Still Life with Lemons
Still Life with Lemons, 1914
Oil on canvas
70.2 x 53.8 cm (27 5/8 x 21 3/16 inches)
Gift of Miss Edith Wetmore 39.093
Rosenfeld, Daniel. “European Paintings and Sculpture, ca. 1770 - 1937”. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design,1991.
About the work
In Still Life with Lemons, Henri Matisse presents a traditional subject, the arrangement of inanimate everyday objects. In this portrayal, however, he rejects some of the more traditional approaches to the still life popular in Western painting since at least the 16th century. Here there is no obvious light source to provide depth and to suggest three-dimensionality; as a result, objects and surfaces are reduced to simplified forms and colors.
This painting was made in Paris in 1914, the same year World War I began. It was a time when experiments in art paralleled momentous social and political changes, and this work offers insight into the precise thinking of an artist who was reworking a traditional subject by looking intently at ordinary things.
Matisse carefully composes the painting in sections organized by color and simplifies the zones into a few distinct shapes, creating the impression of different views seen from different angles. This attention to how space is organized and to the simultaneous presence of different viewpoints reveals Matisse’s familiarity with the investigations of objects and space taking place during his time in Cubist paintings and collages. Matisse, however, focuses on color, line, and surface texture. He layers colors on the right side—notice the traces of yellow underneath the green—and scrapes and wipes off paint on the left to create a flattened surface in the blue area. Contrasting cool and warm colors heighten the shifts within the painting between depth and flatness.
The objects depicted include the everyday items—such as food, art, books—that are commonly found in still-life paintings. However, rather than create an accurate, realistic depiction, Matisse chose to emphasize the curved forms and the relationships between the lemons, the dish, and the black vase. The black vase surrounded by a white rectangle refers to a drawing of a pewter vase made by Matisse’s son, appreciated by the elder Matisse for its simplification of shape and use of line. Placed in the upper right, it can be read in different ways, as either an image of a drawing of a vase or a window looking out at a vase. The word tapis on the book means “rugs,” which Matisse was studying for their emphasis on color, pattern, and inherent flatness.
At first glance, Matisse’s painting might appear simple, but close observation reveals that he carefully reworked the main elements, shifting their placement until he achieved this composition. Analyze how he balanced the different sections of the painting through color, shape, line, and repetition of forms. After they conduct their own analyses, students can listen to art historian Ellen McBreen’s analysis of Matisse’s process.
Although much flatter overall than traditional paintings at the time, Matisse’s painting has a sense of depth in some areas, whereas other sections appear flatter. As you look at the painting, which parts of the painting seem to recede? Which come forward? How has he achieved this illusion of depth?
Matisse said that “color was not given to us in order that we should imitate Nature, but so that we could express our own emotions.” What emotions are conveyed in this painting? How does color contribute to its mood?
To encourage close observation, ask students to look closely at the image for a minute, committing it to memory as much as they can. Have them close their eyes and visualize the work in their mind, then open their eyes and observe the painting for another minute. Then, cover up the work and have them draw it from memory using color pencils to lay out the main areas. They can make notes regarding objects, colors, or shapes. When their sketches are complete, have them compare them to the painting. Break students into pairs or small groups to discuss what surprised them about what they noticed and remembered.
Use a color wheel to discuss warm and cool colors, then look at Matisse’s painting to analyze his color choices. To explore color theory further, ask students to experiment with creating an illusion of depth and movement by placing squares of different colors next to one another. Discuss the receding effect of cool colors versus warm colors and the effect of complementary colors next to each other.
To explore balance and color harmony, have students make a still life of two ordinary, colorful objects using paper scraps of various colors and textures. Then, pair students up and ask them to discuss the decisions they made. They can compare the colors they used, the ways the colors interact, and how the sizes and shapes of their cutout pieces affect the appearance of their collage.
The still life was an appealing subject for other French artists working at the same time as Matisse. Compare Matisse’s still life with this one by George Braque: Still Life (1918). Consider the colors, arrangement of space, and relationship of objects. How does it differ from Matisse’s painting?
Jack D. Flam, ed. Matisse on Art. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.
Henri Matisse. “Notes of a Painter.” 1908
The Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art. Matisse: Radical Invention 1913–1917. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010.