Matisse developed this painting of what he described as “the terrace of the little cafe of the casbah” in the years following two visits to Morocco, in 1912 and 1913. As he worked on various studies he eliminated details he felt were extraneous to the painting’s overall balance. A balcony with a flowerpot and a mosque behind it are at upper left, at lower left is a still life of vegetables, and to the right is a man wearing a round turban, seen from behind. Matisse’s generous application of black paint helps unify the three sections of the painting across its abstract expanse.
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."
Director, Glenn Lowry: Matisse first conceived this painting in 1912, while he was visiting Morocco. But he didn't actually start the canvas until early 1916. Once he did, he continued working on it—with great focus and concentration—through the fall.
Curator, John Elderfield: The forms are difficult to decipher. I know some people who have thought that what Matisse says are melons and leaves are in fact the Moroccans, but Matisse is insistent that they are not. I think one can clearly see the figure whose back is towards us. And if we look at it carefully we can see that that figure's grown in size. To the right of it, that black area does seem to derive from drawings of an arched doorway with light hitting the bottom, but the top part is in shadow, leading into another architectural space. And the two elements at the top are ones which we can trace back to drawings he made in Morocco—the one at the right, of a sort of seated figure, and the one to the left, more puzzling, but somewhat amusingly, in one of the drawings—and he refers to this in his letter—is of a figure who has got his arms raised to look through binoculars. All that remains is the forearms and part of the body, and Matisse is quite happy to have carried it to that point of almost unintelligibility. But I don't think the painting asks us to be specific about these forms.
Curator, Stephanie D’Alessandro: I don't think so either. I think there's a level of memory and recollection, and maybe even nostalgia with this picture.
Glenn Lowry: One aspect of Morocco that stayed with Matisse was the harsh contrast between the midday sun and the shade, evoked here in the black background.
Conservator, Michael Duffy: You can see how it defines certain shapes. Particularly the shape in the middle, this curved shape, which is made up of ochre and white. The black edge on the left is painted over, so he actually defines the form further by overlaying the black paint. When you look closely at the black paint, you'll see that it covers areas of blue and pink underneath, and that gives the black a very warm color. And it's very typical of the way Matisse painted. Rather than blending his colors together, to achieve one color, he would typically layer colors, even black, over several layers, in order to build up a kind of rich, optical surface.
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.
Curator Emeritus, John Elderfield: This painting was made in 1915–1916 and is a remembrance of visits that Matisse made to Morocco. And while the paintings made in Morocco are beautifully, limpidly colored, obviously the remembrance is rather of the great heat, of contrasts of color in the conditions of very bright light.
The Moroccans themselves are on the right on the terrace with their melons and gourds—the green and yellow forms at the left. We can see a figure with his back to us, and then, with more difficulty, figures in windows at the top. In the background is a mosque with a vase of blue and white flowers standing on the parapet.
Matisse said that he put black in his pictures to simplify the composition. And indeed, through the teens and into the 1920s, he regularly puts in a little dosing of black to hold everything else in place. I think, unquestionably, he was thinking of shadow, and of the kind of stifling midday sun in North Africa. There is that element of renunciation of color and wanting to put in an element of real gravity in the composition. Its hard to imagine any other color doing it in that same way.
Narrator: In 1911 and again in 1912 Matisse traveled to Morocco. Three years later, he tapped those memories for this big souvenir picture, The Moroccans. By that time he was deeply involved in the Cubist vocabulary of reduced geometric form.
Curator, John Elderfield: What it shows is on the upper left a mosque with a vase of flowers on the right hand side. In the bottom left is a pavement with melons with their green leaves. And at the right, more difficult to figure out, various figures who are presumably sitting on some sort of terrace outside a cafe in Tangier. One can I think clearly understand the figure with his back to us, with a white turban and, blue shirt. And to the right, what looks like the top of an archway in shadow.
Matisse talked about the black as being a way of representing heat and light. And as one gets further south, one gets these very strong black and white contrasts. It's also trying to convey some of the sense of the intense light, and the almost tangible heat of Tangier.
Curator, Kirk Varnedoe: Certainly Picasso must have looked intensely at a major picture like this, and learned from it a new vocabulary of Cubism, more highly abstracted, more monumental. When you compare The Moroccans to Picasso's Three Musicians of 1921...what leaps out at you are certain similarities—the use of black for example. But Picasso unlike Matisse is not a traveler. Picasso often said, "If someone didn't come to the studio in the morning, I wouldn't have anything to paint in the afternoon."
Narrator: The Three Musicians most likely represent the artist and his friends. Picasso himself is at the center, identified by the harlequin costume and guitar he often used as his symbols. To the right, the man dressed as a monk with a stylized beard is probably Picasso's friend the poet Max Jacob, who had entered a monastery after the First World War. And the large white figure with the clarinet may be another poet friend, Guillaume Apollinaire, who had died from war wounds.
Kirk Varnedoe: The picture has a kind of gravity, a kind of sadness or melancholy, which is played off by small and amusing details, like the tiny little zig zags that represent the hand on the notes of music, or the dog that lies under the table to the left. So you imagine the music being played. Is it syncopated like a kind of bright jazz, and on the other hand melancholy like a threnody? And when you compare this in its detail, then you sense how monumental the Matisse is by comparison, and how in a certain sense impersonal it is.