MoMA Shows The Backstory Of A Matisse Masterpiece So Radical It Befuddled The Artist Himself

“I like it, but I don’t quite understand it,” Henri Matisse told a journalist visiting his studio in 1911. Matisse was referring to a painting he’d recently made of his studio space, a room filled with earlier paintings and sculptures, all recreated in miniature.

Initially the painting was fairly realistic, at least by Matisse’s avant-garde standards. But shortly before the journalist interviewed him, he’d taken a brush and covered the walls and floor in a monochrome red. He used the same hue for the furniture, which was distinguishable only by a thin line around the edges.

The Red Studio would soon also flummox the patron for whom Matisse painted it, the Russian industrialist Sergei Shchukin, who would decline to buy the canvas, leaving it to become another facet of the studio it depicted. Only after a stint on the wall of a London nightclub did it finally find its way to the place where it can be seen today. A highlight of the Museum of Modern Art, The Red Studio is now the subject of its own mini-retrospective, surrounded by many of the eleven artworks that appear in it.

The painting still holds the capacity to bemuse, responding to close viewing by showing new layers of ambiguity. This was especially the case for the MoMA conservators who spent several years examining the canvas with x-rays and ultraviolet light. They discovered the more realistic underlayer, which seems to have been quite similar to Matisse’s treatment of his workspace in his earlier Pink Studio. What they could not find, and may never be known, was the impetus for Matisse’s move into an aesthetic realm he himself couldn’t fathom.

If anybody had the capacity to understand The Red Studio, it was Gertrude Stein, the avant-garde author who was also an avid collector of Matisse’s art. As Matisse noted in a letter to Shchukin – after understatedly describing The Red Studio as “surprising at first sight” – “Mme. Stein finds it the most musical of my paintings.” Perhaps following this lead, Matisse explained that the Venetian red “serves as a harmonic link between the green of a nasturtium branch[,] the warm blacks of a border of a Persian tapestry placed above the chest of drawers, the yellow ocher of a statuette around which the nasturtium has grown, enveloping it, the lemon yellow of a rattan chair placed at the right of the painting between a table and a wooden chair, and the blues, pinks, yellows and other greens representing the paintings and other objects placed in my studio.”

Given the layered history of the painting, this harmonic link was evidently discovered retrospectively. The fact that it works is not especially surprising, given that Matisse was one of the greatest colorists of the 20th century. More striking is the fact that he was able to find a chromatic link to connect more than half a dozen canvases painted over thirteen years in several different studios while he developed the style for which he would ultimately be known.

The earliest of these paintings, Corsica, the Old Mill, significantly predates his foray into Fauvism, coinciding with his first encounter with the Mediterranean – an ocean “so blue you could eat it” – and his recognition that color could be a painterly subject in its own right. The latest, his Large Nude, was not completed when he undertook The Red Studio, and indeed would never be finished, finally getting destroyed, in accordance with his wishes, after his death.

As many observers have noted, The Red Studio anticipates Matisse’s even more radical spatial arrangements of color in his late cut-outs, where the studio becomes a container, the visual equivalent of a concert hall. The recent discovery that the red was added after the painting was composed gives deeper resonance to the association. The Red Studio seems almost to be a rehearsal for the later work, albeit inverted, since the artist’s virtuoso performance is to be seen in the background.

At the same time, The Red Studio suggests a way of viewing all of Matisse’s art as a single work distributed over space and time. Only the artist himself was able to view it in full, but acts of reuniting his work – as in this MoMA exhibition – can attune our eyes to see what the master perceived and ultimately might have understood.


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