Goldfish here, goldfish there, in a bowl, in a tank, on a table, by the window, goldfish everywhere. Having been looking at Matisse’s work recently, I realized there was a period in which Matisse was obsessed with goldfish. But, why?
A little investigation
The fish appear in at least ten of his paintings as my little investigation shows (if you find more, send them my way or share them on our Instagram!). This Goldfish belongs to a series that he produced between spring and early summer 1912.
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 is it really this mysterious quality that made Matisse obsessively paint them over and over again?
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 symbolised 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 this way goldfish in Matisse’s work as he had been married with Amelie since 1898.
From a study of a still life, Matisse expanded to depict a whole room he was working in:
The Barnes foundation owns another fish painting:
It is likely that Matisse 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 whilst peering into goldfish bowls, fascinated by how they contemplated and enjoyed seemingly mundane elements of their reality.
For Matisse, the goldfish itself came to symbolise the serene state of mind he so admired in the Moroccans, while painting goldfish became for him an exercise in mindfulness as he once wrote that he dreamt 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.
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