Matisse conceived this "souvenir of Morocco" in 1912, stretched a canvas for it in 1913, and returned to the composition late in 1915, only to start again on a new canvas in early 1916. Black is the principal agent, at once simplifying, dividing, and joining the three zones of the canvas: the still life of melons and leaves on a gridded pavement, bottom left; the architecture with domed marabout, top left; and the figures, at right. Next to a seated Moroccan shown from behind, the large curving ocher shape and circular form derive from a reclining figure in the sketches. Above the shadowed archway, figures in profile may be discerned in the two windows: at right, the lower part of a seated man; at left, the upper part of a man with raised arms. Matisse built up the surface with thin layers of pigment, the color of the underlying layers modifying those on top. Painter Gino Severini reported that "Matisse said . . . that everything that did not contribute to the balance and rhythm of [this] work, had to be eliminated . . . as you would prune a tree."
Gallery label from Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917, July 18–October 11, 2010
The Moroccans marvelously evokes tropical sun and heat even while its ground is an enveloping black, what Matisse called "a grand black, . . . as luminous as the other colors in the painting." Utterly dense, this black evokes a space as tangible as any object, and allows a gravity and measured drama without the illusion of depth once necessary to achieve this kind of grandeur.
The painting, which Matisse described as picturing "the terrace of the little café of the casbah," is divided into three: at the upper left, an architectural section showing a balcony with flowerpot and the dome of a mosque behind; a still life, of four green-leafed yellow melons at the lower left; and a figural scene in which an Arab sits with his back to us. To his right is an arched doorway, and windows above contain vestigial figures. The form to his left is hard to decipher, but has been interpreted as a man's burnoose and circular turban.
During his visit to Morocco in 1912-13, Matisse had been inspired by African light and color. At the same time, he faced the challenge of Cubism, the leading avant-garde art movement of the period, and The Moroccans summarizes his memories of Morocco while also combining the intellectual rigor of Cubist syntax with the larger scale and richer palette of his own art.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art , MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 79