Fauvism

Why Was Matisse Obsessed with Goldfish?

Magda Michalska 19 June 2024 min Read

Goldfish here, goldfish there—in a bowl, in a tank, on a table, by the window—goldfish everywhere. As I delved into Henri Matisse’s work, I noticed a period where he was particularly obsessed with goldfish. But why?

A Little Investigation

Henri Matisse, Goldfish, 1912, Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Henri Matisse, Goldfish, 1912, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia.

The fish appear in at least ten of his paintings as my little investigation shows. This Goldfish belongs to a series that he produced between spring and early summer 1912.

Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.
Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY, USA.

What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish? According to a tale, goldfish have a magic ability to make three wishes of ours come true. But was it this mysterious quality that made Matisse obsessively paint them over and over again?

Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Palette, 1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, USA.
Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Palette, 1914, Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY, USA.

Goldfish were introduced to Europe from East Asia in the 17th century, while the US saw them around 1850, where they quickly gained popularity. Because of their metallic scales, they symbolized good luck and fortune and it became a tradition for married men to give their wives a goldfish on the first wedding anniversary, as a promise of the prosperous years to come. However, we cannot interpret goldfish in Matisse’s work in this way as he had been married to Amelie since 1898.

Henri Matisse, Fish Tank in the Room, 1912, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark.
Henri Matisse, Fish Tank in the Room, 1912, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark.

From a study of a still life, Matisse expanded to depict a whole room he was working in:

Henri Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1912, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, matisse with goldfish
Henri Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1912, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

The Barnes Foundation owns another fish painting:

Henri Matisse, Young Woman before an Aquarium, 1921-1922, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
Henri Matisse, Young Woman before an Aquarium, 1921-1922, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA, USA.

Inspiration

Henri Matisse, Arab Coffeehouse, 1912-1913, State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, Russia.
Henri Matisse, Arab Coffeehouse, 1912-1913, State Hermitage Museum, St.Petersburg, Russia.

Henri Matisse, Zorah on the terrace, 1912, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia.
Henri Matisse, Zorah on the Terrace, 1912, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia.

Matisse likely became obsessed with goldfish following his trip to Tangier, Morocco where he had observed Moroccans’ slow and mindful lifestyle. He often portrayed them daydreaming or meditating while peering into goldfish bowls, fascinated by how they contemplated and enjoyed seemingly mundane elements of their reality.

Henri Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1914, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France.
Henri Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1914, Centre Pompidou, Paris, France.

For Matisse, the goldfish itself came to symbolize the serene state of mind he so admired in the Moroccans, while painting goldfish became an exercise in mindfulness as he once wrote that he dreamed of:

(…) an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art that could be […] a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair that provides relaxation from fatigue.

Henri Matisse, Notes d’un peintre, 1908.

Get your daily dose of art

Click and follow us on Google News to stay updated all the time

Recommended

Fauvism

Fauvism in 10 Paintings

Can you believe that the now well-known masterpieces created by artists such as Henri Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck were once called “wild...

Valeria Kumekina 14 March 2024

Fauvism

Circus and Jazz of Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse (1869-1954) was a renowned French artist celebrated for his bold use of color. One of his lesser-known masterpieces, The Circus, is a...

Isla Phillips-Ewen 19 June 2024

Fauvism

Rik Wouters – Genius of Light and Color

Have you heard of Rik Wouters? He is Belgium’s best-known Fauvist, renowned for the stunning colors in his paintings. His works have often been...

Zuzanna Stańska 20 June 2022