During the last decade of his life Henri Matisse deployed two simple materials—white paper and gouache—to create works of wide-ranging color and complexity. An unorthodox implement, a pair of scissors, was the tool Matisse used to transform paint and paper into a world of plants, animals, figures, and shapes.
The cut-outs were created in distinct phases. The raw materials—paper and gouache—were purchased, and the two materials combined: studio assistants painted sheets of paper with gouache. Matisse then cut shapes from these painted papers and arranged them into compositions. For smaller compositions the artist worked directly on a board using pins. For larger compositions, Matisse directed his studio assistants to arrange them on the wall of his studio. Subsequently, cut-outs were mounted permanently, either in the studio or in Paris by professional mounters.
The color on Matisse’s cut-outs is produced using gouache—a water-based, opaque, quick-drying, matte paint that consists of pigment, binder, and often a white pigment or filler to increase opacity. Matisse purchased a wide range of colors at supply houses in both Paris and Nice, choosing tubes based on color and freshness. Studio assistants cut rectangular sheets of paper from large rolls. Gouache, thinned with water, was applied to the paper and then weighted until dry. Some sheets had a more dense application of gouache and some more visibly retained the brushstrokes.
When Matisse was working on a specific project, he would ask for an assortment of painted paper sheets to be placed on the studio floor. He would choose a particular sheet and then cut a shape, letting the remainder of the sheet fall to the floor. For larger forms a studio assistant would assist in guiding the paper to facilitate a smooth and continuous cut. Although Matisse was filmed using large scissors, close examination of the existing cut-outs shows that he must have used a variety of sizes. Some forms, even very large ones, were cut from one sheet of paper. Others, particularly the stars that appear in many works, were cut from many smaller shapes, which were assembled to create the final desired form. In some cases the multiple pieces narrowly overlap; in others large cut forms were overlaid with yet another cut form. The outline of the form was the ultimate goal of the artist, not the layered structure.
Matisse used pins (probably sewing pins), thumb tacks, and thin nails to secure the cut forms; for small formats the artist would work on a board while sitting in a chair or in bed. As compositions grew in size the walls of the studio became the supports for the cut-outs. Studio assistants would pin cut forms to the wall with a hammer, following the directions of the artist. This method allowed for quick and easy attachment; positions could be altered and refashioned easily. The numerous pinholes that remain in the cut-outs attest to these initial mountings and repositionings.
It was often necessary to remove a cut-out from the studio wall, either when Matisse needed wall space for a new composition or when works were to be mounted. In order to have an accurate and permanent record of the placement of each cut form, a tracing was made. When there were overlapping forms, each form was numbered on the reverse.
Until 1950–51 Matisse and his studio assistants mounted cut-outs in the studio, as the works were modest in their dimensions. When works were sold prior to this date, they were mounted with a technique called "spot gluing." The cut forms were adhered to the underlying paper with small dabs of glue. The technique allowed for the works to be framed and transported while retaining the three-dimensional liveliness they had when pinned to a board or the wall.
In 1952 Matisse was introduced to the Parisian art supply and restoration firm of Lucien Lefebvre-Foinet through Marc Chagall. This firm adapted a traditional painting relining process to the specific needs of mounting Matisse cut-outs. Matisse, who was very concerned about the long-term preservation of his cut-outs, felt that this technique was a satisfactory answer to his needs. The benefit of this technique was that the mounted cut-outs—even in very large dimensions—could be safely stored, framed, and transported. As the gouache surfaces were quite prone to abrasion from any physical contact, Matisse wanted his works to be glazed. The drawback of this process was that the cut-outs lost the dimensionality that they had when still pinned to the walls of the studio. The idea that works on paper could remain in such a seemingly impermanent state is one that we now have come to accept and embrace, but was not conceivable at the time of the creation of the cut-outs.
When a viewer stands in front of a Matisse cut-out today, does the work appear as it did when Matisse created it? Paramount is the color stability of the gouache-painted paper shapes. Scientific analysis has determined that each particular gouache formula had its own stability: some colors are very stable and some fade quickly in light. Within a given color—orange, for example—there is a wide range of stability. Although Matisse was aware that some colors were unstable—he had seen pink and violet pieces fade in his own studio—he would not have been aware of the long-term stability of all of the colors he was using. As Matisse chose his gouache-painted papers, perhaps some newly painted and some that he had saved, he would have been introducing uneven color stability into his compositions.
Why, in the last decade of his career, did Henri Matisse turn to creating with scissors and painted paper? Though the medium was a new invention, its development was a logical outgrowth of key ideas that defined Matisse’s lifelong artistic practice.
Throughout his career, Matisse searched for a way to unite the formal elements of color and line. On the one hand, he was known as a master colorist: from the non-realistic palette that earned him the designation of a fauve or “wild beast” in the first decade of the twentieth century, to the light-infused interiors of his so-called “Nice period” of the 1920s, he followed a course of what he described as “construction by means of color.” On the other hand, he was a master draftsman, celebrated for drawings and prints that describe a figure in fluid arabesque lines; “my line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion,” he once said. Through the cut-outs, he was finally able to unite these two branches of his practice. He described the process of making them as both “cutting directly into color” and “drawing with scissors.”
Years before Matisse conceived of the cut-outs as an independent medium, he employed the technique as an expedient to realize work in other mediums. As early as 1919, he used cut paper to design the décor for a ballet, Le Chant de Rossignol. When composing the mural The Dance, commissioned by Dr. Albert Barnes, in the early 1930s, he learned that covering large areas with sheets of painted paper allowed him to make changes more efficiently than he could by repainting. In 1937–38, he cut and pinned painted paper to design a second dance production, Rouge et noir. And in 1940–41, he used cut paper to resolve the compositions of two paintings. Though he would not consider a cut-out to be an autonomous work of art until 1946, the groundwork was laid to create through this technique. The cut-outs “were a long time in the making,” Matisse acknowledged, developing in secret.
Long before the cut-outs spread across Matisse’s walls to become immersive, environmental works, Matisse dreamed of creating on a grand scale. In 1942, he expressed to the writer Louis Aragon that he had “an unconscious belief in a future life…some paradise where I shall paint frescoes.” And in 1947, he acknowledged the influence of Islamic art which, he said, “suggests a greater space, a truly plastic space.” Inventing the cut-out medium allowed him to fulfill this ambition to make monumental decorations that transcended the confines of easel painting.