Henri Matisse: The Red Studio - 1911
New York, Museum of Modern Art
‘Modern art, spreads joy around it by its colour, which calms us’. – Matisse
In 1909, Matisse, feeling financially flush thanks to a new patron, created a studio for himself near Paris. The actual studio was white but in this painting the artist depicts it as a field of sensuous, all-enveloping red. For Matisse, colour was a feeling – an expressive element. He often changed colours until they felt right to him as he did in this image: traces of yellow and blue can be seen beneath the red. ‘Where I got the colour red – to be sure, I just don’t know,’ he once remarked, ‘I find that all these things … only become what they are to me when I see them together with the colour red.’
Like a mini retrospective of Matisse’s recent work, this Red Studio is dotted with his paintings, sculptures and ceramics. All are multicoloured and detailed, unlike the rest of the room and its furnishings which are only suggested by pale lines traced in the red surface. The minimalist grandfather clock in the centre has no hands, adding a timeless quality; a wine glass suggests a certain joie de vivre; an open box of crayons in the foreground seems to invite the viewer into the picture, as if they too could pick up a crayon and create.
Angled lines are used to give the room depth and the blue-green light of the window emphasises the interior space. Yet the omnipresent red and lack of vertical lines in the corner of the room create a flattened perspective, an effect reflective of Matisse’s love of pattern and interest in Islamic art; he had in fact traveled to Munich to see an exhibit of Islamic art the year before he completed this painting.
The unrealistic, abstract elements of the image combine to suggest an almost magical place, an artistic oasis beyond a troubled world, which was how Matisse thought of his studios, whether in Paris or southern France. There, regardless of world events, for 60 odd years, Matisse unabashedly produced images of joyful colour and gracious beauty. Unlike many of his contemporaries, famed for their modernist angst and revolt (such as Matisse’s friend and rival, Picasso), Matisse is considered, sometimes disapprovingly, as a painter of happiness – he once said that he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman.
His work was grounded in tradition, rather than rebellion: as a youth he had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and admired the works of Manet and Cézanne (a small ‘Bathers’ by Cézanne which he bought in 1899 became his talisman). Around 1904 he became interested in the colourful pointillism of Seurat and Signac and the transforming effects of the light of southern France, which led him to Fauvism. From there, his art continued to evolve but always remained true to the goals he stated in his Notes of an Artist (1908): to discover ‘the essential character of things’ and to produce art ‘of balance, purity and serenity.’ While in a lesser artist this contentment might add up to mere decorativeness, with Matisse it reveals a profound essence that evokes both pleasure and reflection.
1911 Robert Delaunay: Eiffel Tower, New York, Guggenheim Museum
1911 Pablo Picasso: Ma Jolie, New York, MOMA
1911 Lovis Corinth: Lady by a Goldfish Tank, Vienna, Belvedere