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The evolution of Matisse's magical cut-outs

The evolution of Matisse's magical cut-outs

Matisse's art has always been iconic, but it has seen a revival as it appears in interior decors all over Instagram. From our archives, here's a guide to Matisse's magical cut-outs

Drawing with scissors, the famous French artist found a new way to capture "the lightness and joy of springtime."

"Matisse found a new way to capture 'the lightness and joy of springtime'"

"Cutting straight into colour reminds me of the direct carving of the sculptor." Thus world-famous painter Henri Matisse wrote of his latest approach to art—paper cut-outs—in 1946. Matisse was then 76.

The birth of the cut-out process

In spite of a serious operation which forced him to spend more and more time in bed or in a wheelchair, Matisse had developed a significant new technique by the early 1940s. He called it drawing with scissors. His assistants coloured sheets of paper in advance in various gouache (opaque watercolour) hues. Then from his agile fingers—Matisse could do the cutting in a flash—came evocative figures: dancers, nudes, flowers, birds, fish and abstract shapes.

The Snail by Henri Matisse © Fair use

The Snail (1953) by Henri Matisse hangs in London's Tate Gallery, which sells some 10,000 postcard prints of this cut-out every year. Image from WikiArt © Fair use.

Said Matisse, "I arrived at the cut-outs in order to link drawing and colour in a single movement."

Assembling the cut papers could be a long process. The disabled artist, a long stick in his hand, told his assistants how to pin the elements on paper or cardboard screens placed on easels or the walls of his study. When the effect he searched for was achieved, the final composition was glued on to its background.

"From his agile fingers came evocative figures: dancers, nudes, flowers, birds, fish and abstract shapes"

A Paris publisher had suggested a book to Matisse, and Jazz, a series of 20 colour plates of folklore, music-hall, circus and travel images with text reproduced in the artist's own handwriting, was the result. Today a copy of the original edition can sell for as much as £100,000.

Matisse's stained glass projects

The project marked a turning-point in Matisse's evolution: "It is from Jazz that later my stained-glass windows were born." The window designs include those of the famous Chapel of the Rosary at Vence in the south of France. Matisse made stunning cut-outs as maquettes (models) for the chapel's three stained-glass windows, the tabernacle door and the six chasubles.

"The project marked a turning-point in Matisse's evolution"

In the 1950s, with exhibitions in Paris, Bern, Stockholm, New York and other cities, Matisse's cut-outs created a stir in the world of art. They had become Matisse's strongest exploratory medium of work, "the simplest and most direct way to express myself."

Altogether Matisse made some 300 cut-outs, varying in size from large-book format such as Jazz to dramatic room-sized creations such as The Parakeet and the Mermaid. Today most major modern art museums and many great private collectors have added Matisse cut-outs to their collections, and they sell by the million in reproduction on cards and calendars.

"Rose" (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Memorial window), 1954. Digital commons, The Rockefeller Universitery.

"Rose" (Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Memorial window), 1954. Digital commons, The Rockefeller University.

Matisse kept working until the end. He completed his last cut-out, a commission by Nelson Rockefeller for a stained-glass window design, a few days before his death in November 1954. Matisse at first declined the commission to do the rose window because his fragile health prevented him from visiting the site.

The Rockefellers delivered photographs and drawings of the church, and Matisse soon consented to the project. Two days before his death, Matisse sent word that the window design was complete. (The window itself was executed by Paul Bony.)

"I have always wanted my work to have the lightness and joy of a springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labour it has cost," he said once. His cut-outs are the perfect expression of his wish.

Cover image: Henri Matisse, 1913, photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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