What Matisse Can Teach Us About Art and Life

Colour, creativity and courage

Christopher P Jones
6 min readMay 3, 2024


Henri Matisse, Paris, May 13th 1913. Photo by Alvin Langdon Coburn. Image source Wikimedia Commons

I recently read a short quote that stopped me in my tracks:

“A thimbleful of red is redder than a bucketful.”

Like all good aphorisms, it contains a hint of both poetry and paradox.

It was reputedly uttered by the French artist Henri Matisse, and it quickly had me speculating on its meaning. I think what Matisse had in mind is that sometimes a smaller dose is more powerful than a bigger one, and that too much of one thing can dilute an experience.

Fenêtre ouverte, Collioure (Open window, Collioure) (1905) by Henri Matisse. Oil on canvas. 55.3 × 46 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., U.S. Exhibited at the 1905 Salon d’Automne. Image source WikiArt

One thing it certainly was not was a call for painterly restraint: Matisse never shied away from colour, and his images dazzle with untrammelled colours — like a pomegranate that has just been cut open.

I think it was more of an invitation that Matisse was offering, to appreciate the smaller details. The idea that a thimble of red might be more intense than a bucketful is a deliberate shift of attention to the subtle accents that are easily overlooked. If we can relish the piquant morsel, or savour the fugitive moment, then our encounter with the world might be all the richer.