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Henri Matisse

 


La Tristesse du roi (Sorrows of the King), 1952

 

THE WORKS OF HENRI MATISSE
An Odyssey in Colour

artist's biography
"To look all life long with the eyes of a child"

Individual Works
Luxe I winter 1907 (Luxe I),
• Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (French-Window at Collioure), 1914
• Le Violoniste à la fenêtre (The Violinist at the window), 1918
• Deux danseurs (Two Dancers), 1937-38
• Liseuse sur fond noir (Woman Reading, Black Background), 1939
• Le Clown et Le Lagon, in Jazz (The Clown, The Lagoon, Jazz), 1943-1947
• Chasuble, Vitrail bleu pâle et Rosace (Chasuble, Pale blue stained-glass and Rose Window), projects for the Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence, 1948-52
• Nu bleu II (Blue Nude II), 1952
• La Tristesse du roi (Sorrows of the King), 1952
• Nu de dos I, II, III et IV (The Back I, II, III and IV), 1909-1930

Chronology

Bibliography

 

This dossier is part of the series Monographs on the Great Figures of Modern Art, which will be added to regularly on this part of the site.

These dossiers are built around a selection of works by the artists who are best represented in the collections of the National Museum of Modern Art. Each dossier sets out to provide an accessible approach to understanding the work of a major artist in the history of 20th-century creative production.

Each of these dossiers includes:
- a general introduction which will present and situate the role of the artist and his or her work in a historical, geographical and aesthetic context,
- a biography of the artist,
- a selection of the most representative works from the Museum's collections, contained in individual files each with notes and a reproduction,
- a chronology of the artist's works.

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The Henri Matisse Holdings at the National Museum of Modern Art

The dossier on Henri Matisse offers an insight into the main phases of his work through the exceptional holdings assembled in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art: 245 pieces, including drawings, sculptures, prints and paintings, with five works being acquired in 2001, from the estate of Mme Marie Matisse (1914-1999), the widow of Jean Matisse, the paintes er'lder son.

 

 

The works of Henri Matisse
An Odyssey in Colour

In 1951, when he had just completed the last major project of his life, the Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence, Matisse summed up close on fifty years of work in these few words: "For me this chapel is the culmination of an entire working life and the flowering of a huge effort that has been heartfelt and arduous."

The only working life of an artist to match his in longevity was that of his contemporary, Picasso. But unlike the latter, Matisse produced an oeuvre subservient to a single idea: the search for a balance of colours and forms; by the end of his life, he succeeded in imprinting this upon matter, though, as he himself made plain, it was not without effort.

Indeed we learn from Matisse that from the first picture that got him noticed, Luxe, calme et volupté, in 1904, all the way to the chapel at Vence, the simplicity, freshness and the immediately striking brilliance that characterise his work came into being only as a result of much deep thought.
In order to reconcile colour with drawing through his gouache-painted cutouts, he had to deploy sculpture and flatness of colour in turn, in other words abstracting colour from design and vice versa, so as to circumscribe their respective potencies.
So that "art and decoration" would be "just one and the same thing", he studied architecture and saw how painting can transfigure it.
Finally, for painting to become that "art of balance, purity and serenity, with no troubling or disquieting subjects, so that for any mental worker, for example the businessman just as much as the artistic man of letters, it can be a soothing influence on the brain, rather the way a good armchair gives him relaxation from physical tiredness" (as he observed in 1908), Matisse pursued his original intuition through the great currents of art history over half a century: divisionism, fauvism and abstraction - without ever getting lost.
He had to travel a great deal too: to Brittany and the south of France, opening himself to Eastern influences on a trip to Morocco, visiting America and Oceania.

At the end of this odyssey through colour and ornamentalism, for the artists of the generation that came after him, both in the US and in Europe, Matisse became what André Masson called "the oasis of Matisse"; for the American abstract painters of the Fifties and Sixties, from Rothko to Kelly, from Sam Francis to Robert Motherwell; for Hantaï and Viallat in France in the Sixties - all of whom drew their source of inspiration from the freshness of his œuvre.

 

 

Artist's Biography
"To look all life long with the eyes of a child"

Henri Matisse
Cateau-Cambrésis, 1869 - Nice, 1954

Henri Matisse was the son of a grain merchant. His first studies were in law and he worked as a legal clerk in a notary's office at Saint-Quentin in the Picardy region. During a convalescence, he began to draw a little.
This initial experience led to his moving to Paris in 1891 to study painting. His teachers were the academic painter Bouguereau, and subsequently Gustave Moreau, who was closer to the contemporary avant-garde movements. Matisse then discovered Impressionism, Turner, Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and others. In 1904, after meeting Signac, the theoretician of the divisionist method first developed by Seurat, he painted Luxe, calme et volupté. But he was not satisfied with this canvas: "My dominant colours, meant to be deepened and given value by the contrasts, were in fact swallowed up by the contrasts, to which I gave as much weight as to the dominants. This led me to paint using flat slabs of colour; this was fauvism".

In 1905, Matisse exhibited a portrait of his wife at the Salon d'Automne: La Femme au chapeau (Woman with the Hat). It caused a scandal. Gertrude Stein noted that visitors giggled in front of the canvas and someone tried to slash it. Yet, though disparaged, Matisse now ceased to be anonymous and assumed the role of leader of a new avant-garde school
From then on, he had no difficulty exhibiting and selling his pictures. One notable commission was in 1909 from the rich Russian collector Shchukin, for two works, La Danse and La Musique (The Dance and Music). The affluence his success brought allowed him to travel, making trips like his two visits to Morocco in 1912 in 1913, an enriching experience for his work.
During the First World War, Matisse, then aged 45, was not called up. He remained in Collioure, then settled in Nice where he worked until the late 1920s, his almost exclusive subject being the female body.

In 1930, in search of a different light and space, he embarked on a long trip to Tahiti. From that island he brought back photographs and sketches, and above all memories. It was only much later that he succeeded in integrating his Tahitian experience into his pictorial practice, through his gouache cut-outs. After he underwent major surgery in 1941, this new procedure gave rise to his final masterpieces, among them Jazz in 1947, La Tristesse du roi (Sorrows of the King), 1952, and the projects for the Vence chapel between 1948 and 1951.

 

 

Individual Works

Luxe I (Luxe I), winter 1907
Oil on canvas
210 x 138 cm
© Succession H. Matisse

This canvas is one of Matisse's first great compositions and it shows a preoccupation which runs through the entire body of his work: that of reconciling tradition with modernity. In a landscape style inherited from modern Impressionist painting, the three bathers of Luxe I illustrate his fidelity to the academic genre of the nude. The massive aspect of the body of the standing woman and her fixed expression also testify to the painters interest in primitive art and African art in particular.

The work's theme, the Golden Age, also a traditional one, evoking the dawn of humanity in a realm of ideal harmony with nature, is inspired, like Luxe, calme et volupté, by Baudelaire's L'Invitation au voyage*. The painter illustrated the work of the poet a number of times in the course of his career and shared his ambivalent attitude to modernity.

The process of making this painting involved a procedure for drawing which was elaborated during the Renaissance: pouncing. This is a kind of stencil technique which consists of a card with the design of the eventual finished work; its contours are then perforated and coated with charcoal, thus transferring them onto the canvas. The gouache cut-outs of Matisse's final period are perhaps just an adaptation of this procedure.

When it comes to colour, here Matisse moves away from the Impressionist and Fauve styles which he had previously practised, rediscovering the flat colours of his master Puvis de Chavannes**. A proponent of decorative painting, Puvis de Chavannes had repudiated the shadows, reliefs and brilliancy of his compositions to return to the simplicity of medieval frescoes. This same imperative is to be found to a degree in Luxe I, and even more so in the second version with its deeper and more even hues, which Matisse produced the following year.

* L'Invitation au voyage, Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal
** To consult a site on Puvis de Chavannes

 

Porte-fenêtre à Collioure (French-Window at Collioure), 1914
Oil on canvas
116 x 89 cm
© Succession H. Matisse

With this canvas painted at Collioure in the autumn of 1914, Matisse offers a radically stripped-down image bordering on abstraction. It is in this sense that the work was interpreted when it was presented for the first time, long after the artist's death, in a travelling exhibition in the United States in 1966. Nonetheless, as a number of its elements indicate, this painting remains connected to representation, with all the sensuality and emotion which attaches to the theme of the window in Matisse's work.
Some details are explicitly figurative, like the scorings on the left-hand shutter which are reminiscent of slashes. Likewise, the oblique angle of the wall at the bottom of the canvas reintroduces three-dimensionality to represent the floor of the room. Lastly, there are trees and the balcony ironwork still visible, despite the black colourwash applied during the final stage of work.

Talking about a painting from 1916 in which black predominates, Matisse says he began "to use black as a colour of light and not as a colour of darkness". He appears already to be heading towards this discovery of black as an intimation of blinding light, here penetrating the space of the open window.
Unlike numerous other windows painted at Collioure after 1905, this one does not set out to articulate an interior space and a landscape. Between a dimmed interior and an even darker exterior, only the edges, the shutters or the bounds of the opening are lit. Merging with the rectangle of the picture, this window is approached for itself, as an emblematic subject of painting.

 

Le Violoniste à la fenêtre (The Violinist at the window), 1918
Oil on canvas
150 x 98 cm
© Succession H. Matisse

Matisse painted this canvas shortly after his arrival in Nice in the winter of 1917-18, when he settled there alone to concentrate on his art while his wife and three children stayed on in Paris.
In a continuity of style with the works that precede it, here he returns to the motif of the window and again uses black, though with new colours that are less heavy. As for the subject of the canvas, Matisse again takes up a theme he has handled before: music.

Music is very present in the iconography of the period, for it fuels reflections on the nature of painting and its relationship to imitation; as a non-discursive and non-representational art, music provides a model for the painting of the early century. But it was also particularly dear to Matisse, since he himself played the violin every day. In this respect Le Violoniste à la fenêtre can be interpreted as a self-portrait. The artist is playing to a window which for him represents painting.

Returning to the figure of the violinist in La Musique (Music), one of the two decorative panels commissioned in 1909 by the Russian collector Shchukin, in the manner of those medieval artists who represented themselves in one corner of their pictures, here Matisse hints at a disguised self-portrait, as would often be the case in his work.

 

Deux danseurs (Two Dancers), 1937-38
Pencil, gouache on paper, cut-outs pinned and stuck to cardboard
80 x 64 cm
© Succession H. Matisse

Matisse had often dealt with dance as a subject before, for example through the theme of the Golden Age (see the first note), in one of the panels commissioned by Shchukin in 1909*, and when he was asked in 1937 to produce the ballet screen for Léonide Massine's Rouge et Noir or Etrange farandole.

For this project he used a method elaborated between 1930 and 1933 for three panels intended for the country house of Doctor Barnes at Merion, Pennsylvania. This was to be a monumental fresco, also on the theme of dance, in which Matisse had set out to express the dynamism of bodies in movement. While working on this, he made use of coloured paper which he cut up and pinned on the canvas, as a way of adjusting the forms of his compositions and seeing how alterations might look.

Here he proceeded in the same way, using small pieces of cut-out paper which he would gradually add to or trim off, as if employing brush strokes to achieve the desired forms.
By developing what was still only a working method, Matisse put in place the pictorial vocabulary that was soon to renew his work: the gouache cut-outs.

* La Danse, 1909, The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg: see the work

 

Liseuse sur fond noir (Woman Reading, Black Background), 1939
Oil on canvas
92 x 73.5 cm
© Succession H. Matisse

Painted in Paris in the summer of 1939, this picture gathers elements from different worlds into one homogeneous space. Motifs drawn from real space - the young woman, the pages on the table, the bouquet of marguerites and violet scabious - are mingled with elements already formed as images, like the mirror or the drawing of a nude hung on the wall, a sketch which Matisse probably made for the occasion, based on the same model.

As in other works, for example Le Peintre dans son atelier (The Painter in His Studio), 1916, where he depicts himself from the back facing his model and the picture being painted, he constructs a complex play of repetitions and reflections. But unlike this other canvas where the metaphor of painting is evoked through the framing of the window, the process of pictorial creation appears here by means of the mirror and the reflection of the model, placed by the painter between the representation of the young woman and her body which is schematised by the drawing.

These elements are combined through the adjusting of various frames and rectangles, with the curves of the female body and the flowers softening their geometric rigour. But, above all, they are synthesised by the black background which, instead of looking like an occlusive curtain, lends the painting its depth of field and its mystery

 

 

Jazz, Le Clown, Planche I
(Jazz, The Clown, Plate I), 1943

Gouache-painted paper cut-outs
stuck to paper mounted on canvas
67.2 x 50.7
cm
© Succession H. Matisse


  Jazz, Le Lagon, Planche XVIII
(Jazz, The Lagoon, Plate XVIII),
around 1944

Gouache-painted paper cut-outs
stuck to paper mounted on canvas,
43.6 x 67.1 cm
© Succession H. Matisse

These two collages are part of the maquette for the book Jazz, published by Matisse in 1947 in collaboration with the publisher Tériade, who was of Greek origin. The nature of this work, which combines colour plates and pages of handwritten text, was retrospectively defined by Matisse at the end of the book: "These images with their vivid, violent tones are grounded in crystallised memories of the circus, of popular tales or journeys. I did these pages of writing to quieten accompanying reactions to my chromatic and rhythmic improvisations, as pages that form a kind of "ambient sound" carrying them along, surrounding them and thereby protecting their particularities."
Le Clown and Le Lagon, which are respectively placed on the flyleaf and at the end of the book (Jazz has 20 plates in all), are in fact related to two different stages.

Le Clown, one of the first illustrations done for the book, perhaps even before the project was actually established, is still, in its uneven cut-out style, close to earlier works like the Deux danseurs*, where one also finds the motif of the airborne suspended body. This plate is probably the original starting point for the theme of the book titled Le Cirque. Indeed, there are numerous figures within this universe; Monsieur Loyal (Plate III), Le Cauchemar de l’éléphant blanc (The White Elephant's Nightmare - Plate IV) or again L’Avaleur de sabres (The Sword-Swallower - Plate XIII) must have been the basis of its content.

But, as his project gradually progressed, Matisse found himself remembering his trip to Tahiti in 1930. For example, he introduces exotic vegetable forms into his circus scenes, as in Les Codomas (Plate XI) which pays homage to famous trapeze artists at the beginning of the century. The line of the cut-out is increasingly a continuous one, the violent glare of the footlights becomes softer and more akin to daylight.
The last three plates, on the theme of the lagoon, explain the change in the work's title to Jazz, which is no longer a description of its dramatic content, but rather of the improvisation and vitality which have characterised its making.
Moreover, the word "Jazz" is graphically interesting for Matisse. In 1944 he told Aragon: "I now know what a J is". For the work also contains texts written by him and recopied with the paint brush, black on white, its calligraphy counterbalancing the colour plates, supplying something like aphorisms "which people will read or not read, but will see... Like a kind of wrapping for my colours", as he put it.

* Deux danseurs, 1937-38: see the file

 

 

Chasuble, 1950-52
Maquette for a decorative project
Gouache-painted paper cut-outs, stuck on paper mounted on canvas
126 x 197.5
cm
145.3 x 205.2
cm
© Succession H. Matisse



Vitrail bleu pâle (Pale blue stained-glass)
Second maquette for the stained-glass windows in the Chapelle du Rosaire at Vence
Vence-Nice
December 1948-January 1949
Gouache-painted paper cut-outs, stuck on brown paper, then on white paper, mounted on canvas (a total of 14 panels)
© Succession H. Matisse

Rosace (Rose Window), 1951
Indian ink, gouache on paper mounted on canvas
149.9 x 150.6 cm
© Succession H. Matisse


Through Sister Jacques-Marie, who nursed him from 1941 until the time when she entered the convent and introduced him to her congregation, Henri Matisse designed the Chapelle du Rosaire for the Dominican sisters of Vence (in the Maritime Alps).
The overall conception aims for a balance between line and colours, within the architectural environment of a completely whitewashed construction; this symbolises the coming together of all the colours, while also being reminiscent of the traditional Mediterranean habitat.
The blue and white roof of the belltower, the soberly coloured stained-glass, designed using gouache cut-outs, are counterbalanced by the black lines of the belltower and the three interior frescoes on a white background, representing the Stations of the Cross, a Virgin and Child, and a Saint Dominic.

The pieces presented here are part of the decorative programme for the chapel to which Matisse exclusively devoted his creative energies between 1948 and 1951.

The drawings for the frescoes done on a ceramic base were made very quickly, each in a few hours, though after long sessions of study and working up to this, "like a prayer one says better each time". The stained-glass windows "which rise from floor to ceiling, and which convey, in cognate forms, an idea of foliage that is always from the same source, a tree characteristic of the region", needed three successive maquettes. After a first try on the theme of the heavenly Jerusalem which Matisse considered over-austere, the second multicoloured maquette overlooked the demands of the metallic structure supporting the stained-glass windows.
In the final model, which was elaborated in a few months on the theme of the tree of life, the colours were finally reduced to a lemon yellow, an ultramarine blue and a bottle green.
The studied simplicity, aiming "to express the idea of immensity, over a very limited surface", gives a response to religious feeling and brings about "the lightening of the spirit" which Matisse wanted to prompt in visitors to the chapel.

For this work which played a part in the renewal of sacred art, Matisse collaborated with Brother Rayssiguier, who developed the plans with the architect Auguste Perret, and Father Couturier, who commissioned the Monastery of Les Tourettes, a project designed by Le Corbusier.

 

Nu bleu II (Blue Nude II), 1952
Gouache-painted paper cut-outs stuck to paper mounted on canvas
116.2 x 88.9
cm
© Succession H. Matisse

Like the other four pieces in a series produced in 1952, Nu bleu II returns to a pose - arms crossed behind the back of the neck, leg bent in front of the torso - often used by Matisse both in painting (Nu assis, Olga, Seated Nude, Olga, 1910) and in sculpture (Nu couché, Reclining Nude, 1907; Vénus à la coquille, Venus with Seashell, 1930-51).

This two-dimensional work gives an impression of being in the round. As an heir to Cézanne, Matisse regarded blue as a colour expressing volume and distance. The gaps indicating the articulations of the body, while unifying the fragmented parts along the contours, gives the whole the effect of a relief. Lastly, the simplification of the forms recalls the stylisation of the body in African sculpture, which Matisse had collected since early in his career. The body seems to assume form deep inside a limitless space, which gives it a monumental character.

The series of Nus bleus can be seen as the culmination of a deeply reflective investigation of the figure in space which occupied Matisse throughout his life.

 

La Tristesse du roi (Sorrows of the King), 1952
Gouache-painted paper cut-outs, mounted on canvas
292 x 386 cm

© Succession H. Matisse

With the works preceding this, Matisse had discovered the richness and creative freedom offered by these pieces of paper covered in a single colour, a matt gouache made of pigments, lime and gum arabic, and cut up with scissors.
It was with this technique that he was to produce a number of monumental pictures during the very last years of his life; these are works on a par with the greatest classical compositions.

In this respect, La Tristesse du roi is a reference to one of Rembrandt's canvases, David jouant de la harpe devant Saül (David Playing the Harp before Saul), in which the young Biblical hero plays to distract the King from his melancholy, as well as to the late self-portraits of the old Dutch master. In this work, Matisse layers the themes of old age, of looking back towards earlier life (La Vie antérieure*, the title of a poem by Baudelaire which the artist had already illustrated) and of music soothing all ills.

In this final self-portrait, the painter represents himself by this black form, like a silhouette of himself sitting in his armchair, surrounded by the pleasures which have enriched his life: the yellow petals fluttering away have the gaiety of musical notation; the green odalisque symbolises the Orient, while a dancer pays homage to the female body. All of these Matisse themes are combined in this magisterial painting.

* La Vie antérieure, Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

 

Nu de dos I
(The Back I), 1909

190 x 116 x 13 cm

Nu de dos II
(The Back II), 1913

188 x 116 x 14 cm

Nu de dos III
(The Back III),
1916-1917

190 x 114 x 16 cm

Nu de dos IV
(The Back IV), 1930

190 x 114 x 16 cm
Bas-reliefs, bronze cast by cire perdue method
© Succession H. Matisse

Throughout his oeuvre Matisse worked on sculpture as a way of perfecting his approach to form. With Nus de dos, a series running from 1909 to 1930, one by one he tackled the pictorial problems he encountered: the design of monumental figures (his work on Nu de dos I, 1909 was contemporaneous with his great compositions La Musique and La Danse), and the relationship between form and background (the frescoes for the Barnes Foundation were produced in 1930, as was Nu de dos IV).
However, although the series does not seem to have been conceived to be presented as a single entity (the bronze castings were made only after Matisse's death) these four sculptures form a plastic unity.

Studies are in agreement that Matisse produced each new phase on the basis of the preceding one, successively re-cutting his plaster moulds. Thus, the breast, the hand and the hair are made increasingly schematised, the lopsidedness of the body is lost for the sake of a central axis which assimilates the figure into an engaged column, and the design fades gradually to merge into the background. Through this series, Matisse progressed towards the figure as being increasingly independent from its model and from any representation. Each piece is a stage on the way to a synthesis and autonomy of form.

 

 

Chronology

1904
Matisse's first exhibition, at the Ambroise Vollard gallery, Paris.

1905
Luxe, calme et volupté, painted during the previous summer at St-Tropez, is exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants and bought by Signac. Other canvases are presented at the Salon d'Automne alongside works by Derain, Vlaminck, Marquet and others in a room which the art critic Louis Vauxcelles, the originator of the term "Cubism", dubs "la cage aux fauves" (the wild beasts' cage). A new movement is born, with Matisse as its leader.

1906
Matisse stays for a time at Biskra in Algeria, and at Collioure, where he is fascinated by the Mediterranean landscape.

1907
Having acquired a degree of fame, he teaches in a school set up by a group of admirers.

1908
At his New York gallery, the "291", Alfred Stieglitz organises the first exhibition of Matisse's work in the United States.

1909
The Russian collector Shchukin commissions two decorative panels from him: La Danse and La Musique.

1910
Retrospective exhibition at the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, Paris.

1911
Matisse travels to Seville, Collioure and Moscow, where he studies the icons, then spends the winter of 1911-1912 at Tangiers; he discovers the dazzling light of Morocco.

1913
The paintings done in Morocco are exhibited in Paris along with recent work, at the same time as 17 works are hung at the great international exhibition, the Armory Show, in New York.

1914
When war is declared, in spite of having volunteered Matisse is not mobilised. He settles in Collioure where he becomes the friend of the most intellectual of the Cubist painters, Juan Gris.

1918
The Paul Guillaume gallery organises an exhibition which compares his works with Picasso's.

1920
Matisse designs the sets and costumes for Diaghilev's ballet, Le Chant du rossignol, with music by Stravinsky.

1924
First major retrospective in Copenhagen.

1927
Matisse is awarded the prestigious Carnegie Prize.

1930
He embarks on his trip to Tahiti, with New York and San Francisco as ports of call.
He begins work on illustrating Mallarmé's poetry, and accepts Doctor Barnes's commission for three decorative panels for his Merion Foundation in Pennsylvania.

1937
Diaghilev's Ballets Russes commission a new set from him for Rouge et Noir.

1938
Matisse goes to live at the Hôtel Régina in Cimiez, where he is to produce the bulk of his final masterpieces.

1941
Major surgery leaves him an invalid; he works lying down, with the help of assistants.

1944
His wife and daughter are arrested for involvement in the Resistance. Matisse, who has stayed in the South of France, illustrates Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal.

1947
Publication of Jazz by the publisher Tériade.

1948
He begins work on the decoration of the Chapelle du Rosaire for the Dominican nuns at Vence; this will be inaugurated by Father Couturier in 1951.

1950
Matisse is prize-winning artist at the 25th Venice Biennale.

1952
Opening of the Matisse Museum at Cateau-Cambrésis, the town where Matisse was born.

 

 

Bibliography

In the French version of the "Henri Matisse" dossier, you can consult

• extracts from the reference text: Henri Matisse, "il faut regarder toute la vie avec des yeux d'enfants", edited by Régine Pernoud, Le Courrier de l'UNESCO, vol. VI, No 10, October 1953 ; reproduced by Dominique Fourcade, Henri Matisse. Ecrits et propos sur l'art, Hermann, Paris.

• a selective bibliography: essays on Henri Matisse, exhibition catalogues and texts by Henri Matisse.

 

 

To consult the other dossiers on the collections of the National Museum of Modern Art
In French
In English


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© Centre Pompidou, Direction de l'action éducative et des publics, April 2005
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Translated by Liz Heron
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