Woman in a Purple Coat, 1937
Henri Matisse, French, 1869–1954
Oil on canvas
31 7/8 × 25 11/16 in. (81 × 65.2 cm) frame: 41 1/4 × 35 1/2 × 4 3/4 in. (104.8 × 90.2 × 12.1 cm)
Gift of Audrey Jones Beck
Habits of Mind
- OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
Woman in a Purple Coat
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
Connecting to the Work of Art
Henri Matisse abandoned his law school studies to become an artist. His early paintings were subdued in color, but he soon fell under the influence of the Impressionists. Matisse gradually adopted a lighter and brighter range of colors, as well as a more informal approach to composition. He began working outdoors alongside the artists Camille Pissarro, Paul Gauguin, and Claude Monet. In 1905 the first Fauve exhibition propelled Matisse to the forefront of the Parisian avant-garde. Named after the French word for “wild beasts”—as the critics dubbed these artists—the Fauves used brilliant color for its expressive rather than descriptive properties.
By the 1920s, Matisse was spending much of his time in Nice in the South of France, pursuing his dream of “an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of troubling or disturbing subject matter.” He also traveled to Morocco. These sunlit surroundings not only brightened his palette, but also introduced new subject matter and an exotic flavor to his work. The artist’s love of painting and his willingness to experiment led him to reinvent his work many times during his long and productive life. The purpose of his paintings, he believed, was to give pleasure. Matisse also created sculptures, book illustrations, theatrical sets and costumes, and decorative projects. His career culminated in a highly original series of paper cutouts, which confirmed his reputation as one of the major artists of the 20th century.
This woman’s lavish costume and languid pose were inspired by life in Morocco—as were the painting’s bright colors, curvilinear lines, and vivid domestic interior. The profusion of patterns creates a decorative opulence that is balanced by the flattened perspective and simplified shapes. Matisse painted many images of costumed women in exotic settings. The model for this painting was Lydia Delectorskaya, the artist’s secretary and companion.
Matisse painted only from direct observation, asking his model to return if he needed to rework even the smallest area of a canvas. Painted over three days, Woman in a Purple Coat belongs to a series of paintings that are similar in subject and style. Matisse rejected the use of shading to suggest three-dimensional form. Strong black outlines flatten the figure and simplify the overall composition, while zones of bold pattern fill the composition. Some of these designs—including those on the woman’s robe and pants—were formed by scratching into the surface of the paint to reveal the raw canvas beneath. The artist rejected traditional perspective. Everything in this composition—woman, background, and furnishings—appears to exist on the same picture plane. The tabletop, which seems askew, nonetheless supports the flowers and fruit. Matisse offers a new two-dimensional sense of space, creating a balanced composition that bursts with pattern and color.
- Where can you see lines or shapes repeated throughout the canvas? Where can you see colors repeat?
- Look at the colors Matisse uses in this scene. What mood do they evoke? How do they make you feel?
- Can you identify the foreground, middle ground, and background? How can you tell where objects are in this painting?
- What techniques did Matisse use to create this painting? Can you see where he might have sketched out shapes before painting them in the final color? How did he create the lines on the woman’s coat?
- Who might this woman be? What do you think her relationship with Matisse might have been? Why do you say so?
- Do you think that Matisse painted the colors that he saw? Why did he choose the colors that he did?
- Critics called Matisse and the people he worked with “wild beasts”, or Fauves. Why do you think they were so shocked by their work? Do you find Matisse’s style beastly?
• Matisse painted many of his works en plein air, a French term meaning outdoors. He was greatly affected by the landscape and flowers of the South of France. Find this region on a map and research its weather, plants, and architecture.
• For younger students, Woman in a Purple Coat can be color copied and cut into a puzzle.
Students can work independently or in groups to reassemble the painting.
• Explore pattern. Each student should use at least two colors to create a pattern that completely covers an 8 1/2 x 11-inch sheet of paper. The patterns can be inspired by Matisse’s work or by your own environment. Create a patchwork composition by combining the students’ patterns.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.