Henry Matisse is regarded as one of the artist greats of the 20th century, along with his friend Pablo Picasso. While Picasso is mostly famous for his expiration of forms — especially through the stylistic invention of Cubism — Matisse is known for his exploration of color.
In the latter part of his life, he was confined to a wheelchair and unable to engage in painting. But he still had a penchant for artistic creativity, and he continued to create art with decoupage, which involves using colored paper and other decorative elements like paint to create art.
Let’s take a look at his colorful portrait of melancholy, The Sadness of the King. Created in 1952, Matisse assembled this scene on a canvas using paper and gouache, a thick type of watercolor.
The picture is divided into three sections, each one occupied by a different figure. At the right is a greenish seated figure with an orange circle that likely represents a drum. At the left is a black dancer in a white garment. In the center is the titular king of the composition, who appears to be playing a mandolin.
A trail of leaves begins in the bottom right hand part of the canvas. It makes its way over the dancer, where it becomes somewhat scattered around the king and the drummer. These yellowish lozenge shapes have a certain ambiguity that allows them to represent leaves, musical notes, or even tears. The movement of our eyes along this line is only accentuated by the left-leaning stances of all the figures. But as the leaves arch over the figures, they become scattered, which leads our eye to dance around the spaces that surround them and explore the colors of this arrangement. Orange curves around the dancer suggest her motion.
Unity and Balance
The arms of the dancer form a c-shape, which is mirrored by another c-shape that could ambiguously be her legs or the hem of her dress. Though there is nothing symmetrical about the figures, the composition itself (as mentioned) is split into three equal parts. The green seated figure, the green head of the king, and the green space behind the dancer create a sense of balance, as does the orange of the drum, the orange of the mandolin, and the orange of the lines around the dancer.
Color and Lighting
As Matisse progressed through his artistic career, his compositions began to place an equal importance to the textures of the foreground and the background — an effect that is easily achieved with paper collage. There is not much perspective to this piece. Everything is happening in the foreground, and it is all brilliantly colored by Matisse’s selection from a palette of 11 bright colors, which he intentionally selected to react against one another.
It is the mood of this painting which is the strangest…or perhaps the juxtaposition between the mood that it is supposed to reflect, and the mood that it presents. In fact, their juxtaposition is as strong as the contrast between the brilliant colors of this arrangement, which is why perhaps Matisse has chosen this arrangement. Without knowing the title of this work or the story behind it, one would assume that it is a happy scene, as indicated by the signs of music, dancing, and its bright colors. The only piece that might allude to sadness is the black robe of the seated king. It is possible to also see an allusion to the wheelchair-bound nature of Matisse’s later life; the dancer and the drummer both have feet, but the king does not, which evokes a feeling of immobility or helplessness. However, one of the more fascinating parts of this composition remains the contrast between the evoked mood of its bright appearance and the evoked mood of the story behind it.
The seated figure is a reflection of the Odalisque, a female concubine in the harem of the Turkish Sultan. This particular archetype was fascinating to Matisse and fascinating to Western painters in general as they dabbled in a sort of Romanticized portrayal of the East which has become known as Orientalism. The Dancer is also another Eastern-like figure, most likely inspired by a dancing slave painted by the French Romantic artist Delacroix in The Women of Algiers in their Harem. Matisse’s colorful collages also bring to mind similar trends that were happening in music, especially jazz. Though this work was certainly executed with foresight and planned composition, it’s easy to associate with the free-spirited deconstruction of a jazz solo.
Matisse was one of those artists who went through a variety of styles, similar to Picasso and Pissaro one generation before them. His earlier paintings were part of a movement called Fauvism, where painters liberated colors from the confines of depicting reality and instead used them to evoke moods — a process that had begun with the likes of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. A 1941 surgery left Matisse wheelchair bound and very limited in terms of painting, so he turned to decoupage instead. This composition was his attempt to “soothe the brain” and pay homage to some of the favorite things of his former life, among them women, music, and dance. He may also have been inspired by Baudelaire’s poem La vie Antérieure, which described the power of music to soothe pain; Matisse had illustrated this poem in 1944.
The personal symbolism of Matisse’s farewell to music, dance, and women has already been mentioned. But he has tied it into a more universal motif of the angst-ridden king soothed by music, a Biblical theme that is depicted with the young David (eventually to be King David) playing the harp for a tormented King Saul, who is soothed by the music of the young shepherd. The aging king, in this case saddened, is also a theme in mythology. The notion of an aging ruler as it ties into resurrection and the cycle of season is discussed at length in James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Indeed, there may be some allusion to life, death, and even rebirth in Matisse’s work — its bright colors (life) contrasted with the black of the king’s robe and the blackness of what might be a window in the wall (death). Then there are the ambiguous lozenge-shaped leaves that fly over the group. In the air the fly about, becoming tears or musical notes, a strange mix of melancholy and joy.
As you can see, there is so much to learn about art and art history. For a stunning compilation of retouched visuals spanning every period in art history, along with excellent commentary of the imagery, I recommend Art: The Definitive Visual Guide by DK Publishers. For an excellent narrative treatment of the story of art as it’s unfolded over the centuries, I recommend The Annotated Mona Lisa.