Henri Matisse Quotes from 'Notes of a Painter'

Dance painting by Henri Matisse at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).
Dance painting by Henri Matisse. Huw Jones / Getty Images

Henri Matisse, known as one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century, was also one of the most verbally eloquent. Although above all a painter, he was also a sculptor, draughtsman, graphic artist, book illustrator, and even an architect. In all media his work embodied an artist confident in his calling and technically adept. He was one of the founders of Fauvism, known for its wild and intense use of color and expression of mood and emotion over representation.

Matisse was not only an artist, but a theorist and teacher. In Jack D. Flam's book, "Matisse on Art," Flam says "Yet of the three major French painters of the first half of this century - Matisse, Picasso, and Braque - Matisse was not only the earliest, but also the most persistent and perhaps most conscientious theorist, and was the only one of the three who for a time seriously taught painting." (Flam, p. 9) Matisse's words are thought-provoking and get at the heart of why artists paint. Flam says, "His writings reflect his conviction that art is a form of projection of self through imagery, a form of meditation or contemplation which acts as a private religion. The artist develops his art by developing himself." (Flam, p. 17)

According to Flam, Matisse's writings can be divided into two periods, pre-1929 and post-1929. While he did not write much before 1929, he did write "Notes of a Painter" in 1908. This was "Matisse's earliest theoretical statement, and one of the most important and influential artists' statements of the century...The ideas that Matisse discusses are relevant not only to his painting of around 1908, but are for the most part germane to his pictorial thought until his death." (Flam, p. 9)

"Notes of a Painter" reveals Matisse's life-long goal in his art, which was to express his response to what he was seeing, rather than merely copying it. Following are some of Matisse's quotes:

On Composition

"Expression, for me, does not reside in passions glowing in a human face or manifested by violent movement. The entire arrangement of my picture is expressive: the place occupied by the figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, everything has its share. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter's command to express his feelings. In a picture every part will be visible and will play its appointed role, whether it be principal or secondary. Everything that is not useful in the picture is, it follows, harmful. A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety: any superfluous detail would replace some other essential detail in the mind of the spectator." (Flam, p. 36)

On First Impressions

"I want to reach that state of condensation of sensations which makes a painting. I might be satisfied with a work done at one sitting, but I would soon tire of it; therefore, I prefer to rework it so that later I may recognize it as representative of my state of mind. There was a time when I never left my paintings hanging on the wall because they reminded me of moments of over-excitement and I did not like to see them again when I was calm. Nowadays I try to put serenity into my pictures and re-work them as long as I have not succeeded." (Flam, p. 36)

"The Impressionist painters, especially Monet and Sisley, had delicate sensations, quite close to each other; as a result their canvases all look alike. The word 'impressionism' perfectly characterizes their style, for they register fleeting impressions. It is not an appropriate designation for certain more recent painters who avoid the first impression, and consider it almost dishonest. A rapid rendering of a landscape represents only one moment of its existence….I prefer, by insisting upon its essential character, to risk losing charm in order to obtain greater stability."

On Copying vs. Interpreting

"I must precisely define the character of the object or of the body that I wish to paint. To do so, I study my method very closely: If I put a black dot on a sheet of white paper, the dot will be visible no matter how far away I hold it: it is a clear notation. But beside this dot I place another one, and then a third, and already there is confusion. In order for the first dot to maintain its value I must enlarge it as I put other marks on the paper." (Flam, p. 37)

"I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I am forced to interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture. From the relationship I have found in all the tones there must result a living harmony of colors, a harmony analogous to that of a musical composition." (Flam, p. 37)

"The simplest means are those which best enable an artist to express himself. If he fears the banal he cannot avoid it by appearing strange, or going in for bizarre drawing and eccentric color. His means of expression must derive almost of necessity from his temperament. He must have the humility of mind to believe that he has painted only what he has seen…Those who work in a preconceived style, deliberately turning their backs on nature, miss the truth. An artist must recognize, when he is reasoning, that his picture is an artifice; but when he is painting, he should feel that he has copied nature. And even when he departs from nature, he must do it with the conviction that it is only to interpret her more fully." (Flam, p. 39)

On Color

"The chief function of color should be to serve expression as well as possible. I put down my tones without a preconceived plan….The expressive aspect of colors imposes itself on me in a purely instinctive way. To paint an autumn landscape I will not try to remember what colors suit this season, I will be inspired only by the sensation that the season arouses in me: the icy purity of the sour blue sky will express the season just as well as  the nuances of foliage. My sensation itself may vary, the autumn may be soft and warm like a continuation of summer, or quite cool with a cold sky and lemon-yellow trees that give a chilly impression and already announce winter." (Flam, p. 38)

On Art and Artists

"What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue." (Flam, p. 38)

"All artists bear the imprint of their time, but the great artists are those in whom this is most profoundly marked." (Flam, p. 40)


  • Flam, Jack D., Matisse on Art, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1978.