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We all live with things in our homes. Beyond the actual furniture on which we sit and sleep, those objects we collect—flower vases and throw pillows, Oriental rugs and painted bowls—often assume a function other than just practical. What we admire as decorative also influences how we live daily at home, something that seasoned interior designers have long known. This is a dynamic, too, that the artist/collagist Henri Matisse (1869–1954) recognized and which is celebrated in a landmark show now on view at London’s Royal Academy of Art (August 5–November 12, after having debuted at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). As Matisse himself wrote in 1933, “Things that are acquired consciously permit us to express ourselves unconsciously with a certain richness.”

During Matisse’s world travels, he bought things that brought him pleasure simply from their visual appearance—shapes, colors, forms, textures, patterns that inspired him and with which he wanted to live. A black and white photograph included in the show shows him at work in his studio and immediately reveals his need to live with things, though not be overpowered by them. In Africa, he bought carved wooden masks (though he found most of his favorite examples in Paris when “Primitivism” was the rage). In North Africa and the Middle East, he was attracted to textiles and small pieces of painted furniture. But as this show reveals, the objects that merely decorated his home and studio in Nice also worked their way onto his canvases and became integral to his work and identity as an artist.

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This story appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of MILIEU.