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Dancing in the Dark
In his cut-outs, it may seem like Matisse went from wild beast to tame decorator. But there's more to his dancers than meets the eye.

By Morgan Meis

In the year 1905, Henri Matisse painted a portrait of his wife wearing a rather extraordinary hat. The painting was displayed at the Salon d’Automne in Paris that same year. Much shock and controversy followed. To many, the hat looked like a giant lump of randomly chosen colors sitting atop the poor woman’s head. What, also, was the point of all the green on the woman’s face? People and hats don’t look like that. The world doesn’t look like that.

By 1905, this game of looking at contemporary painting and expressing shock and dismay had been going on for some time. A generation had already passed since Impressionism first scandalized right-thinking art aficionados. In the years just after Impressionism, artists like Gauguin and Van Gogh fully dispatched the idea that color in painting had to correspond to color as we see it in the real world. In 1905, the public should have been ready for Matisse. But something about that portrait by Matisse was extra upsetting, even to a public that was now used to being scandalized by art. The color wasn’t just unexpected; it was jarring, verging on ugly. Critics dubbed Matisse and other painters in the show Fauvists. The word means, literally, wild beasts.

You’d expect the wild beast who painted "Woman with a Hat" (1905) to go even further into brutality and ugliness. Shocking the bourgeoisie is hard work. You’re constantly forced to up the ante.

That’s not what happened with Matisse. He continued to experiment radically with color. But his pictures became gentler as time went on. Matisse brought into his paintings a sense of balance, poise, beauty. By the end of his life, Matisse was making art that was downright pretty. There is no more damning adjective to an avant-garde artist than “pretty.”



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