My favourite painting: Andrew Lawson

'It amazes me that this painting was made more than a century ago'

Goldfish and Palette, 1914, by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), 57¾in by 44¼, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

Andrew Lawson says:
It amazes me that this painting was made more than a century ago. It still seems completely modern. Matisse has pared down the elements of the composition to an absolute minimum. The goldfish are no more than dabs of pink and red. He has added an orange fruit to complement the background blue colour. The shadow between the windows has become a vertical stripe of black. Most surprisingly, Matisse has included the artist—himself—in the simplified shapes at the bottom right of the canvas. You can just make out his thumb that grips the white rectangle of the palette.

Andrew Lawson is a leading garden photographer and an artist. ‘Shared Visions Shared Lives’, an exhibition of his works and sculptures by his wife, Briony Lawson, is at Gothic House, Charlbury, Oxfordshire, from April 23 to May 1

John McEwen comments on Goldfish and Palette:
In July 1914, Matisse had an exhibition of his paintings in Berlin. Then came war. The paintings never returned, Paris was shelled, Matisse and his family fled south, but anxiety for his relations later brought them back. His hometown of Bohain was under German martial law. His mother, sister-in-law and two young nieces lived there; his brother had been deported to a German prison camp. ‘I have no news of my relations or my brother,’ he wrote in December.

At under 48, Matisse was still eligible for conscription, but he had flu when call-up came and was relegated to the auxiliary reserve. He felt guilty. The man ahead passed, despite protesting he had throat cancer. ‘You’ll do to make a corpse,’ the doctor said. Matisse twice tried again and was rejected on grounds of age and a weak heart. He occupied his old studio on the Quai Saint-Michel, the area bearing signs of the recent shelling, and, finding it hard to work, took violin lessons, practising for hours.

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It was at this dark time that he painted a ‘picture of goldfish which I’m re-doing with a figure in it holding a palette in his hand and observing’. He had started it in peacetime for his Russian patron Shchukin. During the interim, he had befriended the hard-up Juan Gris, most analytical of Cubist painters. Matisse found Cubism too drily intellectual, but he admired Gris.

This is his most Cubist work, yet he paints live goldfish not a dead-fish still-life. André Breton wrote that Matisse ‘never put so much of himself into any other painting’.