Henri Matisse created his cut-outs in three different studios. In 1946 he developed Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea on the walls of an apartment at 132 Boulevard Montparnasse, Paris. Towards the end of his time at the Villa le Rêve, in Vence, where he lived and worked between 1943 and 1948, Matisse covered its walls with vibrantly colored cut-paper forms. From 1949 until his death in 1954, Matisse’s cut-outs grew in ambition, expanding throughout the interiors of the Hôtel Régina, Nice.
With this body of work, the studio changed from being a subject—as it had been in numerous paintings throughout Matisse’s long career—to a support; the walls of his residences became the grounds for the cut-outs.
“During his stay in Paris during the summer of 1946,” Lydia Delectorskaya recalled of the origins of Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea, “Matisse had cut out a swallow from a sheet of writing paper and, as it distressed him to tear up this beautiful shape and throw it away…he put it up on his wall, also using it to cover up a stain the sight of which disturbed him. Over the following weeks other shapes were cut out and put up on the same wall.” These white forms—swooping birds and floating jellyfish, diving sharks and quivering seaweed—crystallized Matisse’s memories from a 1930 trip to Tahiti.
Initially, Matisse had no final product in mind for these mural decorations. “I am cutting out all these elements and putting them up on the walls temporarily,” he said. “I don’t know yet what I’ll come up with. Perhaps panels, wall hangings.” When the textile manufacturer Zika Ascher, with whom Matisse was already working on cut-out designs for scarves, saw them, he proposed making silkscreens of the designs. Oceania, the Sky and Oceania, the Sea were printed in an edition of thirty each, with white forms on a beige linen selected by the artist, but the whereabouts of the original paper forms remained unknown until the mid-1990s, when they were rediscovered and mounted.
“The walls of my room are full of découpages,” Matisse wrote to his friend, the writer André Rouveyre, on February 22, 1948. He was referring to a continuous forest of vividly colored paper forms composed and pinned to the wall of his studio-residence, the Villa le Rêve in Vence. Intricately cut organic shapes clamber across a series of rectangles. A few cut forms trespass the horizontal boundaries where sheets of paper meet, making it impossible to tell where one motif ends and another begins. Matisse constantly moved and changed the shapes, as if in a compositional card game, so they interacted in different ways. “I do not yet know what I will do with these new découpages,” Matisse admitted to Rouveyre. But we know that he at least considered the possibility of treating the tightly clustered contents of this wall as a single work. He wrote to his son and dealer Pierre that “a shipowner who is making a luxury boat called ‘The Spirit of France’ destined for the Orient as far as Japan proposed to buy it from me to put it in his boat in a serious frame and under glass—I said that I would think about it.” Though Matisse rejected the offer, perhaps the proposition impelled him towards a decision about the works’ future, for he concluded, “I would rather keep them, or better, frame them as motifs.” Even today, individually mounted and framed, these cut-outs retain material reminders of their former existence on the studio wall, in the lifting of a leaf, or in countless telltale pinholes.
In Matisse’s studio at the Hôtel Régina, Nice, the leaves and pomegranates of The Parakeet and the Mermaid developed across a corner to cover two perpendicular walls. Spreading from left to right, without regard for the presence of a radiator, the vibrantly colored forms created an immersive environment. “I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk,” Matisse noted, “There are leaves, fruits, a bird.”
Before settling on the mermaid at the work’s upper right, Matisse experimented with various forms in the clearing, some of which would later become discrete cut-outs. Archival photographs show that Matisse tried Venus, Blue Nude II, and Standing Blue Nude. This kind of substitution was entirely characteristic of Matisse’s process, in which elements were constantly shifted and rearranged as he lived with the works. Eventually, Matisse came to identify with the bird on the left side of this cut-out. “I had to make…this parakeet with colored paper,” he said. “Well, I became a parakeet. And I found myself in the work.”