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Painting, 1912, 147×98 cm

Description of the artwork «Goldfish»

Goldfish from the Pushkin Museum of Art in Moscow is one of the series of painintings made in spring and early summer of 1912 by Henri Matisse. From around this time, the artist has recurrently chosen goldfish as a subject in his art work. He has made about 9 paintings as well as drawings and prints featuring these tiny creatures. It was in his style to revise one subject over and over again, thus pushing his art further.

Henri Matisse is considered to be the 20th century’s most important French painter. He used color as a homogeneous, primary substance, while complementing it with brilliant draughtsmanship. The artist was initially labelled as a leader of Fauvism – the art style developed in France in contrast to the dark disturbing Symbolist art of the fin de siècle, or turn of the century. The Fauves produced bright, emotional paintings with strong colors, simple shapes, and fierce brushwork. When the French art critic Louis Vauxcelles saw the work of Henri Matisse and André Derain at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1905, he named them les fauves (French ‘the wild beasts’). The contrast to traditional art was so striking that the name Fauvists has stuck with them for good.

By 1908-1910, most of the main artists in the Fauvism group had moved away from the expressive emotionalism, except for Matisse. He continued to use the distinctive fauvist traits of bright emotive colors, plain shapes and painterly mark-making throughout his career. His Goldfish, 1912 is a bright example of his distinguished art style.


The goldfish immediately catches our attention due to their color. The bright scarlet strongly contrasts with more subtle pinks and greens that surround the fish bowl and pinky-turquoise background. Pairs of colors, like blue and orange, as well as green and red, are complementary colors. They appear opposite each other on a colour wheel, and, when placed next to one another in the painting, make each other look even brighter. This technique was used extensively by the Fauves, and is particularly striking in Matisse’s earlier works. Although he subsequently softened his palette, the bold orange, scarlet and crimson are reminiscent of the painter’s fauvist years, which continued to influence his use of color throughout his career.

Henri Matisse made the striking scarlet to be a protagonist in this painting. He once remarked, "Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don't know. I find that all these things . . . only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red."


But why was the painter so interested in goldfish? These beautiful beings were introduced to Europe from East Asia in the 17th century. But hardly he was interested in them before viewing a large exhibition of Islamic art in Munich in 1910, and then spending two months in Spain studying Moorish art. Actually, goldfish have obtained his spectial attention during his visit to Tangier, Morocco, where he stayed from the end of January until April 1912. Matisse was impressed how the local population would day-dream for hours, gazing into goldfish bowls.

Henri admired the Moroccans’ lifestyle as many other Europeans who visited North Africa at that time. Life under the hot sun appeared to him relaxed and contemplative. For him, the goldfish came to symbolize this tranquil state of mind and, at the same time, became evocative of a paradise lost, a subject frequently represented in art. They should be thus understood as a kind of shorthand for paradise in this painting.

The mere name “goldfish” defines these creatures as ideal inhabitants of an idyllic place, which the artist was obviously seeking when he travelled to North Africa. It is also likely that Henri, who by 1912 was already familiar with the Islamic art, was interested in the meaning of gardens, water and vegetation in their culture. He apparently understood them as symbolizing the beauty of divine creation, the evocations of paradise.

Studio as a metaphor of paradise

Still, Goldfish, 1912 has not been painted in Morocco. Henri Matisse worked on it later, when returned home to Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb southwest of Paris. He leased a large house with a beautiful garden at Issy in September 1909 to escape the pressures of Parisian urban life. So, what we see at the canvas are the artist’s own plants, his own garden furniture, and his own fish tank.

Flowerpots on the table, garden plants in the foreground and at the back, with their lavish green leaves and pinky blossom, obviously symbolize here paradise, the lost garden of Eden. Well, what else coud the studio be for this artist? It was Matisse’s place where he formed his ideas and implemented them, the place for the devine process – creativity.

Goldfish, 1912 invites us to indulge in the pleasure of watching the bright color and graceful movement of the fish. Henri Matisse once wrote that he dreamt of “an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be […] a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.” The perfect place for contemplation, the lost paradise in a wild urbanized world is precisely what the artist wanted this painting to provide for the viewer.

Juxtaposition of viewpoints in the pictorial space

Henri Matisse created a certain tension when depicting the space in this canvas. He shows us the fish simultaneously from two different view points. From the front, a viewer can easily recognize four swimming animals by their fins, eyes and open mouths. Seen from the top of a tank, however, the fish are merely suggested by colorful brushstrokes.

When looking at the table-top tilted upwards, it’s difficult for us to imagine how the aquarium and flowerpots actually manage to remain on the table. The artist constructed this original juxtaposition of viewpoints and spatial ambiguity as opposed to Paul Cézanne’s still-life paintings. Cézanne defined art as “a harmony parallel to nature”. Matisse, on the contrary, did not imitate nature but reassembled it in his own pictorial reality. Being somewhat confusing for the viewer, his image nonetheless is well-balanced. The painter masterfully uses color and pattern which successfully hold composition together.

Decorative manner

Henri Matisse is peculiarly decorative. He paints plants and flowers in the upper section of the picture, above the fish tank, in such a decorative way that they resemble more a patterned wallpaper composed of flattened shapes and colors than real plants. However, if we then look at them through the transparent glass tank, we notice that they are distorted by water as it would be in reality.

Goldfish, 1912 is an illustration of some of the major themes in Matisse’s art work: his use of complementary colors, his quest for an idyllic paradise, his appeal for contemplative relaxation for the viewer, his decorative manner of painting and his complex construction of pictorial space.

Written by Natalia Korchina
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About the artwork

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Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Still life, Animalism

Style of art: Expressionism

Technique: Oil

Materials: Canvas

Date of creation: 1912

Size: 147×98 cm

Artwork in selections: 38 selections

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