The East and West of Fauvism

Two great masters of the twentieth century: Henri Matisse and Martiros Sarian, are probably the most outstanding colourists I know. They do not just use, apply or combine colour, they breath it and live it. The effect of such a passion – exquisite joy of the viewer and pleasure of the senses. The two painters led very different lives, but there is something that unites them in the decorative use of colour contrasts, especially using pairs of complementary colours, the tendency to simplify the silhouettes and composition, a rebellious approach to visual expressions which led to both of them being called ‘fauve’ (wild) completely independently.

Martiros Sarian (1880-1972) was one of the most innovative and expressive painters of his time. Born into Armenian family near Rostov-on-Don in the South of Russia, Sarian came to study at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture between 1897 and 1904 under Konstantin Korovin and Valentin Serov. The magnificent nature of his native Armenia, which he first visited in 1901 was a profound source of inspiration for Sarian during all of his life. I first encountered his works at his major retrospective at the Manege in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) 1988. My impressions from Matisse exhibited at the Hermitage were equally strong, at the Hermitage Art Club we devoted several months to the study of his works in 1991-1992. The common interest in colour, the eastern influences, a Russian connection and the common era make the dialogue between the two painters extremely interesting to explore.

Both artists had the first articles about their work published in 1907: Matisse – an article by Guillaume Apollinaire ‘Matisse’, published in La Phalange (Appoliaire 1907); Sarian – mentioned in an article by Sergei Makowsky ‘Blue Rose’ (Маковский 1907), published in ‘Zolotoe Runo’ (La Toison d’Or). Matisse started to exhibit in Paris with the Salon des Artistes Independent in 1901 and 1906, showed his works at the Salon Automne of 1903, 1904, 1905 and 1907. Sarian showed his works in Moscow at the ‘Blue Rose’ in 1907 and Salon of La Toison d’Or (1908). The latter was an exhibition where their works met for the first time in the same exhibition space (La Toison d’Or 1908), followed by two further exhibitions of Zolotoe Runo (1909 and 1910). Zolotoe Runo (La Toison d’Or) was an extremely influential arts magazine published in Moscow between 1906 and 1909 and continued the tradition of Mir Iskusstva (1899-1904). The hypnotism of the colour in the work of both artists has attracted a lot of attention from the art critics and art historians, but there has been little work to describe their interaction both at the level of ideas and in terms of creating the atmosphere in the early XX century art, and especially influencing fauvism.

Since 1906 the Russian painters received an opportunity of immediate contact with French Painting at the wonderful, regularly expanding collection of I. S. Schukine (Тугенхольд 1914), where such impressionists and post-impressionists as Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, Gaugin were present, and later, Sarian’s contemporary – Matisse, most of all. It is possible that Sarian might have seen some of the works by Matisse in the Schukine collection, however his ‘The Charms of the Sun’, 1905 was created before that time (Раздольская 1998). ‘One can only study and understand Matisse in the Schukine collection. The house of Schukine is a greenhouse and an apotheosis of Matisse’s painting’ –wrote J. Tugenhold in the Apollon magazine in 1914. (Тугенхольд 1914).


Martiros Sarian (1909) Self Portrait

In 1908 and 1909 Schukin becomes a patron for Matisse, who creates his ‘The Dance’, ‘The Music’, and ‘The Room in Red’ for Schukin’s mansion in Moscow. By 1914 Schukin’s collection had 37 works by Matisse, not counting ‘The Dance’ and ‘The Music’. The avant-guard Russian artistic circles paid considerable attention to the work by Matisse, a good example of which is a series of 16 reproductions from his works published in Zolotoe Runo in 1909, accompanied by the article by the art historian A. Mercero ‘Henri Matisse and contemporary painting’ (Мерсеро 1909) and Matisse’s own ‘Notes of an artist’.(Матисс 1909). Mercero wrote: ‘one can have a different ideal of form, prefer different colour associations, similarly to somebody preferring the noise to the silence, the night to the day, the mountains to the sea, but one cannot deny the knowledge that governs every gesture of Henri Matisse….the powerful simplicity of his technique, the correspondence between all of his brush strokes; the logic of placing the works for the better realization of his own ideal and full exteriorization of his painterly ideas, far away from any feeling alien to platonic art. One cannot disagree with the fact that contemplating his oeuvres leads to, what his temperament and conscious aspiration make him aim towards as clarity and calmness of the spirit in the most noble and elevated atmosphere, that of ideas, conquered by the refinement of the feelings.

In 1908 at the Salon of La Toison d’Or Matisse presents five works: ‘La Coiffure’ (124), ‘La Terrasse (San Tropez) (125), ‘La Malade’ (126), ‘Le Geranium’ (127), ‘La Jetee de Cailloure’ (128).(La Toison d’Or 1908). Sarian showed the following works at the same exhibition: ‘On the Pommegranate Tree’ (65), ‘Panthers’ (66),’A Comet’ (67), ‘A Motley Day’ (68), ‘Women with Motley Fabrics’ (69), The Lizard (70), ‘The Poet’ (71) and ‘Journee ardent’ (72).(La Toison d’Or 1908). The works by Sarian, exhibited at La Toison d’Or are definitely braver than those of Matisse, shown at the same exhibition. The paths of two painters crossed once again at the Second Exhibition of La Toison d’Or (Richardson 1986).

Sarian’s work received a very high praise from Michail Voloshin in the Apollon magazine in 1913, where a large article was devoted to his work (Волошин 1913). ‘Sarian… the sounds that his name is composed of express all his art. The root ‘sar’ in many eastern languages means ‘yellow colour’, i.e. completeness of the colour, the sunny nimbus – the regal robes of this world. The ending of his name [in Russian] is consonant with the words ‘red’, ‘spicy’, ‘fervent’… In sum when one pronounces his name it appears like a frenzy of yellow-orange colour, covered by the blue and blue-gray flame, reminding us of the violetcopper tints of the Mauritanian ceramics of the time of Umayyads. Sarian is a lucky man. His name rings with all the calling and colourful romanticism of the East. It calls for far away journeys and sunny countries, it arouses an idea about the art, which is spicy, fragrant, playing with the pavonine tints of colours. In poetry it can give a precious and intense rhyme, what is so pertinent to the artists, signifying the new verge in the understanding of the East.’

Voloshin continues with a description of the atmosphere of his native Armenia, which created Sarian as an artist: ‘The view from the hills onto the prairie spaces taught the eye to peer into the thin expanse of the horizon, called the spirit for far away journeys, awaking the romantic dream. The view from the height onto the stage of the earth is the best door to creativity’. Sarian explained his journey as an artist in the following way: ‘The Middle Caucasus, and especially Southern [Caucasus] charmed me; here I saw the sun and experienced heat for the first time. The caravans of camels with little bells, descending from the mountains, the nomads with the sunkissed faces with the herds of sheep, cows, buffalos, horses, donkeys, goats; the markets, the street life of the motley crowd, Muslim women, silently gliding in the black and rose shawls, violet wide trousers, wooden shoes, looking out from the flat roofs of the yellow, square houses; large, dark almond-shaped eyes of Armenian women – all this was ‘that real’, which I was dreaming about already in my childhood’.

The environmental attitude of Sarian is extremely interesting in this context: ‘I felt that nature is my home, my only consolation; that my excitement towards her is of a different nature than that before the works of art: that lasted always only for a few minutes. Nature is multifaceted, multicoloured, forged by a firm mysterious hand – my only teacher.

At the second exhibition of La Toison d’Or in January-February 1909 in Moscow Matisse shows: 88. 6 drawings, 89. 3 drawings, 90 Nature morte, 91 Nature Morte, 92 Toulouse, and 93 Bright Summer Morning. Sarian joins with 126 Panthere et Femme, 127 Claire de lune, 128 Bathing fairy, 129 Morning, 130 Midday. Mountains, 131 Journee ardent, 132 Evening, 133 By the sea, 134 By the sea, 135 two watercolours, 136 Moonlit night. (La Toison d’Or 1909b).

The third and the last exhibition of La Toison d’Or took place in December 1909-January 1910 in Moscow and here Sarian shows: The morning in Stavrino’ (93), The Night (94), The Steppe Flowers (95), The Pineapple (96), The Steppe Flowers under the sun (97), The Plowman (98), The Heat (99), Hyenes (100), Plains (101), Summer (102), To the Source (103), The Study of the girl with a sunkissed face (104), Mountains (105), A Study for self portrait (106 ‘) (La Toison d’Or 1909a).

In 1910 Sarian embarks on a journey to Constantinople, in 1911 he visits Egypt and in 1913 – Persia. Coincidentally, Matisse visits Moscow in 1911 to hang his The Dance and The Music paintings at the Schukin mansion, visits the Moscow cathedrals, studies icons and the Russian XVIII century paintings and visits Morocco in January-April 1912 and later in the autumn of 1912 –winter 1913.

It seems very pertinent to explore the contemporary impressions of the painterly technique employed by Sarian in the article written by Voloshin: ‘Very much in the charm of the Sarian’s art depends on his technique, quite distinct and developed’. Sarian himself talks about his searches. ‘First, I was carried away with the fabulousness of nature. It was necessary to find the means and forms to express my fascination, even to some extent. It was necessary to overcome in oneself the grey and obtrusive school and find one’s own technique, not using the somebody else’s. I started to search for more stable and simple forms and colours to convey the painterly essence of the reality. In sum, my goal was with the simple means, avoiding any heaviness, to reach the maximum expressiveness, and in particular to get rid of the compromise semi-tones. And I think that I have made certain progress in this direction. Besides, my goal is to reach the very basis of realism. I am speaking about the power of expression that is in all real works of art, from the ancient times to the present days. More precisely, [I am speaking] about that power of fascination that was reached by different means in all epochs. Voloshin emphasises in a very similar manner that contemporary critics started to talk about Matisse and other fauvist artists, Derain, Marque, de Vlaminck, the principle of simplification in the work of Sarian. Voloshin writes: ‘The principle of simplification, taken by him as a foundation of his technical searches is a reliable guiding line, which the artist can trust in the modern chaos of aspirations and requirements. The less words the writer uses, the stronger the power of expression is; the less lines, the more expressive the drawing is. The simpler the combination of colours, the more they can say’.

The influences of the Russian and the Eastern tradition on Matisse, has been explored in a range of publications including (Alison Hilton 1969), (Rusakov & Bowlt 1975), (Kostenevich 1990), (Kostenevich 1990), (Lyon 1990), (Костеневич et al. 1993), (Wright 2006).

It would be insightful to compare the approach to colour by Matisse and Sarian. Matisse characterises his approach in this way: ‘Colours in painting have the power and expressiveness only when they are used in their pure form ,and when their brightness and pureness are not muddled and oppressed by mixing, contradictory to their nature (blue and yellow, which form green, can be put side by side,but should not be mixed, it is better to use the green paint manufactured by industry; the same applies to orange: mixing red and yellow gives unclear and bleak tone). Pure colours and colours mixed with white can give more than their reflections in the retina of an eye; they are transformed by the mind of the one who perceives them.(Матисс 2001).

The painting of Sarian is characterised thus: ‘The image is two-dimensional. The third dimension is lacking altogether. The viewer perceives only an illusion of depth. The forms of objects are given almost like silhouettes. The compositions are built with an even, mathematically precise distribution of large masses of colour. Precisely found contrast-harmonic combinations of colour volumes are creating the spatial perspectives, filled with the light coming from within and transporting the viewer’s imagination to the East, in the world of the burning sun. (Khachatryan 2003). Sarian considers nature his most important source of inspiration:’Travelling in my native land I received from nature such clear answers to the questions bothering me for a long time, which it is impossible to find in any aesthetic tretease’(Сарьян 1971).


Henri Matisse, 1910, ‘The Dance’, oil on canvas, 260 cm Å~ 391 cm, The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

In Matisse’s ‘The Dance’ we can a different example of masterly use of colour contrast. Instead of concentrating on the use of two primary colours, yellow and blue, which was largely characteristic of Sarian’s work at the time, Matisse uses a much simpler, but somehow more striking palette. Using his concept of large uniform masses of unmixed colours, Matisse chooses to play on the contrast of complimentary turquoise and dark orange, adding a blue that is lying relatively close to the turquoise in the spectrum and providing an interesting colour counterpoint.

In this little essay we have tried to explore some connections between the two leading fauve painters of the time: Henri Matisse and Martiros Sarian. Common interest in the art of the East, the Schukin connection, common exhibitions at La Toison d’Or, deep interest in working with colour contrasts as well as the passion for life make the visual dialogue between these two painters fascinating. We hope to be able to explore this dialogue in more depth in our subsequent articles.

Dr Stanislav Shmelev

Oxford based artist, PhD in ecological economics




Alison Hilton, 1969. Matisse in Moscow. Art Journal, 29(2), pp.166-173.

Appoliaire, G., 1907. Matisse. La Phalange, (N2).

Khachatryan, S., 2003. Saryan: 1880-1972, Samara: Izdatelskii dom ‘Agni.’

Kostenevich, A., 1990. Matisse and Shchukin: A Collector’s Choice. Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 16(1), pp.27-92.

Lyon, C., 1990. Prelude to Morocco: Matisse in Moscow, 1911. MoMA, 2(5), pp.8-15.

Richardson, W., 1986. Zolotoe runo and Russian modernism, 1905-1910, Ann Arbor: Ardis.

Rusakov, Y.A. & Bowlt, J.E., 1975. Matisse in Russia in the Autumn of 1911. The Burlington Magazine, 117(866), pp.284-291.

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La Toison d’Or, 1909a. Каталог выставки картин ‘Золотое руно’, декабрь 1909-январь 1910, Moscow.

La Toison d’Or, 1909b. Каталог выставки картин ‘Золотое руно’, январь-февраль, 1909, Москва.

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Волошин, M., 1913. М.С. Сарьян. Аполлон, (9), pp.5-21.

Костеневич, А.Г., Матиссе, Х. & Семенова, Н.Ю., 1993. Матисс в России:, Авангард. Available at:

Маковский, С., 1907. Голубая роза. Золотое Руно. La Toison d’Or, (N5), pp.25-28.

Матисс, А., 2001. Заметки живописца, Санкт-Петербург: Азбука.

Матисс, А., 1909. Заметки художника. Золотое руно. La Toison d’Or, (6), p.IV-X.

Мерсеро, А., 1909. Henri Matisse и современная живопись. Золотое руно. La Toison d’Or, (6), p.I-III.

Раздольская, В., 1998. Мартирос Сарьян: 1880-1972, Санкт-Петербург: Аврора.

Сарьян, M., 1971. Из моей жизни, Москва: Изобразительное искусство.

Тугенхольд, Я., 1914. Французское собрание С. И. Щукина. Аполлон, (1-2), pp.5-46.


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