Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' (1912) by Henri Matisse
Meaning and Interpretation of French Colourist Painting

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Nasturtiums and The Dance
By Henri Matisse.
Regarded as one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' (1912)


Explanation of Modern Colourist Painting


Name: Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' (1912)
Artist: Henri Matisse (1869-1954)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Semi-abstract interior
Movement/Style: Expressionism
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of pictures
by colourist painters
like Matisse, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' by Matisse

Henri Matisse, along with Picasso (1881-1973) and Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), is ranked among the most influential 20th century painters in France. In addition to painting, he also excelled at sculpture and produced theatrical sets for the Ballets Russes (1920). After experimenting with Pointillism, he turned to more emotional forms of colour. He became the leader of Fauvism, the vanguard form of the Expressionist movement that swept Paris in 1905-6, as well as an important figure in the Ecole de Paris, before being drawn to the Mediterranean light of Nice and the French Riviera, where he remained active until his death at the age of 84.

Matisse painted this picture in the summer of 1912 in the studio attached to his house at Issy-les-Moulineaux, then a country town a few kilometres south-west of the suburban fringe of Paris. The house had a large garden, but, as far as painting was concerned, Matisse preferred his flowers indoors, in vases in the studio. The task he had set himself was not so much to paint the appearance of things, however picturesque, but to make painting respond to the feelings generated by those things. A few sprigs of nasturtium might suffice to trigger this interior world. When asked that summer to define his theory of art, Matisse pointed to a table with a jar of nasturtiums on it, and replied, "Take that table, for example, I don't literally paint that table but the emotion it produces in me".

Sitting on a tripod table that Matisse usually used for modelling or displaying sculpture, a green vase bubbles over with the round leaves and flowering tendrils of nasturtiums. The orange flowers, tipped with red, hug the shape of the vase as if they were its own pattern. The tendrils spring out from the vase and curve around its contours. Three nude dancers, from Matisse's large painting Dance, 1909, which was leaning against the wall of his studio, take up the rhythm, twisting and circling around a bright green mound. As if reanimated by the nasturtiums, the dancers of this earlier painting are absorbed into the new composition - their landscape, too, is subtly merged with the studio interior. The tripod table, for instance, has two legs on the studio floor and one leg improbably poised on the green mound 'inside' the earlier painting. The dancers and their landscape have been painted with the same broad areas of brilliant colour as the studio floor and its furniture.

Only in the vase of flowers does colour conventionally observe contour, and only the vase of flowers and the table on which it sits are completely visible. There are no corners to the room and both the chair and the painting of the dancers are fragmented, cut by the frame, their separate identities made deliberately less important than their part in a decorative arrangement that carries the vigour of those nasturtiums, like a pulse, through the whole painting. A picture should, for me, always be decorative', Matisse said that summer, "while working I never try to think, only to feel".

Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' is the second of two versions of the same subject that were painted at the same time. In the first version, now in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, the floor-line of the studio recedes diagonally and the colour is dense. In the present version, the interior is seen frontally, and the colour is more thinly and spontaneously applied, allowing the light, unpainted canvas to outline the forms, instead of the dark contours used in the first version. An atmospheric, colour-filled space takes the place of conventional recession. When asked why he painted this second version, Matisse replied, "Because such a thing is quite natural; the conception is not the same, here I was carried away by the colour".



Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' was one of the first paintings by Matisse to be seen in America. It was shown with twelve other works by the artist at the International Exhibition of Modern Art - which opened in the building of the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory in New York in 1913. The Armory Show, as it was subsequently known, introduced America to the best modern artists from Europe. The painting was purchased in 1923 by one of America's most eloquent early spokesmen for modernism, Scofield Thayer. As co-owner and editor of The Dial magazine from 1919 to 1925, Thayer complemented the avant-garde literature he published with reproductions of modern works of art, many of them from his personal collection, which he assembled for the purpose. Between 1919 and 1925 he bought at least 450 modern paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, a number of which appear in this exhibition. In 1982 Scofield Thayer died at the age of ninety-two, and the Metropolitan found itself heir to one of the most important single bequests of modern art ever made to a museum, with Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' being perhaps the jewel in the crown.

Explanation of Modern Colourist Painting

The Green Blouse (1919) by Pierre Bonnard.
Colourist interior.

The Terrace at Vernon (1939) by Pierre Bonnard.
Wonderful example of Bonnard's late colourism.


• For the meaning of other colourist works, see: Homepage.

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