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Henri Matisse's The Snail: Meaning & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Henri Matisse was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. In this lesson, we are going to check out one of his final masterpieces and analyze its content.

Matisse and the Snail

When studying modern art, there a few names you really need to know. Pablo Picasso. Wassily Kandinsky. Henri Matisse. Matisse (1869-1954) was a French painter who was critical in defining the uses of color and shape in modern, 20th-century art.

Henri Matisse
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By the 1950s, Matisse was 80 years old and in failing health. However, he was still a devoted artist, continuing to find new ways to expand the possibilities of art. One of his final pieces to have a major impact on the world was ''The Snail'', completed in 1953. It was one of the last masterpieces of a true master, whose works had redefined the century.

Background

''The Snail'' is a nearly 3 square meter composition, containing vibrantly colored pieces of paper assembled in a loose spiral on a white backdrop. It was created at a time when Matisse was no longer able to paint, so he created this composition with the help of assistants.

Creation

First, paper was painted in vibrant colors with gouache, an opaque paint. Then, they were cut or torn into specific shapes, as directed by Matisse. Finally, the assistants arranged the shapes onto a plain white sheet of paper, slowly moving them into position until Matisse decided they were correctly positioned.

The Snail, by Henri Matisse
snail

The technique of assembling cut or torn pieces of gouache-painted paper is known as gouaches découpées. It was something that Matisse had been experimenting with since the 1940s, and it became definitive style of his later years. He saw it as a simplification of the artistic process, a fitting way to explore the simplification of shape and color that defined modern and abstract art.

Interpretation

''The Snail'' is a semi-abstract composition, with a subject that is exactly what the title implies. This is Matisse's interpretation of a snail. Before creating the composition, he closely studied snails and completed several realistic sketches of them. As he studied the form of this commonplace creature, he became more and more interested in the shell and the natural geometric patterns within it. Matisse was not the only modern artist to be inspired by reoccurring geometries of nature.

Do you see the spiral of the snail shell reflected in the composition?
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Snail Shell

To Matisse, the spiral of the shell implied motion, unraveling in his mind. That's what he sought to capture in his depiction of the snail. His composition was not a realistic depiction of the snail, but a representation of the spiraling form at its simplest and purest. Removed from context as it floats against the flat, white backdrop, Matisse's design implies movement and geometric harmony, capturing the aesthetic essence of the shell.

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