Matisse and his method

For more than forty years Matisse used repetition as a method for honing and developing his craft and to continue an ongoing dialogue with his earlier paintings.

Throughout his career Matisse would repeatedly paint the same subject in pairs and series. Each repetition has its own story, but all of them embody Matisse’s way of working.

The origins of Matisse’s work on repetition

The foundations of Matisse’s work on repetition were laid down while he was a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Here, copying paintings by the old masters was part of the students’ curriculum.

Copying other artists was regarded as a method that helped students carefully analyse a work of art. The objective was to recreate the old masters’ paintings as accurately as possible. Successful copies were regarded as works of art in their own right.

Same subject, different styles

Matisse also copied works by artists from his own day. He did so in order to try his hand at these artists’ different methods and modes of expression. When Matisse wished to examine the weaknesses and strengths of two given artists, he would simply paint the same painting twice: One for each of the two artist’s style.

He tried out several different styles in a number of compositions sharing the exact same subject matter: Simple still lifes or the view from his studio window. This became the start of his lifelong experimentation with paintings in pairs and series, used to explore the potential of his chosen media and to push back the boundaries for his own mode of expression.


Matisse’s inspiration from other artists and innovative styles was expressed in Matisse’s first solo show at Vollard’s Gallery in Paris in June of 1904. This prompted critics to doubt whether he possessed real talent and originally. One critic stated that he could not find a single “sign of a powerful, creative personality."

The explanation

Two years later Matisse himself addressed his “chameleon-like changeability” in his first published interview: " I have never avoided the influence of others, …I believe that the personality of the artist develops and asserts itself through the struggles it has gone through when pitted against other personalities. If the fight is fatal and the personality succumbs, it means that this was bound to be its fate."

The new leader of the young artists

As Matisse developed his own personal mode of expression he began to achieve a certain amount of acclaim. In 1905 he was celebrated as the new leader of the young artists. Even though his style was ridiculed by critics and audiences alike, his works attracted the attention of a handful of influential collectors and art dealers.

The first pairs

Matisse’s investigations into different styles led to the creation of his first true pair. This happened in 1906 when Matisse painted a young local fisherman from Collioure twice in the paintings Young Sailor I and Young Sailor II.


In the years leading up to the 1920s Matisse developed his experiments further; he no longer exclusively worked with pairs, but also painted more extensive series. His choice of subject matter changed, focusing on arrangement on a Normandy beach, depictions of his hotel rooms in Nice, and oriental odalisques.

The solution to a new artistic problem

In 1931 Matisse was celebrated in a travelling exhibition. At this point critics had become more favourably disposed towards Matisse and his art, and one of them said of his work: "In spite of the repetition of subjects … there is no monotony here; any work by Matisse is a solution to a new artistic problem. Such frequent repetition of closely related themes under different conditions is proof of – rather than proof against – his sheer artistic originality and fecundity."

Photographing the works in progress

At an early stage of his career Matisse had his works photographed at important stages of the creative process. In the 1930s he returned to this approach, hiring a photographer to document the frequently dramatic changes that took place in his paintings from one day to the next. The photographs served to capture different stages of each painting.

The creative process on display

In 1945 the photographs were presented at an unusual exhibition, conceived by Matisse himself and presented at his friend Aimé Maeght’s gallery in Paris. Colourful canvases such as Still Life with Magnolia (1940) and The Dream (1940) were presented alongside large black and white photographs of their earlier stages. Here, Matisse seized the opportunity to put his working process on display, putting an end to the notion that he was a superficial painter who worked spontaneously

The exhibition was greatly inspired by the exhibition held in Paris 67 years ago; it, too, focused on Matisse’s working process.

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Updated: 26.apr.2018
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