The Joy(s) of Matisse’s Life and Legacy

by Ryan Kulka

Located inside of the city since its move in 2012, the Barnes Foundation has become one of the most popular attractions in the Philadelphia art world. Art collector Alfred C. Barnes established the Foundation in his home in 1922. His collection consists of works from artists such as Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso.

The Barnes Foundation is also home to many remarkable works by Henri Matisse, perhaps most notably his 1906 painting Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Joy of Life), which hangs regally in an alcove on the second floor. Although technically tucked away, The Joy of Life cannot help but grab the attention of passers-by; the bright colors stop people cold in their tracks. The brightness of the color palette contrasts with the blank whiteness of the walls.

Before his introduction to Fauvism, Matisse—like many of his contemporaries—was stuck in a post-Post-Impressionist world. With masters of the previous generation like Gauguin, Cézanne, and Van Gogh gone or on their way out, many artists returned to a variation of the Dutch Golden Age pastoral style. Once some appreciation for the art contemporary to the time arose, the first Salon d’Automne was held in 1903, featuring a retrospective of these Post-Impressionist masters. Two years later, Matisse and his contemporaries were featured in that same salon, and art critic Louis Vauxcelles deemed their work “Among the wild animals,” or, “un Donatello parmi les fauves.” Vauxcelles accidentally christened a movement, and Matisse and the Fauves worked harder to develop their style.

The Fauves became known for the colorful, painterly, and wild aspects that they brought to their work. This can be seen in The Joy of Life in part through the contrasting colors. Matisse used a mix of cool and warm colors, placing these hues side-by-side in unexpected ways. The most obvious example would be the contrast of the far background to the middle ground and foreground. The cool blue water and pink sky become shocking against the warm oranges and yellows of the trees. Even the greens—although traditionally a cooler hue—have a warmer undertone when closer to the water in order to create as much contrast as possible. Because the background’s color scheme differs, it incites the confusion of space and almost makes that semi-circle leap forward toward the viewer.

Another example of color contrast appears in the two central figures lying in the grass. The yellow grass not only subverts the viewer’s expectations of grass (traditionally green), but also contrasts with the green and red auras that radiate from the figures. Matisse even added another layer of contrast: the green and red auras against each other. Placing complementary colors like green and red so close to each other leads causes the eye moves back and forth across the figures themselves, thus animating them, optically and expressively. At the time this was created, color theory and optics were being studied intensely, and The Joy of Life is an example of how these concepts were applied in works of art.

This use of color might not seem as shocking to us today, but it was revolutionary at the time. Today, color contrast might remind us sooner of the work of Andy Warhol than of Matisse. A large part of Warhol’s stylized portraiture is the bright, untraditional colors. Here, you can see Warhol’s iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe, its contrasting colors, and the affect that those colors have on the illusion of space. Some portraits seem to be more three-dimensional than others due to the types of colors used.

The auras surrounding the figures in The Joy of Life eventually became a staple for Matisse. The energies that they produce seem to continue into the colors or shapes of the trees. Matisse tended to embrace line rather than shy away from it, which is part of what makes this piece so effective. The usage of dramatic line is integral to its mood and message, and does not take away from the audience’s connection because it adds a dream-like character. This oneiric mood is also communicated through the shape of the figures, where Matisse used biomorphic form.

Around fifteen years after The Joy of Life, biomorphic form became an important motif of the Surrealist movement, showing that Matisse’s introduction and use of this technique not only furthered his career, but also furthered art history as a whole. This type of form can be seen, for example, in Salvador Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War), which was painted in 1936–30 years after The Joy of Life. Dali’s painting, which can be found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, uses the biomorphic form to intensify the dreamlike quality.

Of all of the elements working in The Joy of Life, Matisse used contrast the most effectively. He successfully contrasted form and line to the composition as well as warm tones to cool tones. There is even contrast in expectations, as the heavy contrast of the work leads to a dynamic, almost chaotic composition as opposed to the sense of peace that the title would typically evoke. The Joy of Life’s historical place in the Fauvist movement challenges the history of art as much as it challenges the eye and the brain of the viewer. These challenges posed by Matisse fostered the creativity of later artists such as Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol by furthering his own technical development.

Ryan Kulka is currently a student at the University of Pittsburgh. She has always loved art and going to museums, whether they are near her home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania or farther away in Manhattan. In the spring, Ryan will graduate with a degree in Art History and Museum Studies.

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