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The Cover
April 11, 2012

Flowers (Fleurs)

JAMA. 2012;307(14):1464. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.412

Classically trained painters of 19th-century Europe used shading, converging lines of perspective, and other techniques to create an illusion of three-dimensional space, but the French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954) did just the opposite. In the paintings of Matisse there are no tiny figures or hazy trees in the distance to make you think you can see into the picture for a thousand yards. He was one of the first modern painters to deliberately “flatten” the perception of space in his work. Matisse was an attorney who took up painting at the age of 20 while recovering from appendicitis. When he felt well again, he gave up the legal profession and kept painting. He pursued his new calling in the traditional way, studying at the Academy Julian under William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Gustave Moreau, but he was mastering the techniques of classical painting so he could turn them inside-out. In his flattened still-life Flowers (Fleurs) (cover ), Matisse tackles the illusion of depth perception. A vase of flowers peeks out of the background at the left of this picture and blends back in again on the right. The background appears to be a windowpane colored with shadows, as if a cloud is moving across the sun behind the viewer. At the upper and lower edges of the painting bare canvas shows through, giving it an unfinished look. This is one of the ways Matisse makes it difficult for the viewer to sustain an illusion of three-dimensional space; clearly there is nothing behind this picture but canvas. There is another “hole” in the painting among the flowers, where some of the petals have been wiped off the canvas to produce a sort of highlight effect, presumably from glare on the windowpane.