Serial Mirrors of Henri Matisse

As we all know, Henri Matisse has been painting one and the same painting all his life, the one above one infine canvas that can be called “Nude with Her Flower.” (It’s either immediately seen, of if not seen immediately, you need to look at the section (*)). Basically, all his works can be seen as the sketches and studies for that one main  painting (or it itself can been seen as one life-long series.)

The public is traditionally kept uninformed about this almost obsessive seriality of Matisse; art critics talk about colors, and compositions, and atmosphere, but on the ‘serial obsessiveness’ of his works. But something is changing, even if slowly; i_shmael writes about an exhibition in the Centre Pompidou, that somehow highlights this ‘seriality’ of the French master, and shows the pieces of this infinite canvas he was creating. 

It so happened that there are no works with mirrors at this exhibition (or may be they are there, but didn’t get into the catalogue or to the nice short movie about this event they made). Which is not so surprising: like many other authors with the Dionysian taste, Matisse didn’t pay much attention to mirrors, and the majority of his works contant none of them. Mirrors, as we know, are liked by exquisitely refined, reflective and decadent masters, and all these qualities are not of Matisse.

Still, a complete lack of mirrors in such an exhibition seems to strange; however Dionysian, Matisse did painted a few mirros in his life, and those do have distinctive serial character, too.

This short posting will be therefore trying to fill the exhibited gap, and presents a few mirrors of Matisse

It is interesting that the first mirrors Matisse painted at the very beginning of his art life, already during the Fauvist period:

La coiffure (1901)

Les fleurs jaunes (1902)

Carmelina (1903)

I do not have any reproductions of his earlier works with mirrors, of the time learning and apprenticeship (1890s to 1900s). But three works already show that the mirrors played a very important role, basically, they were central, pivotal elements of the compositions, and occupied a prominent place.

It is also interesting to note that in all these paintings we probably one and the same mirror, a simple rectangular one in a wooden frame (of yellow or goldish color); I don’t insist on this point, though, these could be also three very different mirrors.

But on the other hand, we see nothing particularly original (from the point of view of depicting mirrors) in these studies either; these types of compositions had been employed by many other artists (some for for centuries).

These three paintings also show at once the love triangle in which Matisse will be exploring till the rest of his life: The Naked Woman – The Flowers – Himself.

Bob Kessel, an American artist and illustrator best known for his re-appropriations of different other artists, once painted quite a symbolic homage to Matisse; I edited it just slightly, replacing the fishes with the flowers (which statistically speaking are more representative):  

But here I jump over a hundred years, to our time. Let’s go back for a while, to 1900s -1910s, best know as the epoch of wild Fauvism; below is a visual digest of this era, and perhaps the best known Matisse:

These all great works, very expressive and emotional, wildly Dionysian, le tempête et le ruée; there is no chance for mirror to appear on these canvases.

The works of this period (from 1900s till about 1915s) brought Matisse both Fame and Money, and also an opportunity to move to Nice, where Matisse gradually turned from the ‘one of many’ into ‘one of kind’, the art wizard of colors and forms.

And it is here, in Cimiez, nice suburbs of Nice, he again started to put mirrors in his works:

Le lecteur inattentif (1919)

I think that this oval mirror initially came to his house, and then later to a dozen or so of his paintings. I would love to learn more about this material side of his life, what was the interior in the house, who and why was buying what. For example, who has chosen and bought this mirror? Whose taste does it reflect?  In my school years I read two-volume edition of the diaries of Matisse, but I hardly remember anything by now (and even by then I mostly looked through the illustrations).

Some of the ‘mirror works’ of this period form those “pairs and a series” that the exhibition at the Pompidou was about:

On the left is a small still life Anemones au mirror noir (1918), on the right, Le lit dans la glace, Bed in the mirror (1919).

And another painting, Still Life with Lemons (1919), does not, perhaps, form a series in a strict sense, but it’s still connected to the previous two through its transitory object, the oval mirror:

As in the three earliest paintings with mirrors, here the oval mirror too, plays a big role. The compostions are again built around the mirror, and its reflective surface.

But then, in a large number of other paintings, this famous oval mirror becomes  completely unimportant, just a plain detail of interior detail. Of course, because it is places in so many of these paintings, they become somewhat connected, however latent and illusory the link.

In this sense all these mirror-related paintings by Matisse create one series, too (plus within this large series we also can identify some and mini-series, like in this case of  the two breakfasts):Déjeuner (1919)

Woman by a window (1922)

In the majority of cases, the mirrors in these pictures reflect either nothing or something very fuzzy and blurred.

La méditation. Après le bain (The Meditation. After the Bath) (1920)

In some works it’s not even clear that it is a mirror, and additional information, a hint is required to make a guess.

Gradually the mirror loses any importance: in this Interior with iPad  Interior with a Violin Case (1919), for example, the mirror, even if being visually much stronger element, does not define the meaning of the painting; the case does. Otherwise, the work can be called Interior with Black Mirror.

Quite logically that soon we see only the traces of the mirrors:

Interior with a window (1919).

Few more examples of these ‘mirror traces’:

Le boudoir (1921)

Reading woman (1921)

Woman on a sofa (1922)

In the next painting our attention is not on the mirror, it’s far from that; yet the mirror is still here, and does bind all the same elements of the Matisse’s ‘love triangle’.

I found only one work so far where the oval mirror does work; it does reflect the nude model sitting next it.

Nu au turban (1924)

Brief Summary of Mirrors and Matisse:

– Mirrors are rarely used in his works, and if used, their role is minimal

– Mirror carry no symbolic meaning, they are just a piece of the interior

– The most elaborate method is the “Dark Side of the Moon,” already known for at least 485 years

– The mirrors are small, and – perhaps the most important of all

– None of the women look at the mirror; Matisse’s woman are not alive, they are  models, mannequins, and the mannequins do not look in the mirrors.

It is interesting to map the evolution of the mirror’s representations in his paintings:

Whether the mirror has a reflection in to or not (vertical axis), is not so important for Matisse. The horizontal axis, from “realism” to “abstraction” is more indicative: we clearly see that with time the representations become less and less detailed, and more abstract. Of course, it’s not related only to the mirrors, but rather reflects (sic!) more general trend in his art. But as a results, the famous oval mirror of Matisse gradually transforms into a hole, of non-existing donut.

But the oval mirror was not the only one in his house, in his works we see the traces of at least one large mirror as well.

For example, in one of his early works of the Nice period we see a large mirror, mounted into a dress closet’s doors. Functionally these mirrors are designed specifically for women who would love to look at themselves when trying new dresses; but we see no traces of this dedicated use, neither in this, nor in any other works of this series. Despite the mirror surface occupies about 40% of the canvas, it’s  still only a piece of furniture.

Femme en blanc par un miroir (Woman in white by a mirror) (1918)

But something in this composition seemingly fascinated Matisse. Soon, from the beginning of 1920s, he began his ‘oriental’ series, where similar mirror was used a number of times:

Odalisque Reflected in Mirror (1923)

The above is one of the earlier studies, but soon he also painted a large work, too:

 Standing odalisque reflected in a mirror (1923)

It’s an amazing, super-cool work (almost genius, if to borrow the grades fromi_shmael). It’s not a completely new development in composition (we saw similar take in the Degas’ Madame Jeantaud), but there is also something very unique and novel here, made first by Matisse.

First, we see here is a full-length mirror, allowing to see your figure in full. And we see in the reflection an (almost) complete figure too (we missing only the feet). Yet, the odalisque does not look at this mirror, she is completely uninterested, detached even from what is shown there.

The tradition that insisted in art before (and I mean here the tradition of depicting such large mirrors) presumed that the ladies were supposed to somehow interact with them, either stare at their own reflection, or at least positioning their bodies in such a way that would show they took mirrors into consideration.

Here we see almost clinical juxtaposition – a frontal view vs side view, like in a police photo of a criminal. And in the same dehumanizing way as with the criminals, she  is completely detached and excluded from any conscious interaction with the mirror.

A year later, Matisse made another sketch, this time of a completely nude figure.

Nude in the mirror (1924)

I do not know if there is a corresponding painting, never seen it in catalogs.

Matisse didn’t start painting more mirrors after this oriental series, but perhaps some ideas stick; many years later he painted another ‘criminal photo’ portrait with a mirror, this time also exaggerated by a striped, jail-robe-like dress of the model:

La reflection (1935)

On yet another late work the model is also reflected in a mirror, but she’s not even leaning on it, she just stands by the mirror, even more detached from it:

Nude in white peignoir standing by the mirror (1937)

Is this the same closet as before? or did Matisse buy a separate large mirror for the studio? Most likely, the second – we see a similar mirror (the large one, and in the yellow frame) in the other works of late 1930’s:

Woman in blue dress before a mirror (1937)

And again in another painting:

Reading woman on a black background (1939)

It is likely that the house had yet atoner mirror, above a fireplace, although I am not completely sure: 

Nude standing by a mantelpiece (1936)

This fireplace appears in another, earlier work, but here we hardly see even the traces of a mirror (if it existed at all; it could be a mantlepiece with the paintings):

The Moorish screen (1920)

There was another mirror in the life/art of Matisse; we see it first in one of his early works; as with most of his mirrors  it doesn’t ‘do’ any mirror works.

The Painter and His Model (1917)

This mirror will also appear in two other studies for his oriental series, and I guess mostly because of its rich frame:

Seated Odalisque, Left Knee Bent (1928)

Decorative Figure on an Ornamental Background (1926)

As I wrote, the Matisse’s models do not look in the mirror; it is the master who looked at them, and at their reflections. There is one exception from this ‘rule’:

Dancer Reflected in the Mirror (Danseuse reflétée dans la glace) (1927)

In the middle of the 1930s Matisse made a series of drawing where we also see a few mirrors:

Reclining nude. The painter and his model (1935)

Modeling in the mirror (1936)

Self-portrait with nude at the mirror (1937)

I know that there are more of those, but it’s difficult to find them online, and I need to wait till the moment when I get a book or a catalogue, specifically focussed on his drawings.

It is a pity that at some point Matisse stopped using mirrors in his works – I know of no work of his later, graphical period, which would have mirror(s) in it. It would be great to see, for example, how he would depict mirrors in his cut-out series (below is my own imaginative creation):

This is my short story about cabbages, and kings, Matisse, his nudes, their deprivation of self-reflective practices, as well as about the place of mirrors in the interiors of our lives.

I’d love to come back to Matisse and his mirrors later; his drawings is a really interesting case, but I need to gather more cases. 


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