This is Paper submited for my MFA Graduate Seminar under the same title. 

 Kandinsky and Matisse were two great masters and innovators of color. Kandinsky was born in 1866 and Matisse in 1869 making them very close contemporaries. This makes their comparison the more interesting. In their painting and their theory of art, many similar ideas and themes echo each other, yet they seem to have some different view on the use of color and their relationship to form and art in general. These two artists were innovators in their use of color because of their daring use of color. Their use of color did not necessarily correspond to its equivalent in nature[1]. Rather, color itself served as a mode of expression[2]. The use of color responded to how the artist felt. Matisse considered the use of color as a liberating experience[3], in which the artist can be lifted from the mundane.

Their use of color and their art is sometimes similar but, at times, was also very varied. While both of them are still in the real of representation, Matisse paints subjects from a daily life in which it’s the color itself that seems to be the protagonist of the painting. On the other hand, Kandinsky is also (mostly) representational but with elements that seem to come from another world. These start to suggest a kind of surrealism.  While Kandinsky usually paints and explosion of color in which all hues seem to appear, some of Matisse’s most seminal work (The Dessert: Harmony in Red, 1908 & La Dance, 1909) stem from the use of a very limited palette. Matisse’s subjects seem to be almost a pretext for his explorations into color, while Kandinsky derives his use of color from the strange subjects that invade his paintings. This brings us to a very interesting quote by Kandinsky in relation to Matisse.

“…Matisse lays too much stress on color. Like Debussy, he cannot free himself form the conventional beauty. Impressionism is in his blood. The, we find great inner vitality in some of his paintings produced by an inner necessity. Again, his paintings result entirely from an outer charm…”[4]

This is the fundamental difference between Matisse and Kandinsky, their philosophy towards the relationship between form and color[5]. Matisse was obviously more interested in the exploration of color itself[6]. This is what led to such innovative paintings as The Red Studio, in which the color is the protagonist of the painting. While Kandinsky also explored colored intensely, he never reached the point of giving color a sole place in the painting. This break in the art of Matisse is what ultimately led the way to the total abstraction found in Pollock, Newman, Stella, Frankenthaller, among others [7].

In my opinion, Kandinsky’s explorations with color are more interesting in themselves. They present very interesting relationships between colors and hues. Their variety and saturation make them very powerful. Yet, Matisse’s work is more innovative conceptually and presents uses of color more distant from convention.


1. “I cannot copy nature in a servile way” Pg. 134“Color Codes” Charles A. Riley. University Press of England. 1995.

2. “The Chief Function of color should be to serve expression as well as possible.” Pg. 133 “Color Codes” Charles A. Riley. University Press of England. 1995.

3. “Color, above all, and perhaps even more than drawing, is a means of liberation” Pg. 135“Color Codes” Charles A. Riley. University Press of England. 1995.

4. Pg 149, “Color Codes” Charles A. Riley. University Press of England. 1995.

5. “Kandinsky concedes that color, unlike form, ‘cannot stand alone’” Pg. 148 “Color Codes” Charles A. Riley. University Press of England. 1995.

6.  “color relations within a painting are more important than the ties between the work and the subject depicted” Pg. 131. “Color Codes” Charles A. Riley. University Press of England. 1995.

7. “Not only does this anticipate the proscriptions of Hans Hoffman that ruled virtually all major colorist up to our own time, but it opens the way to the future of colorism as the epitome of purity in painting” Pg. 138 “Color Codes” Charles A. Riley. University Press of England. 1995.