matisse_bather_1909Matisse was born in 1869 and died at the age of 84, leaving a body of work which both shaped and changed the history of art. Despite his conservative appearance, Matisse fully incorporated the modern spirit of the new century. In his anguished but unwavering quest, the artist understood the use of light and color and went beyond simplistic representations of reality, making use of color to express a state of mind towards his subject, celebrating life and the joy found in nature and painting.

This discussion proposes to look at Matisse’s “Bather’, 1909 – as an attempt to study and get closer to different artists and their work.

At first glance, the painting “Bather” brings to mind another, more famous work, entitled “The Dance I” (also by Matisse) from the same time. Both paintings present similar hues and treatment of the human form, almost as if the characters had been taken from the same landscape.

Matisse’s “Bather” shows one single element; it’s  almost as if it were a detail from a larger composition. What we see is the image of a boy entering an unidentified body of water;  it could be a lake, a river or the sea, we are simply left only with what the artist wants us to observe. Our eyes are forced to marvel at the naked body of this young man which occupies the center of the composition and takes up the entire height of the canvas. A deep blue background contrasts dramatically with the luminous nakedness of the boy. We see his body in an almost 3/4 view from the back. There are no facial features on this representation which stresses the idea that the painter is not concerned with the individual per se, but with the experience he had, and wanted to convey to us. Matisse’s justly praised ability with color is clearly observed here. There are basically two colors pointing to physical elements of reality: the blue covering most of the space on the canvas can be experienced as both the water and the sky, and the hues of pink and yellow gives us the iridescent presence of the sun reflected on the boys’ body.  Adopting one solid, deep blue background, Matisse had to establish a point of contact between the legs of the boy and the water itself so that the theme could be easily perceived.

There is a playful mood to this composition that is captured by the artist in its simple and direct approach to the subject. Even though the painter does not give us much information, we get the full atmosphere of the activity. The movement of the water current on the boy’s legs offering resistance as he moves his body in the water  anticipates the utter joy of the moment he will dive and swim.  Even the scuff marks of previous lines are left by the artist on purpose to accentuate the idea of movement and constant activity.

Matisse never hides the presence of the paint or previous drawing lines. It is part of the composition and he does not hide the fact that it is paint and color organized in such a way to invoke a certain mood on the viewer.  The hard black lines that make up the contours of the boy’s body add substance and volume to the boy’s figure making it palpable and pleasing in its exuberance and youth. There’s a hint of eroticism in watching someone bathing naked, but here,  the playful atmosphere almost serves as an invitation to join the boy in what is, definitely,  a pleasant activity that echoes in the back of our minds and beckons  us into the sweet memories of time spent in similar outdoor indulgences.  It is a simple portrait of a joyous moment captured in time. We can certainly relate to the feeling of the water touching our skin and the immense feelings of joy while playing in the water without worries or concerns.

Usually when we think of a painting we think of a landscape, one or more people inserted in a specific detailed background or a portrait; in the “Bather” the focus is solely on the individual completely absorbed in what he is doing and totally unaware of our presence, almost as if it were a sculpture, and because it isn’t, we lack the necessary vantage point to observe it from all angles. Even if we are given a partial view of what would have been the boy’s facial features, we are left, instead, with a sort of blank slate for a face. Matisse does not want us to miss what really matters in his piece. It is the mood, the feeling, the atmosphere evoked far in the deepest recesses of our memories, which  can be triggered by the choices of color, subject matter and compositional styles that he devised in order to invite us to tap into emotional states through new ways of perceiving and apprehending reality, completely opening the doors to all possibilities.

Matisse as an artist has the ability to capture moments, like these, in a profound and meditative manner. He commands us to stop and pay attention to detail with a Zen-like attitude, looking at things as if we were doing it for the first time, and he does this through his masterful use of color. It is a feast for the eyes, an opportunity to let ourselves be taken by the magic of details, unexpected colors combinations and exotic flavors in an attempt to show us that life is bursting with new experiences all around us if we can only let go of preconceived notions of how we should see. Matisse is the wizard who tells us we can reinvent ourselves, look at things with the eyes of a child, embark on a new adventure each day,  and perceive  different forms of reality at any time, at any place – if only we are willing to try. He creates a space of experimentation and dare us to bathe ourselves anew.


Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)


Date: Cavalière, summer 1909

Medium:Oil on canvas

Dimensions:36 1/2 x 29 1/8″ (92.7 x 74 cm)

Credit Line:Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller

MoMA Number:17.1936

Copyright:© 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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