Painting of the Day

28 Nov



The Red Studio. by Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Oil on canvas, 1911. Currently at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC. 

Notes from

“Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know,” Matisse once remarked. “I find that all these things . . . only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.” This painting features a small retrospective of Matisse’s recent painting, sculpture, and ceramics, displayed in his studio. The artworks appear in color and in detail, while the room’s architecture and furnishings are indicated only by negative gaps in the red surface. The composition’s central axis is a grandfather clock without hands—it is as if, in the oasis of the artist’s studio, time were suspended.

“Modern art,” said Matisse, “spreads joy around it by its color, which calms us.” In this radiant painting he saturates a room—his own studio—with red. Art and decorative objects are painted solidly, but furniture and architecture are linear diagrams, silhouetted by “gaps” in the red surface. These gaps reveal earlier layers of yellow and blue paint beneath the red; Matisse changed the colors until they felt right to him. (The studio was actually white.)

The studio is an important place for any artist, and this one Matisse had built for himself, encouraged by new patronage in 1909. He shows in it a carefully arranged exhibition of his own works. Angled lines suggest depth, and the blue-green light of the window intensifies the sense of interior space, but the expanse of red flattens the image. Matisse heightens this effect by, for example, omitting the vertical line of the corner of the room.

The entire composition is clustered around the enigmatic axis of the grandfather clock, a flat rectangle whose face has no hands. Time is suspended in this magical space. On the foreground table, an open box of crayons, perhaps a symbolic stand-in for the artist, invites us into the room. But the studio itself, defined by ethereal lines and subtle spatial discontinuities, remains Matisse’s private universe.

We see examples of Matisse’s own works of art—a presentation of his career to date almost. If we look to the left of the clock in the center of the picture—interestingly a clock without any handswe can see at the bottom of the clock a little landscape, one of Matisse’s very earliest paintings. The big figure painting to the far right was done in 1907. And the white sculpture underneath it is a very recent work.

What he’s giving us is the studio as an exhibition place, but also the studio as bearing marks of the presence of the artist, most obviously by the crayons on the table in the foreground. And we realize that the only things, which are marked separately from the red are all things to do with the works of art themselves.

One of the fascinations of the picture is that it is very flat. On the other hand we really have the sense of a room being there. And its provided by drawing. But instead of drawing all the lines, which would actually very abruptly divide up the space, Matisse has carried the red up to the point of where those lines would be. And its the absences of the red which provide the sense of movement into the room.

For Matisse, color was an agent of expression, and he also obviously used it as a way of organizing the space of his pictures. Here, color has this quality of functioning a bit like the medium of time, where all these things are floating, but open up into different worlds.

My comments: 

This painting reminds me of portraits painted during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, some of which presented the subject surrounded by objects that symbolically related to the subject’s interests or line of work. In The Red Studio, Matisse the man is not present, but he is very much in the painting. The fact that the work is literally saturated with red is just one facet of the painting that instantly identifies with Matisse and his Fauvist style at this time in his life. The paintings that hang around the studio, which are clearly delineated from most of the other objects in the room and resemble actual paintings he has completed, also identify the studio as belonging to Matisse. 

Perhaps it’s cliched to say this, but when seen in person, the overwhelming use of a single color with little attempt to suggest depth really draws attention to the painting’s flatness. For me the acknowledgement of flatness here is different than that when seen in a non-objective abstract painting, such as a Kandinsky or a Duchamp. With works like theirs, the painting is obviously non-representational and so one expects it to be flat. But with The Red Studio, there is somewhat of an expectation for representation of nature since Matisse is depicting something actually seen in real life. But instead he turns 3D objects into 2D ones; thus, not only are the paintings he makes works of art, but even his studio is a work of art.

One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara November 28, 2012 at 1:13 am #

    this makes me wonder what the Cone sisters would have thought of the picture.HUMMMM? Also, if red was so important to matisse, why didnt he actually paint his studio red? Then he could have lived the first performance art piece and been way ahead of this time. which leads to the question, would surrealistics have loved performance art?

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