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Analysis of Henri Matisse's 'The Beasts of the Sea'
by Paul Rance

The Beasts of the Sea' is one of the last works by the great French painter Henri Matisse. The painting was created by using the cut out method, which was favored by the painter when he was in declining health. In his early 80s, Matisse created a final group of paintings that were known as the cut outs.

Rich in Symbolism

Painted in 1950, 'The Beasts of the Sea' was made by using gouache on paper, that was then cut and pasted onto card. Its dimensions are approximately ten feet by five feet.

'The Beasts of the Sea' is a typical example of Matisse's bold use of color. Whatever style Matisse worked in bold color was nearly always a prominent feature of his work.

Matisse was an artist who looked to portray the essence of what he was painting rather than merely a replica. In 'The Beasts of the Sea', Henri Matisse creates a work of art that is particularly fascinating because it is a painting that is in two halves. There is also a use of geometric shapes to symbolize certain aspects of the sea. Interesting also is the way that several of the same symbols are visible in both halves of the work.

Life and Death

The long curling shapes suggest the creatures that live in the sea, the leafy shapes the sea's vegetation, and the spiral shapes are symbolizing the sea itself. On the left side of the artwork there is a natural order of things, with the vegetation on the bottom and the creatures in the sea at a higher level. The triangular shapes seem to symbolize fish rather than sea mammals. With the right side of the artwork, things become more complex, as the creatures are seen at the bottom.

Because Henri Matisse was coming to the end of his life, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that he was really creating a work of art that symbolized life itself. The left side of the painting is showing us life, and the right side of the piece is showing us death, symbolized by sea creatures falling to the ocean floor when they die.

In 'Beasts of the Sea', Matisse uses the conventional blue for the sea, but his use of color is quite random in other parts of the painting. It is a work of art that tells a story, but, like many of the great artists, Matisse avoids being too explicit.

Henri Matisse died in Nice, France in 1954, at the age of 84. He was an important figure in several painting styles, including Fauvism and modernism. 'Beasts of the Sea' can be seen at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

© Copyright Paul Rance/

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