When Henri Matisse was choosing paintings to exhibit at the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris, it is unlikely that he could have foreseen the backlash and hostile reception that his work would elicit from the Parisian public and from the art critics of the day. The oil painting that seemed to be singled out, receiving much of the harshest criticism was La Femme Au Chapeau (Woman With A Hat) that Matisse had created earlier that year. Many believe that the woman that is depicted in the painting was Matisse’s wife Amélie who along with his daughter Marguerite, would often serve as models for the French post-Impressionist. But it wasn’t the subject of Woman With A Hat that provoked such a vitriolic response, but rather Matisse’s treatment of her and the style of the painting.

The style of painting that may have seemed so controversial at the time had in fact been initially developed prior to the start of the 20th Century by Gustave Moreau, the French Symbolist painter who had taught Matisse at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Moreau had often emphasised the expressive potency of pure colour, and Matisse took Moreau’s lessons to heart while also learning colour theory from Australian Impressionist John Peter Russell and by studying the work of Vincent Van Gogh.

The result was work that emphasised painterly qualities and in which the bold use of colour was held in higher esteem than Realism or accurate representations of the subject. Woman With A Hat and Matisse’s other work on show including 1904’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté (Luxury, Calm and Pleasure) was displayed in a single room at the Salon d’Automne alongside other artists who were painting in a similar manner. In response to the exhibition of Matisse’s new style, prominent French art critic Louis Vauxcelles published a review saying, “Donatello au milieu des fauves!" (“Donatello among the wild beasts!”), in reference to a sculpture by the Renaissance master that was on display in the same space. In another review, Camille Mauclair stated, “A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public”.

As a result of Vauxcelles review, Fauvism became the term that was used to describe the bold style of painting, and the loose collection of artists whose work adhered to the principles of Fauvism were described as Les Fauves. Although there were some favourable reviews, Les Fauves and their work were on the whole not favourably received by the French public at the time and they only held three exhibitions during the brief four-year period that the movement was active. Thankfully for Matisse, Woman With A Hat was purchased by his great fan and patron Sarah Stein, the sister-in-law of Gertrude and Leo. Matisse was demoralised by the negative reception that his work received but Stein’s purchase of the work seemed to lift his spirits.

Matisse retained a bold colour palette throughout his career, as his work grew in popularity and esteem. Woman With A Hat was on display at Sarah Stein’s home in Palo Alto, California, for many years before it was donated to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art where it is still on display.