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Why Was Matisse Obsessed With Goldfish?

Henri Matisse, The Goldfish Bowl, 1921-22, detail, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artists' Stories

Why Was Matisse Obsessed With Goldfish?

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

Henri Matisse, Goldfish, 1912, Pushkin Museum, Moscow

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

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.

Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912, MoMA, NY, matisse with goldfish

Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912, The Museum of Modern Art, NY

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?

Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Palette, 1914, The Museum of Modern Art, NY

Henri Matisse, Goldfish and Palette, 1914, The Museum of Modern Art, NY


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.

Henri Matisse, Fish tank in the room, 1912, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, matisse with goldfish

Henri Matisse, Fish Tank in the Room, 1912, National Gallery of Denmark – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

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, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia


The Barnes foundation owns another fish painting:

Henri Matisse. Young Woman before an Aquarium matisse obsessed with goldfish

Henri Matisse, Young Woman before an Aquarium (Jeune fille devant un aquarium), 1921-1922, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

Inspiration

Henri Matisse, Arab Coffeehouse, 1912-1913, The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, matisse goldfish

Henri Matisse, Arab Coffeehouse, 1912-1913, The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Henri Matisse, Zorah on the terrace, 1912, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow matisse obsessed with goldfish

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

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.

Henri Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1914, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, matisse obsessed with goldfish

Henri Matisse, Interior with Goldfish, 1914, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris


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.

Find out more:

 


Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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