24 Works of Modern Art That Shook the World

Matisse - Woman with a Hat


Woman with a Hat by Henri Matisse is one of the first modern works in the style of Fauvism shown at the 1905 Salon d’ Automne exhibition in Paris. Henri Matisse is a French painter who started the movement of Fauvism, a style known for its abstract use of intense color and forms. Matisse portrays sensations and experiences instead of the physical subject.  This work is exploding and boiling over with absurd color. Matisse mainly uses cool-toned colors (blues, greens, and purples) with accents of warm colors (reds, yellows, oranges, and pinks). This piece does not have any traces of natural or earthy tones that would be expected of this subject matter. He painted his wife, Amélie, in incredibly unnatural colors that don’t exist in our perception of the real world. She wears a hat that complements her gown and holds a fan partially up to her chin.

The work appears very sketchy and impressionistic. The strokes are thick and harsh, and the details get lost in the application of the paint. The fan that she holds is difficult to distinguish from her hand. Her hat is a mass of colors and strange forms that balance on her head. In the lower right corner, there is no indication of where her torso and gown disappear and the background begins. Her face is crudely sketched out and appears flat, with features blurring together. She peers out with asymmetrical eyes that don’t follow the laws of perspective. The light that dances on her face, neck, and fan comes from the left. The same tones that appear on her face and clothes are in the background grouped in patches of color. 

She has a contemplative look on her face and looks to the left at the viewer. The painting has a calm and peaceful aura that draws the viewer to the woman’s face. Matisse’s signature lies in the upper left corner in a slightly darker teal than the paint below it, so as not to distract from the rest of the piece. This painting doesn’t include unmixed colors and barely uses pure black, using other pigments mixed in to show difference in color value. Depth is conveyed by using warm colors and lighter tones for the highlights of the piece, and darker blues and purples for the shadows. 

This painting, although it looks simple, is incredibly exciting to me. I love the use of color all over the place and the way it completely changes the tone of the piece. Matisse shows the world as a beautiful place filled with vibrancy and pigment. I can look at artwork like this all day. There is something so alluring about the way that Fauvism portrays the world. It transports the viewer back to childhood nostalgia and through different lenses of reality. It’s like walking through a portal into another world. The colors are so beautiful, and the texture is so engaging to the eye. This painting makes me want to live in it and be embraced by the colors that pour out of it.

The Woman Under The Hat

Amélie Matisse provided the backbone of support for Henri. She was very good at domestic work, but she was not interested in that becoming all that she would be. She wanted to be more than just a wife. When she wasn’t doing other work, she still modeled for her husband and played a significant role as his emotional support. She was not just his muse; she was his best friend, “The two did everything together…they were known as the Inseparables.” [1] In the beginning, they had a relationship built on trust and understanding and she was sometimes his only supporter. Amélie was not just a part of Henri’s world, it was hers as well. She acted as his studio manager, “She saw to everything from keeping the models happy to the ritual washing of the brushes every evening. She made records and organized paperwork.”[2] The woman under the hat was not just a wife sitting in as a model for her husband, she was part of the business and part of his life. She was so involved in his work and life, but as time went on, Henri was more dedicated to his work, and it “never could be an equal partnership” between his work and his relationship with his wife.[3] When Henri was in Seville in 1911, Amélie was incredibly unhappy, she “felt unwanted and excluded, perversely dismayed by his assurances that things were looking up.” [4] Without being able to be by her husband’s side, the work that she was such a big part of was gone from her life. Amélie was also afraid of her husband being unfaithful and with his trips away from her and the children, her fear grew. She “never fully regained her old self-confidence and certainty.”[5] She sacrificed herself to his work and to be left alone taking care of the children and be shut out of it was devastating.

Controversy of the Fauvists

Like most great controversies, the name Fauvism comes from an insult from a shocked critic. Fauve means wild beast or wild animals. This movement was very influential but short-lived.[6] It developed after Impressionism and tried to liberate art even more out of the mold of the traditional. The majority of the Fauvists were friends and met with each other as they made discoveries. The leaders of this movement were Matisse, Vlaminck, and Derain. Others involved in this movement were Van Dongen, Braque, Friesz, Marquet, and without them the movement could not be classified as one.[7]

At the 1905 Paris exhibition at the Salon d’ Automne in Room VII, the critic Louis Vauxcelles said that Albert Marque’s Torso of a Child was “among the wild animals,” in reference to the contrasting placement of the white sculpture in the center of the mass of colorful paintings.  The paintings were also called “aggressive” with “lurid colors.” This exhibition shocked the public, other artists, and the critics. In a review of the exhibition, Richard Cavendish states, “The impression that the paintings had been done to please the artists themselves rather than the critics was particularly upsetting.”[8] This probably outraged the critics, the fact that the artists thought that they were above the judgment of the experts. This exhibition was for experimental art and had a “liberal-minded jury,” but still, Matisse was advised to not show his painting of his wife, Woman in a Hat. Fortunately, Henri Matisse’s friend, Georges Desvallieres, was in the committee and was able to keep the Fauve entries in and place them together in the same room. In the same room, the collection of works had more of an impact. It was incredibly scandalous that his work and other Fauvists’ work were almost denied entry from the exhibit. This scandal added value to his painting, which was purchased after the show. Cavendish calls Matisse “the oldest of the Fauves and by consent the most gifted,” and states that the group of Fauves were all friends who wanted to move on from Impressionism together.[9] This group thrived on scandal and publicity. Since Matisse’s painting, Woman with a Hat, was almost too much for even the Salon d’ Automne to take, it adds to the rebellious nature of the movement. These artists were trying to break out of the molds of what is considered art.

Charles Caffin describes Fauvism as “a new revolt” led by Matisse. The group is “united in nothing except a common hatred of convention.”[10] He gives Matisse credit for following his ideals and consistently sticking to them. He describes Matisse’s art as involving methods of simplification, organization, and expression. Caffin explains that Matisse does not want to use painting to represent real life and that “he has no desire to compete with the camera.”[11] Matisse was not trying to paint perfect paintings of what was seen through people’s eyes. Matisse wants to portray sensations, feelings, emotions, and instincts. He wants to represent what people experience. In a period of his work, Matisse “drew his forms rudely and uncouthly,” and “Critics declared that any child could draw as well as he did.”[12]  Matisse believed that children picked up on certain facts about movements and feelings in the world. He was trying to represent the emotion and organic movements that people make, instead of just trying to paint the people accurately. In his painting The Dance, the people are not the subjects of the piece, the feeling, movement, and rhythm are. His forms and art, to someone comparing him to conventional paintings of that time period, look wrong and misshapen. Critics compare him to a scale that he doesn’t abide by.

Fauvism brought together a mix of artists breaking out of the mold of what art is, artists having fun with their ability to create and what creation can be, and people who enjoy invoking some scandal along the way. Matisse’s Woman with a Hat was the leading lady in this scandal, who knew that being almost barred from the exhibit could cause so much controversy?


Most critics believed that the movement that Matisse started was outrageous and unconventional. He painted in absurd colors during a time that depiction of natural life was the norm. According to J.E. Muller, “Moreover, in Woman with a Hat, Matisse did not simply borrow the new Impressionist technique of depicting light and shade: he placed his colours with a freedom that his predecessors’ naturalism would have found unacceptable.” [13] His use of color goes against the value of art during the early 1900s. One of the first pieces that Henri Matisse shows the world in an exhibition is one of his most controversial and one of his most famous works.

In the book, The Master Impressionists, Charles Louis Borgmeyer states that “I am told if one is a poor “visualizer” the image will be very like some of the pictures by Matisse.”[14]  Throughout the whole book named after and about master Impressionists, Borgmeyer mocks and criticizes the works of the Impressionists. He does not believe that Impressionist art is sincere and thinks that the movement is trying too hard to get away from reality. This critic believes that the natural world is the most beautiful subject and what art should be based off. That the art that doesn’t accurately portray nature or reality is not real art. He calls Picasso’s art crude and experimental. Then Borgmeyer further insults Matisse, by saying that artists like Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh paint for themselves, and Matisse paints for others. This critic believes that Matisse is only playing a joke on the art world. He insults the motivations behind Matisse’s work and says that he only paints for money and shock value. That since his work is far from reality it is far from being actual art. Borgmeyer calls Matisse, Picasso, and other artists within the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist groups “exponents of ugliness, if not indecencies.” [15]  Borgmeyer is adamantly against the work of abstract painters and believes only in the traditional view of fine art.

On the other hand, the critic in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs stated that “The more recent work of M. Henri-Matisse has, I confess, been incomprehensible to me, no doubt through my own incapacity; but the two decorative panels that he exhibits this autumn I find quite comprehensible and most masterly, especially that in which the red figures dance a round,”[16] in reference to a painting that Matisse painted for Charles Stern’s hotel. The critic trusts that Matisse knows what he is doing with his work instead of trying to break it apart like other critics. Compared to all the other panels painted, the critic said that “Here is a decoration rightly understood, of a daring simplicity and a marvelous accomplishment. Let it not be said that this sort of thing appeals only to a select few.” [17] Although the critic does not favor Matisse’s recent work, he enjoys the other pieces that Matisse has done. He thinks that Matisse is a quality artist doing astonishing things with his work that other people would also appreciate. This review in the Art in France section of the magazine is quite interesting and contrasting to other critics because the review is so positive about Matisse’s work. He believes it to be masterful and accomplished.

I have found that critics either supported Henri Matisse and the movement of Fauvism, or they hated it because it was too shocking to them. The critics that understood what Matisse was trying to accomplish seemed to be more comfortable with his art than the ones that only saw his art as purely vulgar and childish. Most of the critics also respected, even if they dislike his work, Matisse’s methods, and consistently his principles.

Notes of a Painter

In Henri Matisse’s Notes of a Painter that he published in 1908, he explains the way that he views his art. His process of painting revolves around emotions and feelings instead of how accurate the depiction is of the subject. The composition is essential to him as well as how the subject is woven within the space of the painting. His favorite subject to paint is the human figure, and he does “not insist upon all the details of the face, on setting them down one-by-one with anatomical exactitude.”[18] He cares about what he can portray past what is physically there, and accuracy in that aspect is not essential to him. He tries to express what he feels through the paint, and the way he uses color and shapes. He makes these decisions through “observation, on sensitivity, on felt experiences.”[19] He is a very emotional painter who uses his work to express himself and the way that he views the world. He doesn’t try to translate what he sees to the canvas; he translates what he feels. Since he wrote about his work in his Notes of a Painter, he cares about how people view his work and what he does. He felt that they did not understand his meaning through only his paintings, so he explained it through writing. Matisse depicts experiences, emotions, and concepts instead of merely translating reality. He is an artist that paints the renderings of life that can’t be seen through a camera lens.

[1] Hilary Spurling, Matisse the Master: a Life of Henri Matisse: the Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954. (Place: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), p. 9.
[2] Spurling, Hilary. Matisse the Master: a Life of Henri Matisse: the Conquest of Colour,1909-1954. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. p. 10,
[3] Spurling, Matisse the Master: a Life of Henri. p. 68.
[4] Ibid., p. 67.
[5] Ibid, p. 69.
[6] Muller, Joseph-Emile. Fauvism. Frederick A. Praeger, 1967.
[7] Muller, Joseph-Emile. Fauvism. Frederick A. Praeger, 1967.
[8] Cavendish, R. "The Fauves at the Salon d’Automne - October 15th, 1905." History Today, vol. 55, no. 10 (n.d.): p. 52.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Caffin, Charles H. How to Study the Modern Painters by Means of a Series of Comparisons of Paintings and Painters from Watteau to Matisse, with Historical and Biographical Summaries and Appreciations of the Painters' Motives and Methods. Hodder & Stoughton, 1914, p. 207.
[11] Caffin, How to Study the Modern Painters by Means of a Series of Comparisons of Paintings and Painters from Watteau to Matisse, p. 210.
[12] Ibid., p. 211.
[13] Muller, Joseph-Emile. Fauvism. Frederick A. Praeger, 1967, p. 41.
[14] Borgmeyer, Charles Louis. The Master Impressionists. The Fine Arts Press, 1913.
[15] Borgmeyer, Charles Louis. The Master Impressionists. The Fine Arts Press, 1913.
[16] R., E. D. "Art in France." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs vol. 18.no. 92 (1910): pp. 125–127.
[17] R., E. D. "Art in France." pp. 125–127.
[18] Matisse, Henri, Notes of a Painter, 1908.
[19] Matisse, Notes of a Painter.

Works Cited

Borgmeyer, Charles Louis. The Master Impressionists. The Fine Arts Press, 1913.

Caffin, Charles H. How to Study the Modern Painters by Means of a Series of Comparisons of Paintings and Painters from Watteau to Matisse, with Historical and Biographical Summaries and Appreciations of the Painters' Motives and Methods. Hodder & Stoughton, 1914.

Cavendish, R. "The Fauves at the Salon d’Automne - October 15th, 1905." History Today, vol. 55, no. 10 (n.d.): p. 52.

Matisse, Henri. Notes of a Painter. 1908.

Muller, Joseph-Emile. Fauvism. Frederick A. Praeger, 1967.

R., E. D. "Art in France." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs vol. 18.no. 92 (1910): pp. 125–127.

Spurling, Hilary. Matisse the Master: a Life of Henri Matisse: the Conquest of Colour,1909-1954. Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

This page has paths:

This page references: