It’s well known that Henri Matisse was a champion of decorative painting — or perhaps I should say, the decorative in painting. His admirers will have in mind the words from his “Notes of a Painter” (1908): “Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the diverse elements at the painter’s command to express his feelings.”

Not original to Matisse, who could have found similar ideas expressed in writings by Maurice Denis and other contemporaries, this idea was nonetheless a direct challenge to the traditional idea of composition as it had been cultivated by the academies, where it was considered fundamentally narrative and discursive rather than decorative or expressive.

But still: What did Matisse mean by the word “decorative”? He never explains it, and neither — at least in my experience — do most commentators on his art, who likewise seem to assume that the word’s meaning is transparent and needs no further inquiry. For answers, one might look further into the artist’s stated views (as recorded in Matisse on Art, edited by Jack Flam, University of California Press, 1995), trying to tease out their implications.

“Ivy in Flower” (1956), stained-glass window, 300 × 300 cm; fabricated by Atelier Bony, Paris, after Henri Matisse’s design (1953), © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

From a 1912 interview: “A picture should, for me, always be decorative.” In a 1942 radio interview, he spoke of “the rediscovery of the emotional and decorative properties of line and color by modern artists,” going on to lament the effect of this on commercial culture, leading to “department stores invaded by materials decorated in medleys of color, without moderation, without meaning.”

In 1945, another interviewer asked Matisse about people “reproaching your art for being highly decorative, meaning that in the pejorative sense of superficial,” to which the artist responded at length: “The decorative for a work of art is an extremely precious thing. It is an essential quality. […] The characteristic of modern art is to participate in our life. A painting in an interior spreads joy around it by the colors, which calms us. The colors obviously are not assembled haphazardly, but in an expressive way. A painting on a wall should be like a bouquet of flowers in an interior. These flowers are an expression, tender or passionate.” In 1951: “The role of painting, I think, the role of all decorative painting, is to enlarge surfaces, to work so that one no longer feels the dimensions of the wall.”

Or one could begin by examining the etymology of the word itself, or rather of its French cognate, décoration. As is immediately evident, they share a single source, the Latin decus, which refers to beauty, honor, or embellishment — and I believe that it is this last meaning that must be the central concept here.

“Oceania, the Sky” (1948), wall hanging printed by Ascher Ltd after Henri Matisse’s design (1946); oil paint silkscreened on linen, 174 × 368 cm. No. 10 in edition of 30, © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

An embellishment is something added. Anyone who’s visited the United Kingdom may have noticed that a one-pound coin typically carries an inscription along its edge: decus et tutamen, that is, “an ornament and a safeguard.” This phrase was adopted from Vergil’s Aeneid, where “viro decus et tutamen in armis” described a beautifully made piece of armor as “a glory to man and a protection in war.”

On a coin, the shortened legend cleverly refers to its own function, which dates back to the time when coins were literally supposed to contain their own value in metal; coin-clipping was the criminal act of shaving the edges of coins, perhaps to forge the scrap into new coins or simply to melt it down to create a salable quantity. The textural ornament was a safeguard in that anyone who was offered a coin without it would be aware that it was no longer worth its face value. In our context, the phrase serves as a handy definition of a form of beauty that is superadded to a functional object — a definition that does not seem to apply to most paintings, which typically have no other use beyond their aesthetic value.

In his recently published book Matisse and Decoration, John Klein — previously author of Matisse Portraits (2001) — points out that in the usage of Matisse’s time, there was a tension in the very word “decorative” — that the “decorative arts,” also known as the minor arts, were fundamentally hedonistic, evoking and amplifying everyday pleasures and testifying to the prosperity of their owners.

“Polynesia, the Sea” (1948), low-warp wool tapestry, 193 × 313 cm; woven at the Beauvais workshop, Paris, after Henri Matisse’s design (1946), No. 2 in edition of 8, © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“Decorative painting,” on the contrary, suggested mural painting, large-scale pictorial schemes that might have been subordinated to the architectural spaces for which they were created, but given that these were either public spaces, or private ones of some importance, they were expected to convey elevated, even didactic themes — they were works of ideological significance.

For Matisse’s predecessors, the Nabis — avant-garde painters of the 1890s, influenced by Paul Gauguin, among them the aforementioned Denis, as well as Pierre Bonnard, Paul Sérusier, and Édouard Vuillard — the decorative was a necessary intervention in everyday life seen for what it is. Klein quotes one Nabi, Jan Verkade: “Let us have walls, that we may paint them over. No more perspective! The wall must remain a plain surface and must not be broken by the presentation of limitless horizons. There are no paintings, but only decorations.”

As Klein says, the Nabis transformed the “public and didactic” function of the mural to remake it for domestic use. That’s where Matisse comes in. Following the Nabis, as Klein explains — but contrary to the present-day assumption of decoration as a merely commercial enterprise — Matisse “associated decoration and decorative painting with an idealized vision of art’s role to oppose the ills of a business- and production-oriented society.” Decorative art offered a vision of wholeness, for — as Klein says — “To the extent that decoration is environmental, it also has a phenomenological dimension of direct bodily experience,” reconciling the individual with his or her situation.

Henri Matisse, “Dance” (1932–33), oil on canvas, left panel: 339.7 × 441.3 cm; center panel: 355.9 × 503.2 cm; right panel: 338.8 × 439.4 cm, © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Some of Klein’s most revealing pages concern Matisse’s activity in the period leading up to and during World War II. It may seem strange that Matisse could continue pursuing his interest in decoration — and for the pastoral imagery that so often accompanied it — at a time when half of his country was under Nazi occupation, and the rest of it ruled by a nominally independent collaborationist government. This was the time, don’t forget, when Matisse’s own daughter was working for the Resistance — and was captured and tortured. And to work at such a time on tapestry designs showing a nymph in the forest, or a commission for some painted doors on the theme of Leda and the swan? It may seem incomprehensible. “Picasso’s well-known declaration about the political necessity of painting,” Klein suggests, “may have been aimed directly at Matisse: ‘No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of offense and defense against the enemy.”

But Matisse’s intransigence in the pursuit of his own deeply rooted project was precisely what seemed to Louis Aragon — Picasso’s fellow Communist, for what that’s worth — to be what was most admirable in him. Aragon in 1946: “During the most difficult hours of our national life, yesterday when we suffered shame, today when we are still surrounded by ruins, we are indebted to Matisse for having maintained, for still maintaining a radiant image of France.”

Henri Matisse, “Chapel of the Rosary (Vence, 1948-51), general interior view of the altar with “The Tree of Life” stained-glass windows in the west wall and “Saint Dominic” ceramic mural on the north wall; photograph by Gérard Blot, © 2018 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The postwar years offered Matisse new opportunities for both decorative painting and the production of decorative products on his design — textile goods including wall hangings and scarves, for instance. These fabric works were not, for the artist, insignificant. As he lectured the manufacturer, “Think that you have an important work of mine, destined for renown. […] You are making something that will need to be respected as much as an artistic engraving.” There were also efforts to market what another manufacturer dubbed “mural scrolls”; perhaps precisely because of their inherent ambiguity (they were meant to be used either as fabric wallpaper or to be hung individually in the manner of Asian scrolls), they never sold in any numbers.

For Matisse, decoration was never a secondary matter. Klein is to be thanked for offering a detailed traversal of all of Matisse’s numerous efforts in both decorative painting and the decorative arts, ranging from well-known efforts such as his murals for the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania or the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, to those that are hardly known except to specialists, starting with a commission for a unified decorative scheme for an uncle as early as 1896, to a stained glass window made for the publisher Tériade in 1951, as well as one for his son Pierre, in 1954. Also surveyed are aborted projects, such as an unsuccessful effort by the vintner Baron Philippe de Rothschild to convince the artist to produce a mural for a proposed museum of wine. Unfulfilled projects that elicited far more effort on Matisse’s part included a commission for a stained glass window for a mausoleum near New York.

Klein’s survey of Matisse as a decorator is factual, not speculative. I could have wished for him to have opened his inquiry up to a wider consideration of what a modern work of art could be — what might be its function in relation to our lived milieu. Such questions will be for others to address, but to the extent that the work of Matisse might guide their reflections, Matisse and Decoration will be a necessary reference.

Matisse and Decoration by John Klein (2018) is published by Yale University Press.

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso, 2016) and a collection...