About This Artwork

Henri Matisse
French, 1869–1954

Woman before an Aquarium, 1921–23

Oil on canvas
31 3/4 x 39 3/8 in. (80.7 x 100 cm)
Signed, l.r.: "Henri Matisse"

Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, 1926.220

© 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Henri Matisse was fascinated by the cultures of North Africa and the Middle East. In 1903 he visited an Islamic art exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; in 1910 he traveled to Munich for a major display of Islamic objects and then to Spain to see Moorish architecture. He also collected brilliantly colored and richly ornamented textiles, pottery, and tiles. It was, however, the physical experience of these lands that proved to have the greatest impact on Matisse’s vision and creativity. In May 1906 and for long periods between January 1912 and February 1913, he visited North Africa. There, he came to understand the unique quality of light and its effect on the perception of color and space.

Even a decade later, while Matisse lived in the southern French city of Nice, these experiences would continue to transform his work. In Woman before an Aquarium, the paneled screen and goldfish are pictorial elements drawn from Matisse’s Moroccan journeys. Moreover, the artist’s own transformation—the "new rhythm" of his inner vision that resulted from his travels—was responsible for the particular luminosity, cool palette, and intimate effect of this canvas. Matisse was entranced by the golden light and sea-soaked atmosphere of Nice, and his paintings from this period demonstrate his newfound interest in an impressionistic naturalism that was not a rejection of his earlier work, but rather an effort to infuse his previous style with a "human element."

— Entry, The Essential Guide, 2013, p.265.


Nearly thirty years after Henri Matisse completed Woman Before an Aquarium, he wrote:

Creation begins with vision… Everything that we see in our daily life is more or less distorted by acquired habits… The effort needed to see things without distortion demands a kind of courage... [that] is essential to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he were seeing it for the first time. The work of art is thus the culmination of a long process of development. The artist takes from his surroundings everything that can nourish his internal vision.... He enriches himself internally with all the forms he has mastered and that he will one day set within a new rhythm.

Like many modern artists, Matisse attained this productive freedom in part through contact with non-Western art and culture. His own experiences date to at least 1903, when he visited an Islamic art exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Although interested in the art of many cultures, he was especially fascinated by that of North Africa and the Middle East, traveling to Munich in 191 o for a major display of Islamic objects and then to the Spanish cities of Madrid, Cordoba, Seville, and Granada to see Moorish architecture. At the same time, Matisse collected art—carpets and fabrics, pottery and tiles—that in their brilliant color and energetic ornament encouraged a fresh approach to seeing the world.

It was, however, the physical experience of North Africa that proved to have the greatest impact on Matisse's vision and creativity. In May 1906, he briefly visited Algeria, describing the experience as "blinding." More time, he explained to artist Henri Manguin, was required to process his sensations into art: "You can't just take up your palette and your method and apply them." He returned to North Africa almost six years later, staying in Morocco for long periods between January 1912 and February 1913. There he came to understand the unique quality of light and its effect on the perception of color and space. "What mellow light," he wrote to Manguin, "but what decorativeness!!! How new all this is, how difficult to render with blue, red, yellow, and green." In vaporous layers of color, Matisse recorded the North African light around him and its powerful ability to break apart form and traditional perspective.

Back in Paris, and later in Nice in the 1920s, these experiences continued to transform Matisse's ways of working. In Woman Before an Aquarium, the textile screen and goldfish are examples of "exotic" elements that the artist incorporated into his work. But more subtle and deep was the experience of his travels, translated through time and memory. It is Matisse's own transformation—the "new rhythm" of his inner vision—that is responsible for the particular luminosity, cool palette, and intimate effect of this canvas.

—Entry, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, The Silk Road and Beyond:Travel, Trade, and Transformation (2007), p.74-75.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, April–June 1923.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Exhibition of Modern French Paintings from the Birch-Bartlett Collection, April 1925, n.p., cat. 21, as Goldfish Bowl.

Chicago, Art Institute, Group of Modern Paintings from the Birch-Bartlett Collection, September 8–October 22, 1925.

Boston Art Club, Birch-Bartlett Collection of Modern French Paintings, December 9–26, 1925, n.p., cat. 23, as Femme devant un aquarium.

New York, Museum of Modern Art, Painting in Paris from American Collections, January 19–February 16, 1930, p. 33, fig. 52, as Woman Looking at Aquarium.

Providence, Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Modern French Art, March 11–31, 1930, n.p., cat. 24, as Woman Looking at Aquarium.

Chicago, Art Institute, A Century of Progress: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, June 1–November 1, 1933, p. 56, cat. 398.

Chicago, Art Institute, A Century of Progress: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, June 1–November 1, 1934, p. 52, cat. 352.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Henri Matisse: Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, April 3–May 9, 1948, p. 40, cat. 62 (ill.)

New York, Museum of Modern Art, Henri Matisse, November 13, 1951–January 13, 1952, p. 10, cat. 54., as Woman before an Aquarium; traveled to Cleveland Museum of Art, February 5–March 16, 1952; Chicago, Art Institute, April–May 1952; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 22–July 6, 1952.

Paris, Musée national d’art moderne, Retrospective Henri Matisse, July 28–November 18, 1956, p. 28, cat. 63, pl. 24 (ill.), as Femme devant un aquarium 1921.

New York, Museum of Modern Art, Henri Matisse: A Retrospective, September 24, 1992-January 12, 1993, pp. 296, 329 (ill.), cat. 255, as Woman Before an Aquarium, Femme devant un aquarium.

Zurich, Kunsthaus, Max Beckmann and Paris: Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Rouault, September 25, 1998-January 3, 1999, pp. 103 (ill.), 233, cat. 83; traveled to St. Louis Art Museum, February 6-May 9, 1999.

Düsseldorf, Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Henri Matisse: Figure, Color, Space, October 29, 2005–February 19, 2006, pp. 36–7, 200 (ill.), 368, cat. 115, as Femme devant un aquarium.

Publication History

W. A. P., “Modern French Paintings: The Birch-Bartlett Collection,” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 17, no. 5 (October 1923), pp. 70–71, as Girl with Fishbowl.

Art Institute of Chicago, A Guide to the Paintings in the Permanent Collection (Art Institute of Chicago, 1925), p. 169, cat. 2291.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Exhibition of Modern French Paintings from the Birch-Bartlett Collection exh. cat. (Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1925), n.p., cat. 21, as Goldfish Bowl.

Boston Art Club, Birch-Bartlett Collection of Modern French Paintings exh. cat. (Boston Art Club, 1925), n.p., cat. 23, as Femme devant un aquarium.

Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 20, no. 1 (January 1926), p. 44 (ill.), as Femme devant un aquarium.

Art Institute of Chicago, Modern Paintings in the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial from the Birch-Bartlett Collection, (Art Institute of Chicago, 1926), pp. 26–27 (ill.), 55.

“Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial,” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago 20 (March 1926), pp. 43–44 (ill.), as Femme devant un aquarium.

Watson, Forbes, “A Note on the Birch-Bartlett Collection,” The Arts 9 (June 1926), pp. 303–308 (ill.), 309–13.

Zabel, Morton Dauwen, “An American Gallery of Modern Painting,” Art and Archaeology 26, no. 6 (December 1928), pp. 233, 229, 233 (ill.), as Portrait of Mlle. Matisse: ‘Femme devant un Aquarium’.

McBride, Henry, Matisse (New York: Knopf, 1930), n.p. (ill.), cat. 22, as Femme devant un aquarium.

Museum of Modern Art, Painting in Paris from American Collections exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1930), p. 33, fig. 52, as Woman Looking at Aquarium.

Rhode Island School of Design, Modern French Art exh.cat. (Providence: Rhode Island School of Design, 1930), n.p., cat. 24, Woman Looking at Aquarium.

Sherwood, Walter J., “The Famous Birch Bartlett Collection,” Chicago Visitor (October 1932), p. 17 (ill.), as The Woman and the Aquarium.

Sweeney, James Johnson, “La peinture française moderne à l’Institut des beaux-arts de Chicago,” Cahiers d’Art 8–10 (1932), pp. 334–35 (ill.), 336, as la Femme devant un aquarium (la fille du peintre).

Art Institute of Chicago, A Century of Progress: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture exh. cat. (Art Institute of Chicago, 1933), p. 56, cat. 398.

Rich, Daniel Catton, “The Exhibition of French Art: ‘Art Institute’ of Chicago,” Formes (English ed.) 33, no. 33 (1933), pp. 381–83, opp. p. 383 (ill.).

Art Institute of Chicago, A Century of Progress: Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture exh. cat. (Art Institute of Chicago, 1934), p. 52, cat. 352.

Severini, Gino, "Matisse, ‘Anticipazioni,'" no. 6 serie ARTI (Rome: Libreria Fratelli Bocca, 1944) p, 26 (ill.), as Donna e acquario.

Art Institute of Chicago, Modern Paintings in the Birch Bartlett Memorial from the Birch-Bartlett Collection, (Art Institute, 1946), pp. 32–33 (ill.), 57, as Woman before an Aquarium (femme devant un aquarium—Mlle. Matisse) 1921.

Fremantle, Christopher E., “Matisse in Philadelphia,” The Studio 136, no. 666 (September 1948), pp. 94–5 (ill.).

Greenberg, Clement, “On Critics and Greenberg: A Communication, Reply,” Partisan Review 15 (June 1948), pp. 681-690.

Philadelphia Museum of Art, Henri Matisse: Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture exh. cat. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1948), p. 40, cat. 62 (ill.).

Art Institute of Chicago, “Masterpiece for the Month of September,” Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (September 15, 1950), p. 57.

Barr, Jr., Alfred H., Matisse: His Art and His Public (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1951), pp. 164, 209–10, 436 (ill.), 558, as Woman before an Aquarium (femme at poissons rouges) Nice (1921).

Museum of Modern Art, Henri Matisse exh. cat. (New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1951), p. 10, cat. 54.

Art Institute of Chicago, Masterpieces in the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago, 1952), n.p. (ill.).

Sweet, Frederick A., “Henri Matisse,” Art Institute of Chicago Quarterly 46, no. 2 (April 1, 1952), pp. 30–5 (ill.).

Diehl, Gaston, Henri Matisse (Éditions Pierre Tisné, 1954), n.p. (ill.), pl. 91, as Femme et poissons rouges.

Matisse, Henri, Portraits (Monte Carlo: André Sauret editions du livre, 1954), p. 127 (ill.), as Mlle. H. D. Femme devant un aquarium.

Art Institute of Chicago, Paintings in The Art Institute of Chicago : A Catalogue of the Picture Collection (Art Institute, 1961), p. 305, 475 (ill.).

Brill, Frederick, Matisse: Colour Library of Art (London: Paul Hamlyn, 1967) p. 37, pl. 26, as Woman and Goldfish 1921.

Guichard-Meili, Jean, Matisse (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967), p. 231.

Okamoto, Kanjiro, “Bonnard/Matisse,” L’Art du monde 16 (Japan: Zauho Pres, 1968) n.p., cat. 55 (ill.).

Aragon, Louis, Henri Matisse, Roman (Éditions Gallimard, 1972), pp. 549, 550 (ill.), 854, as Femme et poissons rouges or Jeune femme à l’aquarium.

Luzi, Mario and Massimo Carrà, L’Opera di Matisse: dalla rivolta ‘fauve’ all’intimismo, 1904–1928, Classici dell’arte, 49 (Milan: Rizzoli, 1971), p. 100 (ill.), cat. 337, as Donna e pesci rossi.

Reff, Theodore, “Meditations on a Statuette and Goldfish,” Arts Magazine 51, no.? (November 1976), pp. 109–114 (ill.), 115, fig. 19, as Woman before an Aquarium.

de Mazia, Violette, “What’s in a Frame,” Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department 8, no. 2 (Autumn 1977), pp. 48–53, pl. 146 (ill.).

Izerghina, A., et al., trans. by R. J. Rosengrant, V. Paperno, Yu. Nemetsky, and I. Vlader, Henri Matisse: Paintings and Sculptures in Soviet Museums (Leningrad: Aurora Art Publishers, 1978) p. 190 (ill.), as Woman and Goldfish or Young Woman by the Fishbowl.

Gowing, Lawrence, Matisse (Thames and Hudson, 1979), pp. 155 (ill.), 210, cat. 139, as Femme et poissons rouges, and Woman before an Aquarium.

Linker, Kate, “Meditations on a Goldfish Bowl: Autonomy and Analogy in Matisse,” Artforum 19, no. 2 (October 1980) p. 73, n. 5.

Speyer, A. James, and Courtney Graham Donnell, Twentieth Century European Paintings (University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 14, 55, cat. 2F12.

Schneider, Pierre, trans. by Michael Taylor and Bridget Stevens Romer, Matisse (New York: Rizzoli, 1984), pp. 420, 501 (ill.), 513.

Bock, Catherine C., “Woman Before an Aquarium and Woman on a Rose Divan: Matisse in the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection,” Museum Studies 12, 2 (1986), pp. 200 (ill.), 201–21, fig. 2.

Cowart, Jack and Dominique Fourcade, Henri Matisse: The Early Years and Niece, 1916–1930 exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1986), pp. 166 (ill.), 257, pl. 119.

Guichard-Meili, Jean, Matisse (Paris: Editions Aimery Somogy, 1986), p. 129.

Richard R. Brettell, “The Bartletts and the ‘Grande Jatte:’ Collecting Modern Painting in the 1920s,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 12, no. 2 (1986), pp. 103-113.

Guillaud, Jacqueline and Maurice Guillaud, Matisse, Rhythm and Line (New York: Guillaud Editions, 1987) pp. 150, 157, 156, cats. 153 (ill.), 154 (ill.).

Silver, Kenneth E., “Matisse’s Retour à l’ordre,” Art in America (June 1987), p. 122, as Woman Before an Aquarium.

Flam, Jack, ed., Matisse: A Retrospective (New York: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, 1988), p. 235, pl. 74.

Wood, James N., and Katharine C. Lee, Master Paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago, 1988) p. 129 (ill.).

Néret, Gilles, Matisse (Konecky and Konecky, 1991), pp. 142, 143 (ill.), 269.

Elderfield, John, Henri Matisse: A Retrospective exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1992), pp. 296, 329 (ill.), cat. 255, as Woman Before an Aquarium, Femme devant un aquarium.

Girard, Xavier, Matisse aujourd’hui (Nice: Cahiers Henri Matisse, 1993), n.p. (ill.), as Femme devant un aquarium.

“Journey into the Masterpieces,” 20th Century I, vol. 22 (Kodansha Ltd., 1992).

Milner, Frank, Henri Matisse (Bison Books Ltd., 1994), pp. 98-9 (ill.).

Bezzola, Tobia and Cornelia Homburg, eds., Max Beckmann and Paris: Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Léger, Rouault exh. cat. (Taschen, 1998), pp. 103 (ill.), 233, cat. 83.

Schaffner, Ingrid, The Essential Henri Matisse (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998), pp. 6–7 (ill.).

Müller-Tamm, Pia, ed., Figure, Color, Space: Henri Matisse exh. cat. (Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen: Düsseldorf, 2005), pp. 36–7, 200 (ill.), 368, cat. 115, as Femme devant un aquarium.

Staphanie D'Alessamdro and John Elderfield, "Coda: The Experiment Remembered" Matisse:Ratical Invention 1913-1917. Exh. cat (Art Institute of Chicago, 2010), p. 350, fig. 1.

Ownership History

Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, by June 4, 1923 [Bock 1986 note 10]; sold to Frederick Clay Bartlett, Chicago, June 4, 1923–1926 [Bock 1986 note 10]; given to the Art Institute, 1926.




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