Seville Still-Life, 1910-11.
Oil on canvas.
35" x 46."
Matisse painting Seville Still Life in Spain in 1910. Just as Picasso and other Modernists were appropriating influences from Africa, Islam, and Japan, Matisse here found Moorish design as a way of freeing himself from the particulars of realism. The foreign designs became meat for Modernist ideas. Instead of using values to indicate space, in this canvas Matisse was dedicating himself to the Modernist ethos of the surface and the formal elements, or basic structure, of the picture. Color was his forward element, taking the place of value, and in this way Matisse was a pirate on the open seas of change.
The surrounding patterns of emerald green with crimson notes control the composition, and the China blue chair cover gives visual movement and compliments the orange design of the central tablecloth. Everything supports the negative spaces of high intensity vermillion red. The celebration of negative space reenforces Matisse's idea of the the picture plane as the main thing. This is the essence of Modernism: innovation. We are not looking at Vasari's type of space; Henri Matisse owns a whole new archetype of picture space.
Compare the earlier still life, Crockery on a Table, which was created just ten years before the Seville work.
Crockery on a Table, 1900.
oil on canvas
97 x 82 cm
Matisse is, even in 1900, concerned with design over all else. Here, he has added another length of canvas below the table top to allow the objects to breath in a fully realized space. The extra negative space gives the coffee set an elevated position, and proper importance.
This essay by artist Paul Corio says much about Matisse's colorist ways:
I've been thinking about Matisse a lot lately, for a number of reasons. I'm teaching a color course with a pattern component right now, and needless to say, it's a good time to revisit with a fresh eye a lot of the pictures that I've seen a million times.
Without gushing about his mastery, I'll say this: he was a master. Like his friend Bonnard, he could confound figure and ground without painting abstract pictures; using limited value contrasts to mash objects back into the flattened, shallow space, and using pattern to bring the ground almost all the way up to the picture plane. He could also paint people without making pictures about people, which is a much bigger deal than it sounds like - his figures had no particular psychology to explore, they exist on the same plane (literally and figuratively) as the still-life elements, furniture, textiles, and the other objects and spaces in the pictures. Matisse used color as a leveler of those things, and like all great colorists he made it looks easy, which led (and still leads) many to question the scope of his achievement.