The Sorrows of the King was Matisse’s final self portrait. This work refers to one of Rembrandt’s canvases, David Playing the Harp before Saul, in which the young biblical hero plays to distract the king from his melancholy, as well as to Rembrandt’s late self portraits. Here Matisse depicts the themes of old age, of looking back towards earlier life (La vie antérieure, the title of a poem by Baudelaire that Matisse had already illustrated) and of music soothing all cares.
Matisse has represented himself by the central black form, like a silhouette of himself sitting in his armchair, surrounded by the pleasures that have enriched his life. He has combined a number of recurring themes from his life. The yellow petals fluttering away have the gaiety of musical notation while the green odalisque symbolises the Orient and a dancer pays homage to the female body and sensuousness.