Painted by Henri Matisse, a reputed French artist known for his use of colour and his fluid and original draughtsmanship, Le bonheur de Vivre is highly regarded as one of the strong pillars of early modernism. When exhibited for the first time at the Salon des Independants of 1906, the monumental canvas caused an open public expression of protest and outrage for its cadmium colours and spatial distortions.
The wide revolutionary masterpiece created by Matisse, titled Le bonheur de Vivre, is a cry of primal joy whose title translates in English as The Pleasure of Living. Matisse also used to call it La Joie de Vivre, and in English, it is often known simply as The Joy of Life.
The nearly 2.5 metres wide large-scale painting depicts an Arcadian landscape filled with brilliantly coloured forest, meadow, sea, and sky, along with nude figures both at rest and in motion. The figures include a couple engaged in an intimate embrace in the foreground, naked and mysteriously conjoined at the head as if their bodies have become one, while a nude musician plays her pipes.
There is another naked lover, leaning on the stage, down to pick a flower, probably to add to the red garlands that decorate the breasts of his lady love. All these nude figures are marked in simple lines, with slits for eyes and dots for nipples and pale, almost blue, or violet skin. The serpentine postures defining the contours of the women are heavily emphasized, along with the curvilinear lines of the trees. Compared to the obviously mature women standing in the wings, the women in the centre are of enormous proportion and too big to the traditional conventions of Western painting.
Contrary to the Fauvism style of painting in which the artists used brilliant colours aggressively to create a sense of an explosion of colours on the canvas, Le bonheur de Vivre is a radical new approach that incorporates purely expressive, bright, clear colours and wildly sensual forms which are closest to Cézanne’s last great image of bathers in form and style. The scene depicted in the painting is a place full of life, love, and pleasure, free from want or inhibition, and fear. Despite its relaxed and casual posture, Le bonheur de Vivre was regarded as the most radical painting of its day, and consequently, Matisse became known, briefly, as the most daring painter in Paris.
Soon after its completion, American writer-poet Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo Stein, bought Matisse's Bonheur de Vivre and hung it in their dining room at 27 Rue de Fleurus, in Paris, filled with modern art. Apart from being a wealthy expatriate and her literary skills, Gertrude Stein often provided financial support to the nearly destitute artists. Consequently, young artists of the avant-garde came together in her place to exchange ideas, especially because her house was also the location of Gertrude Stein’s weekly salon.
One of those young artists was the young and largely unknown Picasso, who was determined to out-do Matisse, and he did with his 1907 canvas, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, and turned Matisse’s sensuality into violent pornography. Subsequently, Matisse in his turn responded to the challenge in his own way of aggression in his Blue Nude.