MATISSE: The Fabric of Dreams

Henri Matisse with model – photo by Man Ray, 1928


One of my favorite discoveries during my book quests was MATISSE – His art and his textiles – The Fabric Of Dreams. It occurred in a unexpected way.  I was reading a recent and unexpectedly boring historical novel which featured Matisse. It told the story, set during the Parisian années folles, of a Belgian girl with an arts degree who, for absurd reasons, is banned from her family and escapes to Paris under false name. She begins her apprentice with an american art collector and meets Matissa at Gertrud Stein’s home.  The main character describes her visit to Matisse’s studio and is overwhelmed by his collection of textiles. The book was disappointingly unreadable but it triggered my curiosity in discovering more about Matisse’s background and his involvement with textiles. I started searching for a specific book on Matisse’s involvement in textile design which I approached in my previous article on Ascher Fabrics. This book is so much more than I expected.


The book was issued to accompany the exhibition held in 2004 at the Musée Matisse in Cambrésis, and in 2005 at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition was sponsored by Farrow & Ball and was the first public showing, in 50 years since Matisse’s death in 1954. Alongside 30 of his paintings and 35 works on paper were displayed a superlative archive of fabrics and costumes that the artist started to put toghether since his early years as a poor art student in northern France and continued to enrich the collection throughout his entire life.

Flipping through the images of the book and discovering the scenography Matisse created in his paintings, drawings and in his workshops is like embarking in a time-travelling imaginary and visual adventure in an oriental fairytale.


As a result of his involvement in Orientalism and his lifelong fascination with textiles, his rooms were a wunderkammer filled with the precious finds from his expeditions in french oriental junk shops or Algerian, Moroccan and Tahitian bazaars, souks and markets. Pieces of forgotten textiles that he would bring back to life and new glory on his unique canvases. The opulent trove, which the artist defined as his “bibliothèque de travail” – his working library – became his traveling companion between a treasure-house and another, a sort of magical hat of inspirations.

Matisse was a descendant of generations of weavers and grew up in the luxury textile town of Bohain-en Vermandois in the French Flanders. The area offered no galleries or museums that could ignite the imagination of future artists. Nor were of much inspiration the rigid and academic limitations of the art school he attended in the lace industrial town of St. Quentin. The true innovative, radical and iconoclastic experimentations of the silk industry of the area where to be found in the weavers’, embroiderers’ and designer’s workshops that endlessly experimented in finding fresh and innovative techniques and color combinations.

“All you need is daring” was a popular motto in the area. Matisse’s life in this milieu nurtured the visual imagination that he transposed to his paintings. In 1952 a journalist described Matisse as a weaver whose “pencil is his shuttle, his loom the weft and warp of his canvas”.


Matisse’s repertoire of fabrics is a visual and tactile dictionary of patterns, designs, color combinations and it constitutes the main reference for the narratives of his works. He transferred with his immortality brush various samples of these textiles and robes into the hypnotic decorations that characterize his canvases.

His portable working library later included also an extraordinary collection of exotic costumes: Moroccan jackets, Romanian blouses, Spanish shawls, Tahitan pareos, and couture robes, boleros, scarves.

With regards to his group of Kuba fabrics from Congo – his “African Velvets” or his Tahitan tapas, he stated:

“I never tire of looking at them for long periods at a time, even the simplest of them, and waiting for something to come to me from the mystery of their distinctive geometry… I can’t wait to see what the “tapa” will reveal to me – for it is perfection.”[1]

The motifs weaved into his african velvets will inspire Matisse’s famous “Jazz” album (1947) that he created during the war while temporarily bedridden and whose dominant themes are the circus and theater. He introduced an innovative technique of small, irregular shapes cut of colored paper, pinned and pasted on plain paper squares or rectangles. The “Jazz”book was the result of a “vision of radiant liberated colors first glimpsed as a child in the textile towns of his native North.”[2] A new synthesis of color, line and technique that he  will be later employed to illustrate books, tapestry and decorative tilings, and the stained-glass windows of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence that he was commissioned during the last years of his life.  


The photographs of the interiors of Matisse’s workshops speak louder than words about the artist’s golden hand and its magnetic attraction to the dialogues of color, opulence and delicacy of craftmanship present in fabrics, costumes, embroideries. A golden hand that is revealed also in his works. The cloths and robes that can be seen draped over furniture or pinned to walls reveal his unlimited fascination in traditional 18th and 19th century French textiles, in Turkish and North African garments, in Chinese hangings and Romanian blouses.

“What Matisse gained first from his interpretation of Islamic textiles was the promise of grace, in images, which springs from the mitigation of their ontological weight. ‘What remains belongs to God’: the artist is able to find the beauty of an evening sky in a scrap of Persian carpet simply because life shapes and reshapes itself ceaselessly, sliding from the world of nature to the world of the image, now that the shackles of imitation have been broken, now that figurative activity is no longer reliant on the need to prove that it exists.”


Inspired by Cezanne, Matisse used patterns and motifs to depict metaphors and evoke states of mind: sexual  – the flowers that enhance the model’s breasts and pubic area in in The Manila Shaw (1911); musical in Pianist and Checker Players (1924)– in which the surrounding motifs evoke the music that is being played ( Like in Cezanne’s Young Girl at the Piano – 1869). He animates what is inanimate in  Still – Life with Dance (1909).


In 1903, while sitting on the upper deck of a city bus in Paris, Matisse’s gaze was drawn to a second-hand clothes shop. He burst into the shop to add to his collection a beautiful strip of  what he defined as “my Toile de Jouy” with a white background and a pattern of dark-blue arabesques and flower-baskets. This piece of cloth was reinterpreted in many of his works such as Portrait of Greta Moll, (1908), Pansies (1918), and Plaster Figure with Bouquet of Flowers (1919).

Contemporary fashion designers use vintage clothing or exotic textiles to create entire fashion collections. Matisse, in art,  anticipated this trend  in the early 1900’s. The artist’s use of textiles in his paintings is a personal interpretation that goes beyond the normal usage of the original samples as it is done today with the interlacing and overlapping of function, form and style in fashion, design, jewelery, contemporary art, etc. In Matisse’s canvases, a carpet in his collection is transformed into a wall of tiles in Spanish Still-Life andin Still-Life with Geraniums; the hanging inspired by his Toile de Jouy becomes the expedient to compose geometrically the arrangement of the geraniums, the drawing of the human figure, the table, the window and the painting.


“In his work of the 1920’s, often referred to as the ‘Nice’ period, Matisse created a fantasy world, an exotic, hot-house setting in which to display the seductive, reclining odalisques that were his principal subject during these years”.

Matisse’s fascination of traditional costumes and parisian haute couture is forever impressed in his 1920’s and late 1930’s women’s portraits.

19th century Ottoman silk robes, Turkish entari robes, and Romanian peasant blouses in Matisse’s collection would find a new life in his Odalisque series of paintings and lithographs. The woman portrayed in Seated Odalisque, Left knee bent, Ornamental Background and Checkerboard ( 1928) wears a purple jacket inspired by the North African velvet jacket, and the striped ottoman silk robe in the collection appears in three works: Small Odalisque in a Purple Robe ( 1937 ) and in Purple Robe and Anemones (1937) and in Seated Girl in Persian Robe ( 1942).

While 20th century and contemporary couturiers and fashion designers created collections inspired by art ( eg. YSL’s Mondrian dress, or the Schiaparelli-Dalì partnership),  in Matisse’s works haute couture steps down from the mannequins inside costume museums and steps up on the Master’s oil paintings. In Two Young Girls, Yellow Dress and Tartan Dress ( 1941), Matisse immortalizes a parisian couture tartan dress and jacket from 1938 , winner of the Grand Prix d’Elegance in Paris. Couture is granted eternal honors on a new and unexpected level compared to fashion illustration and photography.


In the final years of his career, after designing the oriental costumes for Diaghilev’s ballet “Le Chant du Rossignol” in 1919 and a for a second ballet in 1938 “Le Rouge et le Noir”, Matisse was involved in a new and intriguing task: creating costumes for the church. Matisse’s series of Chasubles, liturgical sleeveless vests worn by the priest while celebrating mass, completed the three-year long work of the artist on the stained glass windows and ceramics for the dominical Chapel in Vence in 1951.

Father Couturier (nomen-omen!) was responsible for the revival of religious art in the postwar period and who advised the artist on colors, fabrics and iconography for the robes. With his assistance, Matisse created extraordinary garments using the technique of the Jazz album, cutting out the vestments from sheets of paper painted with gouache and later translated to silk popeline by the Dominican sisters of Crepeieux, near Lyon who specialized in liturgical vestments.

For his chasubles, Matisse found inspiration in an 18th century cloak belonging to a knight of the Ordre du Saint’Esprit that was shown in the exhibition l’Art du Moyen Age à travers les blasons et les sceaux in Paris. Matisse created this stunning, modern and courageous robes to harmoniz with the architecture of the Chapel and used the colors and shapes as metaphors of Christian symbols: Purple chasuble scattered with green flowers and blue butterflies to be worn in times of penitence; a green chasuble – symbolizing redemption and hope for birth into the life of the spirit – with spiky yellow flames placed on black squares “light in the dark night against a background of hope” ; a pink robe for feast days with appliquéd stars, flowers and seaweed on blue shapes recalling the small gothic windows of the chapel.The maquettes of these chasubles were pinned to the walls “like giant butterflies” in Matisse’s  bedroom-studio at the hotel Regina in Nice. 

“Even if I could have done, when I was young, what I’m doing now – and it is what I dreamed of then – I couldn’t have dared.”

Paintings, wall hangings, scarves, stained-glass windows, cut paper, liturgical robes. Eclectic expressive means that testify the avant-guardism that never withered in Matisse’s career even in the last years of his life. These masterpieces represent the unlimited energy and the inexhaustible source he possessed that enabled him to create some of the most pioneering works of art in the 20th century. A source that was nourished by his curiosity, his lifelong fascination for oriental culture, and by his travelling bibliothèque de travail.


All images are extracted from the book.

[1] Matisse – His Art and His Textiles – Royal Academy publications, 2004, pg. 32.

[2] Ibidem.

Author:curated by Anne Dumas and others.
Publisher : Royal Academy of Arts
Price: 95,00
Condition: used, in good condition, unmarked

Did you enjoy this story?

If you wish to add the book to your library please

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: