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The line of beauty: why millennial women have fallen in love with Matisse

The late French artist Henri Matisse has become hugely popular among a certain type of 20- and 30-something woman. But what’s behind the revival? Stylist’s Moya Crockett (a self-professed “Matisse-loving cliche”) investigates. 

There comes a time in every woman’s life when she realises she’s a cliche. Maybe you had your moment in June, when you walked into a pub garden and saw four women wearing leopard-print midi skirts identical to yours. Or perhaps the scales fell from your eyes way back in 2017, when you went round to your best friend’s house and saw that she, like you, had just bought a monstera deliciosa.

Personally, my cliche epiphany came earlier this summer. I was lying on my bed, scrolling mindlessly through Instagram, when a photo of a bedroom – white walls, large patterned rug, framed print of Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude II on the wall – slid into view. A little jolt rolled across my skin. The bedroom looked exactly like mine.

After that, I started noticing Matisse prints everywhere. Mainly on Instagram, where there are over 448k posts tagged #matisse, but also on Pinterest, where – despite not owning a property – I maintain several interiors porn folders, meticulously divided into subcategories (‘Living Room > Colourful Walls / White Walls / Curtains’; ‘Kitchen > Storage / Wall Tiles / Floors’). Through my phone screen, I gazed into the gorgeous bedrooms of stylish women I’d never met, women who live alongside Anissa Kermiche vases and mid-century furniture and endless, endless Matisse prints. 

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It isn’t just my Blue Nude that I’ve spotted on other women’s walls, though she makes frequent appearances. Vintage Matisse exhibition posters also seem to be popular among my demographic, by which I mean – self-awareness klaxon! – women in their 20s and 30s with vaguely artsy, intellectual aspirations. If you recognised something of yourself in Bougie Literary London Woman and own at least one beret, you’ve probably considered buying a Matisse print. 

Matisse’s graphic works in charcoal, black ink and gouache seem to be even more in vogue. (Two of his ink studies, Large Mask and Large Face (Mask), are currently stuck above my bedroom mirror in postcard form.) These etchings, linocuts, lithographs and drawings often depict nude female bodies, lush flowers and women’s heart-shaped faces. They’re sparse, elegant and playful, and they’re everywhere.

Tracey Gilmour is creative director of art publisher and online shop King & McGaw, which sells art prints and products to individual consumers as well as supplying museums, galleries and retailers. She says that while Matisse’s “playful motifs, abstract female forms and eloquent line drawings” have long been popular with King & McGaw customers, she’s recently noticed a “further spike in interest for his work”. Notably popular in 2019? A £140 print of his Blue Nude I, framed in black stained ash. 

“I love how bold Matisse’s prints are, from the Blue Nudes to his cut-out style,” says Lily Barton, a 20-something nurse from Bristol. “However, when I saw the line drawings I loved how simple yet effective they look.” Barton is currently planning to hang some prints of Matisse’s line drawings on a dark wall in her home. “They’ll help to break it up and add a focal point to the room.”

Inevitably, once a particular aesthetic becomes popular with a valuable demographic, brands will start tapping into it. Online beauty retailer FeelUnique recently launched a Sexual Wellness section on its website, accompanied by stylishly shot imagery of Matisse postcards propped up alongside scented candles and sex toys. Organic beauty brand Austin Austin’s product labels, meanwhile, are adorned with minimalist portraits that could have been done by Matisse himself (they’re actually by contemporary artist Christian Newby). 

Lauren Kavanagh is a designer for Murals Wallpaper, which recently launched two lines of Matisse-inspired luxury wallpaper to mark the artist’s 150th birthday year (he was born in Le Cateau-Cambrésis, northern France, on 31 December 1869). She began designing the ranges after picking up on the growing popularity of Matisse’s work.

“This year there’s been a huge surge in works inspired by Matisse’s famous Blue Nudes across fashion and interiors,” she says. “I began to notice trends appearing that reflected Matisse’s later cut-out works and loved the playfulness of the idea of going back to basics.”

Matisse Blue Nude II postcard
Matisse’s Blue Nude II seen in campaign imagery for FeelUnique’s new Sexual Wellness section

But where did this reinvigorated interest in Matisse come from? He’s one of the most famous artists of all time – but he’s no more famous than, say, Vincent Van Gogh or Salvador Dali, two artists who are not currently being embraced by millennial women in the same way.

One obvious suggestion is the staggering success of the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, which ran at Tate Modern for five months in 2014. The most popular exhibition in Tate’s history, it received over half a million visitors before transferring to Moma in New York. (I bought my Blue Nude II print after visiting the show in London.) Three years later, in 2017, the Royal Academy hosted another blockbuster Matisse exhibition, Matisse in the Studio, which focused predominantly on the artist’s graphic portraits and colourful still lives.  

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The Cut-Outs exhibition “definitely channelled an aesthetic that a lot of creative people have responded to,” says Dr Flavia Frigeri. A teaching fellow in the History of Art department at University College London, she worked on The Cut-Outs in her former role as assistant curator at Tate Modern.

“The exhibition’s impact has seemed to me quite widespread,” Frigeri continues. She points to Alice + Olivia’s spring/summer 2015 collection, which featured a white dress adorned with an oversized Blue Nude print, and Sergio Rossi, who named a pair of shoes after the artist. 

“Even things like carpets or cushions, suddenly you were going shopping and noticing things with philodendrons, the plant he used in a lot of the cut-outs. Friends would WhatsApp me all the time and say, ‘This looks like Matisse!’”

We’re still feeling the cultural ripple effect from those exhibitions. (A spokesperson for Tate Modern tells Stylist that ‘Matisse’ is the most popular artist name search on the Tate Shop, and Blue Nude II is the most popular print sold online in the last year.) But there’s at least one other explanation for why millennial women have warmed to Matisse. 

“I think I’m drawn to his work because I’m a mid-sized woman,” says Liv Tinker, 28. The visual merchandiser from south London has a flat full of reproductions of the artist’s work, including a print of his 1952 lithograph The Flowing Hair in her living room and framed postcards in her bedroom.

“I’m a size 16, and I like the shapes and bodies in his pieces,” she says. “His work is so figurative, but it also feels soft and curvy and realistic.”

The women in Matisse’s work seem “free”, Tinker continues. The woman in The Flowing Hair is leaping into the air, throwing her arms above her head. “She has a sense of joie de vivre, and I like that. I love art that’s really simple and accessible – you don’t need to know anything about it, it just makes you happy.”

Matisse Wallpaper
Matisse-inspired ‘Pastel Shapes’ wallpaper by Murals Wallpaper

It’s this spirit of cheerfulness and independence – not to mention his use of shape and line – that really seems to be driving women’s interest in Matisse. Wallpaper designer Laura Kavanagh links Matisse’s growing popularity to “the body positivity movement that you see today, and the fact that it has a huge creative community of women surrounding it. We are beginning to embrace the different curves and shapes of the female form and acknowledging these with our art.”

Alexandria Coe is one of several young contemporary artists whose work appears to reference Matisse – a group that arguably includes Venetia Berry, Meg Abbott, Maggie Stephenson, James Wilson, Kit Agar, Jonathan Niclaus and Rose Electra Harris. Coe says she was “definitely influenced by Matisse as a starting point”: “I suppose anyone who takes on an abstract form is going to be compared to Matisse, but his work has a real sense of fluidity and life.” 

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While Matisse’s female nudes are inevitably presented “from a very male perspective,” Coe believes they still “come from the eye of a man who loved women, and who believed in the importance of freedom of movement. I think that’s why a lot of female artists are taking on these very indulgent, curvy forms, because [that style] has such a positive energy.”

It’s important to emphasise that many of the young women artists who take inspiration from Matisse aren’t just replicating his work. “Obviously Matisse is a male artist, and he represents the female form in a very different light to how female artists are conveying the female nude,” says Georgia Spray, founder of accessible art dealership Partnership Editions.

“So while Alexandria Coe and Venetia Berry are definitely referencing Matisse’s style, they’re also reclaiming something. It’s clever – they’re drawing on art history, as all artists do, but giving it a contemporary narrative that feels very modern and not just recycled.”

A confession: when it first dawned on me how many other millennial women share my love of Matisse, I felt a little disappointed. Not because I’d thought I was the only person in the world with Blue Nude II on their wall, but because I worried people would think I’d only bought that print because it was fashionable. We’d all prefer to believe that we’re drawn to certain artists and artworks because they make us feel something, not simply because they’re ‘cool’, and it seems almost grubby to think of art – something that exists because of artists’ hard work, talent and creativity – in terms of trends.

If I’m brutally honest, I was also concerned that my Blue Nude II was close to looking a bit ‘basic’ – that curiously gendered insult that only ever gets applied to women who like the same things as other women.

Now, though, I’m very happy to be one of thousands of young women finding pleasure and beauty in Matisse’s work. I’m a Matisse-loving, millennial cliche – and that’s just fine. 

Images: Getty Images; FeelUnique; Murals Wallpaper 

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