Henri Matisse: Window at Tangier
It would be a mistake to exaggerate the link between any single 20th century art movement and Henri Matisse. His use of a comprehensive range of styles and approaches in creating his broad and highly influential oeuvre is paralleled by few among his contemporaries. With that in mind, it’s often useful to speak of larger trends, mentalities, and tendencies in Europe when discussing Henri Matisse. In Window at Tangier (La Fenêtre à Tanger), two such tendencies are striking: Essentialism and Orientalism.
Essentialism in European art can be described as the tendency to distill shapes, colors, and other compositional elements into their most basic and elemental expressions. In Window at Tangier, we see this in both the reduction of the colors into large fields of yellow, ultramarine blue, and very pale blue and in the rendering of the tree line and window pane into large areas of more-or-less unified color. Part of what makes this piece so impressive is the impact created by the harmony in the simple and beautiful shapes and hues.
Interestingly, it is difficult to extricate Essentialism from Orientalism entirely. The trend of essentialism that gained traction around the early years of Matisse’s career was inspired largely by Japanese printmaking that was arriving from Japan. Artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige were very popular at the time, and they inspired artists all over Europe to create similar evocations of harmony. The Tonalist movement of James Whistler, for instance, drew on the techniques used in Japanese prints to create a new language of interior and landscape painting that spread even to the Americas.
Artists like Matisse, Picasso, Felix Valloton, etc., pushed this new interest in essentialism to new and intriguing extremes. Window at Tangier is by no means Matisse’s most striking or radical exploration of his ability to use economy of shape and tone- late in his career, he explored intensely minimal approaches to imagery with paper cut out pieces such as The Snail (1953):
So while we can say there is something of an Orientalism that is implicit in the essentialist approach to creating Window at Tangier, we can also point to a more direct and more philosophical/spiritual dimension of Orientalism at work here. First, it is important to note that the painting itself is set in Tangier. While Tangier is located to the South of France, the Moorish culture of Morocco is tightly bound- at least in the European mind- to the religious and spiritual culture of the East: Islam.
There are two parts to why the copious use of ultramarine blue is associated with the East in European painting: one is that the word ultramarine itself (literally “over seas”) actually came from beyond Persia and is associated with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Persia, and the Western subcontinent of India. Artists and art aficionados continued to associate the color with the Orient and Islam due to both the sourcing of the pigment itself and the popularity of the color in illustrated manuscripts, tiling, and pottery of the Middle East.
Beyond the pigment and its unique history itself, the color blue was associated with wisdom- particularly among the French Symbolists and the Theosophists. Symbolism may not have been a dominant trend overtly in Matisse’s works, but he was trained in the atelier of pre-eminent Symbolist Gustave Moreau. I’ve written before about the link between the Symbolists and Orientalism (such as in this essay on James Ensor), but what’s important to note here is that the link in the Orientalist cosmology between and innate, intuitive, and primitive spiritual wisdom and the East is a major feature of the Orientalist mindset. So here we see the link again between the Orient, the color blue, and a kind of spiritual harmony/wisdom that represents a guilt and fear among Modernizing Europe and its cultural expressions.
Matisse would go on to utilize these tropes more aggressively in many of his later works, using the color blue to color whole figures and canvases as an expression of internal knowledge and introspective exploration. What makes Window at Tangier so successful is the balanced and poetic use of Matisse’s broader affinities in an application to a single, recognizable subject- the painting is both exemplary of his deeper inclinations and a stand-alone evocation of a time and place. This particular balance is, in fact, the essence of lyricism.