A joyous bouquet of wildflowers dominates this glorious picture, which Matisse completed on the first Bastille Day following the Armistice ending World War I. By his own account, the painting is a symbol of the artist's unrestraint exuberance on that momentous day in 1919, when all of France celebrated its national holiday amidst the newly restored peace. When he presented this work to his dealer Bernheim-Jeune not long after it was completed, Matisse simply titled the work Le 14 juillet 1919, as the significance of that day spoke volumes about the meaning of his picture. From an artistic standpoint, the painting heralds the fresh and colorful style that would define Matisse's career thenceforward, and signals the artist's renewed sense of optimism following one of the most troubling periods of his career.
The present work marks a critical moment for Matisse, both in spirit and in style. Throughout the war years, the artist had worked against the tide of Cubism that swept through the avant-garde, committing himself to a style of painting that was grounded in form and color. His art was an antidote to the "drying-up effect of pure abstraction" that he saw consuming his peers, and he struggled to reveal the plastic beauty of form and figuration. But at the beginning of 1919, his determination was at its most strident: "Work monopolised him from the start," writes Hilary Spurling of this period. "Throughout the first months of 1919, he complained that the road lay uphill, that he was toiling like a carthorse, that his labours exhausted him and made him despair. But he had no doubt that he was on to something. 'As for telling you what it will be like,' he wrote to his wife on 9 January, 'that I couldn't say since it hasn't happened yet, but my idea is to push further and deeper into true painting.'" (H. Spurling, op. cit. p. 223).
The events that precipitated Matisse's completion of the present work were like fuel for the artist's creative fire. The war years had not been kind to Matisse, and the new age of peace following the Great War was his chance for a new start. He had spent the last three years in relative isolation from his family, setting up a studio in the Nice, where he often felt at odds with the locals. News from Paris that the Steins had sold off their collection of his best Fauve paintings in 1918 demoralized him, as did the rumor, albeit false, that Shchukin's paintings of La Danse and La Musique had been destroyed during the Bolshevik Revolution. To make matters worse, the artist's daughter Marguerite was critically ill with complications from a tracheotomy in the beginning of 1919, and Matisse found himself struggling to acclimate to these drawbacks while alone in Nice that spring. He returned to his family home in Issy-les-Moulineaux for the summer, just in time for the official victory celebrations that began in Paris in late June. "I am the happiest man in the word," he told a reporter in Paris at this time. According to his biographer Hillary Spurling, "He gloried in the flowers in his garden, painting poppies going off like fireworks and a brilliant bouquet for Bastille day on 14 July" (ibid. p. 228). This picture was his victory celebration and, for his art, a sign of good things to come. Now he was ready to break free from the doldrums of self-doubt and approach his work with a newfound sense of confidence.
"For me, the subject of a picture and its background have the same value, or, to put it more clearly, there is no principal feature, only the pattern is important. The picture is formed by the combination of surfaces, differently colored." (quoted in J. & M. Guillaud, Matisse, Rhythm and Line, New York, 1986, p. 192). These words seem to be the mantra of the present work, in which the background tapestry plays as central a role to the composition as the bouquet. Matisse harmonizes the patterning of the brocaded fabric with the branches of the gladeola sprouting out of the vase. Textiles played an integral part of Matisse's most successful compositions in oil, whether they were of still lifes or odalisques. In two other pictures from this era, Matisse's floral arrangements appear to be in consort with their surroundings in terms of the color, their shape and the expressiveness with which he renders them. While Matisse was unlike any artist of his generation in his lavishing of attention to all aspects of his composition, his radical spatial perspective and the incorporation with contrasting textures in still lifes can be likened to those of his great predecessor, Paul Cézanne.
As mentioned earlier, the first owners of the present work were Matisse's dealers, Bernheim-Jeune. It was Gaston Bernheim de Villers in particular who kept this picture in his family's private collection since its creation until it was sold at auction in France in the early 1980s. At that time, the picture made a record price for any work of art sold in France, and since then, it has been in the same private collection for over a quarter of a century.
Oil on canvas
Paris, Salon d'automne, 1919
45 1/2 by 35 in. 116 by 89 cm
Mario Luzi & Massimo Carrà, L'Opera di Matisse, dalla rivolta 'fauve' all'intimismo, 1904-1928, Milan, 1971, no. 306, illustrated p. 98
Guy Patrice & Michel Dauberville, Matisse, vol. 2, Paris, 1995, no. 342, illustrated p. 811 (titled Nature morte, fleurs (14 juillet 1919))
Hilary Spurling, Matisse, The Master, New York, 2005, discussed p. 228
Gaston Bernheim de Villers, Paris (acquired from the artist in 1919 , thence by descent and sold: Hôtel Drouot, Paris, March 30, 1982, lot 30bis)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner