matisse, woman reading at a dressing table, 1919


Henri Matisse was a leading French figure in modern art whose career spanned over half a century.  Matisse was one of the premiere painters of the early twentieth century, with his art evolving and developing into the works of a master.  His style evolved from Fauvism, a short-lived avant-garde movement that emphasized painterly qualities and brilliant colors over the representational ideals of Impressionism, to one of upholding classical French tradition in painting.  Like many artists in the period known as the Return to Order immediately following World War I, Matisse participated in the backlash against the abstract art forms such as Cubism and German Expressionism, which represented the chaos of war, in favor of upholding traditional, coherent styles.  In his 1919 work Woman Reading at a Dressing Table, Matisse crafts a scene of a sensuous woman seated in a comfortable, light-filled interior setting, and his inspiration gained from visiting the master Impressionist painter Renoir in 1917 is evident. In the art historian Kenneth Silver’s “Matisse’s Retour à l’Ordre” he states, “Renoir’s influence is everywhere: in the light, the brushstrokes, poses, settings and most pervasively, the languorous mood.”[1] Matisse revitalizes the tradition of his Impressionist predecessors such as Renoir depicting women as doing little but existing.

Matisse’s work Woman Reading at a Dressing Table, painted in late 1919 in Nice, France is a decorative, harmonious work that depicts a woman in what is apparently a hotel room, evidenced by the large window with its Mediterranean view.  The dimensions of this work are approximately 29.5 inches by 24 inches, a modestly sized canvas, suitable for a middle class living space, and the palette Matisse chose is one of shades of white mixed with pastel hues, providing a realistic depiction of this hotel scene. Clothed in a dressing gown, the young woman appears to be relaxed and leisurely reading a book.  Her posture and the position of her head upon her hand suggest that she is comfortable and at ease.  On the dressing table at which the woman is seated, a mirror and glass bottles of what appears to be perfume are present.  This oval mirror is a recurring motif in Matisse’s works of this time period, appearing additionally in both The Breakfast and The Painting Session. He uses this clever tool as a device to bring the outdoors into these indoor still-life paintings, simultaneously illuminating both the interior and the exterior. [2]

In the background is a window with blue shutters and translucent white curtains, through which one can see the Mediterranean Sea.  There is a subtle floral pattern on the semi-transparent curtain, which shows the care Matisse took in this rendering. Matisse provides sharp visuals in the dark colors of the chair and the woman’s hair, as well as the outline of her robe, in contrast to the white surface of the dressing table and sheer curtain, providing emphasis for the woman’s comfortable apparel.  Additionally, research shows that the underdrawing was done in charcoal and black paint, which stands out against the transparently brushed areas of white and gray, evident throughout the work.[3]

A sense of intimacy and leisure is evident in the work, through both the languorous scene itself and the casual way in which Matisse painted the work, with seemingly aimless and carefree brushstrokes. Matisse balances harmony and creates an art that is decorative, in contrast to much of the art in the period surrounding World War I.  This scene provides a lovely, intimate view of the early 20th century décor in the south of France, further providing evidence that Matisse developed a strong interest in art as calculated to be decorative and representational.

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.  Matisse’s return to naturalistic aesthetics and his renewed interest in textures and objects is characteristic of his return to order. In this pivotal work in the naturalistic Return to Order style, Matisse has successfully captured the personality of both the model and the relaxed mood of the setting.






Flam, Jack. “Introduction.” In Matisse on Art, 5. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.


Silver, Kenneth. “Matisse’s Retour à l’Ordre.” Art in America 75 (June 1987): 110-123.


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.


[1] Kenneth Silver. “Matisse’s Retour à l’Ordre.” Art in America 75 (June 1987), 117.

[2] Richard J. Wattenmaker and Anne Distel, Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation: Impressionist, Post-impressionist, and Early Modern, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), 262.

[3] Wattenmaker, 262.

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