left its imprint on the art world. A reaction to the Impressionist movement, Fauvism emphasized strong, bright, and contrasting colors over the realistic or representational values of Impressionist works. I was initially introduced to this concept using Matisse’s “Portrait of Madame Matisse” or “The Green Stripe.” It is a portrait of Matisse’s wife, but composed of Matisse’s bright reds, greens, and blues. Her face, to represent the play of shadows and light, is on the left more yellow and the right pink, with the aforementioned “green stripe” separating the halves of her face. Matisse here is playing with how colors present an image to the viewer, in a more abstract representation of his wife.

Matisse moved on from Fauvism, but its effect can be found in his brushstrokes for the rest of his career. This successful career, which I am very obviously glazing over, looked to be coming to an end in 1941 when Matisse was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. After a surgery, he was wheelchair and bed bound, making it difficult to work. This is where Matisse’s famous cut-outs were born.

With the help of his assistant, Lydia Delectorskaya, he would cut up shapes out of paper and lay them out in whatever form he liked. Oftentimes, Matisse would not like the arrangement of – for example – a still life of fruits, but this medium allowed him to just move his hypothetical orange to the right or left as he pleased before finalizing the works. Matisse did not exactly invent the découpage or cut-out, but he definitely repopularized it.

One of the greatest works to come out of this was his book entitled “Jazz,” which displayed theater and circus themes of his gouaches cut-outs. The book can still be purchased today, although it’s more expensive then your usual book (it’s on my Amazon wish list – hint, hint, Mom).

Matisse is close to me in his use of color, as color theory is one of my favorite subjects within art. I’m glad his later work has reintroduced him to a wider public (not that he was ever really forgotten; he’s pretty great, I think).

I would like to end this article with a quote from an interview of Henri Matisse in 1925:

“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.”

Austin Bowes is a contributing writer. Email him at


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