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Why Was Matisse Obsessed With Goldfish?

Henri Matisse, The Goldfish Bowl, 1921-22, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA. Detail.

Animals

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 Henri 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, 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, 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 is it really 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, 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.

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 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.

Read more about Henri Matisse:

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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