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“The object is an actor”: This 1900s Andalusian glass vase appears in several of Matisse’s paintings (© François Fernadez, Nice)

Henri Matisse came to prominence in the first years of the 20th century as the leader of the Fauves — “the wild beasts” — a group of colour-happy young artists whose expressive brushwork and strident palette caused consternation. Matisse himself though was an unlikely beast: he was conservative, bourgeois and a lawyer whose idol, while in art school, was Chardin, the great 18th-century master of domestic stillness. After Fauvism’s brief explosion it was to the interior that Matisse himself turned; room scenes, still-lifes and studio mises-en-scène became the dominant motifs of his art.

Matisse set special store by his various studios, whether in Paris or, from 1917, in Nice. As the critic Robert Hughes noted: “His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for 60 continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction.” He stocked these live-work spaces with a mish-mash of objects that had caught his eye. For many years he was not a rich man and the things he bought were rarely expensive although they did reflect the range of his cultural interests, among them African masks, Spanish glass, European silver, Islamic textiles, Chinese calligraphy and Oceanic sculpture.

Such objects were not simply decorative but came to play a key role in his painting, appearing and reappearing in numerous works over the decades. Matisse in the Studio, at the Royal Academy from August 5, reassembles some 40 objects from his collection and shows them alongside the pictures in which they appeared, including a group of never before exhibited sketches. The result is to put the viewer at Matisse’s shoulder, to see exactly the things he looked at and was inspired by.

Throughout his career Matisse sought to discover “the essential character of things” and he acknowledged the importance of his bric-a-brac in this process: “I have worked all my life before the same objects,” he said in 1951, “The object is an actor. A good actor can have a part in ten different plays; an object can play a role in ten different pictures.”

The roles they played varied from the supporting to the leading. A bulbous green Andalusian glass vase that he bought on a trip to Spain in 1910-11, appears in a painting of 1924, Safrano Roses at the Window, as a contrasting receptacle for a bunch of pink roses which themselves reflect the pink of the houses opposite and the sky above the Mediterranean beyond. The vase appears in at least two other paintings of the same period, always a bit-part player. The same is true of a 19th-century silver chocolate pot he received as a wedding gift in 1898. An Algerian painted table picked up in 1906, on the other hand, fights to be the centre of attention with the woman seated beside it in Yellow Odalisque of 1937.
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