This lush still-life is one of the few easel paintings that Matisse completed during the early 1930s, when the majority of his time was spent working on a major mural version of La Danse for Dr. Albert Barnes. Because Dr. Barnes was so demanding of his time, Matisse had little chance to work on other unrelated compositions. Those he was able to complete, however, evidence the relief he must have felt from the constraints of his notoriously difficult patron. Matisse painted Nature morte aux trois vases in 1933, around the time he finished work on La Danse. Interestingly, Matisse selected a color scheme of pinks and blues for this picture that was similar to the palette of the Barnes commission, but he heightened the tonality to achieve this extraordinarily vibrant composition.
Like his contemporary Picasso, Matisse experimented with the distortion of spatial perspective in his still-lifes to achieve dramatic visual effects (fig. 1). Here, he has positioned the three vases on a table top that appears to be tilting forward. Most revealing of this angle is the red book in the lower left corner that would otherwise slip from the surface. The cluster of lemons, with their leaves loosely outlined in black, appear to be rooted on the table top, as does the darkly outlined base of the green vase on the left. Matisse's parallel concern rests with exploiting his color palette, and his bold innovations in this area eclipsed most artists of the twentieth century.
Considering Matisse's ability to tap the expressive potential of color in these pictures from the 1930s (figs. 2 & 3), Pierre Courthion has written, "Matisse plays with complementaries, whose full gamut he knows and to which, like Debussy, he adds his own. He has a consummate sense of color. Never have we seen such sustained muted harmonies (at least without the picture collapsing, becoming emptied of all content, all substance), whether it be the grays of the Etretat landscapes, the pinks of the Moroccan works, or the matte greens of gardens. Matisse is a magician who hurls some luminous powder into his paintings; it is as if he always had a noontime on the Mediterranean before his eyes. Like all great masters of color, he strives for ever greater effects: his mastery of the whole register of yellows, so difficult to handle, is unparalleled. His reds have the depth and brilliance of crushed strawberries, his medleys of color are magical. Sometimes he does his principle figure in faint, vague shades and contrasts it with a background of stunning violence" (P. Courthion, "Henri Matisse," 1934, reprinted in J. Flam, Matisse, A Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 299).
Nature morte aux trois vases remained in Matisse's possession until his death in 1954. After that, it was inherited by his daughter Marguerite and eventually sold at Perls Gallery in New York in 1966. That same year, it was purchased by the New York-based collector, Evelyn Sharp. A prominent businesswoman and philanthropist, Sharp acquired a world-class collection of early twentieth century art. This great picture was one of the jewels of that collection, and was reproduced on the cover of the 1997 sale catalogue at Sotheby's.
Oil on canvas
Los Angeles, UCLA Art Galleries; The Art Institute of Chicago & Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Henri Matisse, 1966, no. 73, illustrated in color in the catalogue (as dating from 1935)
28 7/8 by 23 ¾ in. 73.5 by 60.5 cm
Estate of the artist
Mme Georges Duthuit, Paris (by inheritance from the above in 1954)
Frank Perls Gallery, Beverly Hills (acquired from the above in 1966)
Perls Galleries, New York (acquired from the above in 1966)
Evelyn Sharp, New York (sold: Sotheby's, New York, November 12, 1997, lot 6)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner