In Focus

Henri Matisse's Still Life: Bouquet and Compotier

The following essay is from the 2003 publication Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years, edited by Dorothy M. Kosinski.

The Dallas Museum of Art joyously celebrates its 100th anniversary with important new acquisitions of major works of art. Margaret McDermott (through The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc.) once again profoundly transforms a collection area of the Museum, this time with the addition of a major painting by 20th-century master Henri Matisse.

Still Life: Bouquet and Compotier is one of a group of about fifteen important still-life paintings that Matisse produced in Nice in 1924-1925, including major works in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Kunstmuseum, Bern. Alfred Barr, art historian and founding director of MoMA, described these as "among the most sumptuous still-lifes and studio interiors." [1] Matisse's Nice period is perhaps the most popular moment in the artist's career. The great critic Roger Fry celebrated the paintings of 1920-1925 as "arabesques of gay and sonorous color. . .Matisse is always serenely joyful, always utterly free, always responsive to sensual delights." [2]

Matisse masterfully plays with the familiar studio props in his third floor apartment at I, place Charles Félix. The painted standing screen, the tablecloth, and the compotier all reappear in other paintings.

The painting embodies all of the essentials of Matisse's style. We see his ambitious play with decoration, creating elisions between painted patterns and three-dimensional objects. The undulating black garland of the painted screen seems to merge with a passage of "disembodied" flowers, somehow closer to abstract design than to real flowers. This is a crucial passage in the composition, a point of tension and concentration, where Matisse literally "breaks" the gilt wooden frame of the screen.

The central part of the bouquet, however, is fully developed, with the artist's deft touch conjuring unmistakable daisies, roses, and anemones. Examination of each flower reveals the authority with which he "constructs" his bouquet. Daubs of pale blue, peach, mauve, yellow, and deep red define the flowers, while freely applied brush-loads of vibrant green define the leaves.

Spatial ambiguity is a major theme in the painting through the manipulation of the standing screen in the background, its relationship to the section of wall visible at right, and the varied treatment of the table surface. It is, for instance, extraordinarily difficult to situate the bold black garland at left in space, The grand bouquet itself seems to float between planes and levels of reality. The wall at right, decorated with a print, also hovers ambiguously in space. The more densely painted section of the table directly beneath the still-life objects seems to designate its surface, while the passages in the foreground and at right exist in spatially indeterminate zones.

Matisse masterfully orchestrates a subtle palette of pink, mauve, silvery-gray, and ochre, all in bold contrast to deep passages of saturated black in the painted garland decoration, in the vase or pot, and in the shadows that penetrate the bouquet.

The artist includes an unabashed homage to Paul Cezanne through the elegant compotier with five mandarins, the small twig of leaves providing a brilliant accent. The rim and foot of the compotier are delicately highlighted with streaks of gold and yellow. The painting is ebullient and bold. The "break"of the gilt wooden frame of the paneled screen is one expression of the artist's profound self-confidence. The range of colors that constitute the play of shadows on the tablecloth is another compelling passage. The single red apple at right, outlined firmly in black, is an authoritative visual anchor for the entire right-hand portion of the painting.

Still Life: Bouquet and Compotier is a paradigmatic work by one of the greatest masters of modern art. It is quintessential Matisse, balancing a freedom of paint application and spontaneity of composition with a sense of deliberateness and control. This painting is an important addition to the Museum's holdings in 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century art, as it joins still-life paintings by Anne Vallayer-Coster, Gustave Courbet, Edouard Manet, Henri Pantin-Latour, and Paul Cezanne, as well as Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Juan Gris.

[1] Alfred Barr, Jr., Matisse: His Art and His Public (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951), 212.

[2] Jack Flann, ed., Matisse: A Retrospective (New York: H.L. Levin Associates, 1988), 249.

Excerpt from

Dorothy Kosinski, "Henri Matisse's Still Life: Bouquet and Compotier," in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years, ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 97.