Henri Matisse was a leading French figure in modern art and one of the premiere painters of the early twentieth century. His work spanned over half a century, and his style evolved from Fauvism, an avant-garde movement that emphasized the importance of bold brushstrokes and brilliant color saturation, to one of upholding classical French tradition in painting. Matisse developed an interest in art as decorative, providing comfort and an escapist fantasy in its beauty, clearly evidenced by his richly painted 1919 work Plaster Torso and Bouquet.
Matisse’s work Plaster Torso and Bouquet, painted in the summer of 1919 at his home in the Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, depicts a vibrant interior still life in which Matisse balances harmony and creates an art that is decorative, in contrast to much of the art in the period surrounding World War I. The dimensions of this work are 44 ½ inches by 34 ½ inches, a modestly sized canvas, suitable for a middle class living space, and the palette Matisse chose is one of bright colors mixed with pastel hues, providing a realistic depiction of a domestic area, perhaps a foyer or living room. This color palette lies in stark contrast to Matisse’s previous color choices, such as that of his 1905 work Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Stripe), which features an acidic palette, with sketchy juxtaposition of colors and jarring contrasts, especially for early twentieth century eyes. This Fauve work had a raw, unfinished quality, quite unlike Plaster Torso and Bouquet, which provides a lovely, intimate view of home décor.
Clearly evident and in the center of the work is a white plaster torso, both limbless and headless, and a crystal vase of pink and yellow flowers upon a brown, wooden side table. The torso is that of a female nude, the creation and depiction of which was considered to be the test of an artist’s mastery in the Renaissance and forward. This interesting combination of torso and vase provides a three-dimensional quality in contrast to the two-dimensional wall. The table is angled so that it appears to protrude outward. Curvilinear aspects are seen in both the female body form and through the undulating curve of the vase. Matisse’s play with perspective and contour is evident and provides the viewer with a scene pleasing to the eyes.
The plain, sky blue wall is contrasted with a blue and white toile tapestry on the left and a sketch of the ancient crouching Venus, a classical touch to the décor. The blue toile tapestry is also represented in Matisse’s works Bouquet for the 14th of July (1919), a celebration of the first Bastille Day after World War I in which it covers nearly all of the background, and in The Chair with Peaches (1919) where it is the entire background.  This repeated depiction of the toile textile provides further evidence for the claim that Matisse developed a strong interest in art as created and calculated to be decorative and ornamental.
In 1918, Matisse abandoned the abstract style seen in his paintings from 1904 through 1917, and, instead, adopted a more naturalistic style with emphasis on the description of textures and objects. In Plaster Torso and Bouquet, Matisse incorporates new elements such as depiction of background as two-dimensional, the representative, lifelike, three-dimensional quality of the body, and the undulations in both the toile fabric and nude figure. The flowers overlap the four elements of art deemed important by Matisse: the toile de jouy textile, the Venus, the decorative arabesque, and the torso, linking them all together in a formal manner.  The curvilinear quality of this work, evidenced by the torso, the painting of Venus, and the vase provides a harmonious, comfortable quality representative of Matisse’s renewed emphasis on the description of objects and textures. Classical art in the past saw the female nude as the ideal representation of beauty, and this painting contains two such representations, the plaster torso and the painting of Venus. The plaster torso and the painting of Venus both depict the classical elements of the realistic, yet idealized expression of the human body, a characteristic of earlier Renaissance art. These Renaissance ideals of beauty characterize this work as being of The Return to Order.
In an interview given in June 1919, Matisse explained his desire to create a new way of painting and composing, realizing that he had lost key elements in his works, sacrificing “substance, spatial depth, and richness of detail. Now I want to reunite all of that, and think I am capable of it in the course of time.” In this pivotal work in the Return to Order style, Matisse effectively brings back the elements he felt he had lost and achieves his goal of painting as an escape, with every aspect of Plaster Torso and Bouquet calculated to be pleasing to the viewer.
Flam, Jack. “Introduction.” In Matisse on Art, 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Spurling, Hilary, and Henri Matisse. Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse, The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
Wattenmaker, Richard J., and Anne Distel. Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation:Impressionist, Post-impressionist, and Early Modern. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.