• Cowry Art Studio

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio at MoMA, May 1–Sep 10, 2022

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911, oil on canvas, 181 x 219.1 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Red is often thought of as the most aggressive color. It has the most punch, and that’s what Matisse needed here. This canvas was a part of a series, there is, for instance, a Pink Studio too. But that canvas was concerned with different issues. Here, the red is an attempt to find a color that is forceful enough to resist the illusion of deep space by pushing to the surface. The red is, of course painted onto the flat canvas but actually fails to remain there visually. Instead, the red becomes the walls and furnishing of the room seen in space. Illusion triumphs–Matisse is thwarted.


This triumph of illusion is due in part to the linear perspective that defines the table, chairs, and the walls and floor of the studio. But look! Matisse has constructed some of the worst linear perspective ever seen. Receding lines should converge, but look at the chair on the lower right. The lines widen as they go back. And look to rear left corner of the room. The corner is defined by the edge of the pink canvas but above that painting, the line that must define the corner is missing! Matisse is literally dismantling the perspective of the room but it makes no difference, we still see the room as an inhabitable space. Illusion still triumphs.

Figure-Ground Relationship

Although it is very difficult to see in reproduction, if seen in person at MoMA, it is clear that the whitish lines that define form in the red field are not painted on top of the red. Instead, they are reserve lines. In other words, the white lines are actually the canvas below. Matisse painted the red planes up to the line on either side, leaving a narrow gap of white canvas in between. This is really IMPORTANT. Stay with me on this. The white line is actually emerging from below the red. It is beneath. The red is of course painted on top of the white canvas.

Okay, now pay attention. Matisse has realized that illusion is almost certain to triumph no matter how aggressively he tries to undermine it. We, as the audience, will see space if given the slightest opportunity. So if we see illusion at such a basic level, what hope does Matisse have of destroying it? In fact, his reserve line are his really brilliant solution. The chairs, the dresser, the clock, each object, or figure in The Red Studio is constructed out of the canvas below. At the same time, the ground which supports those figures, is constructed out of a plane of red that is physically above the canvas. What Matisse has done then is reverse the figure ground relationship. He has made the figure out of the ground (the canvas) and made the ground out of the figure (the red paint on top). When seen in person, the recognition of this does finally destroy illusion, Matisse triumphs!


Henri Matisse The Red Studio  Issy-les-Moulineaux, fall 1911
Henri Matisse The Red Studio Issy-les-Moulineaux, fall 1911

For many years after its creation, Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911)—which depicts the artist’s work space in the Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux—was met with bafflement or indifference. Today it is known as a foundational work of modern art and a landmark in the centuries-long tradition of studio painting. Henri Matisse: The Red Studio will reunite this work with the surviving six paintings, three sculptures, and one ceramic by Matisse depicted on its six-foot-tall-by-seven-foot-wide canvas. This will be the first reunion of these objects since they were together in Matisse’s studio at the time The Red Studio was made. They range from groundbreaking paintings, such as Le Luxe II (1907–08), to lesser-known works, such as Corsica, The Old Mill (1898), to objects which have only recently been rediscovered. Paintings and drawings closely related to The Red Studio will help to illuminate the picture’s history: its rejection by the patron who commissioned it, its international travels, and its eventual acquisition by MoMA. A rich selection of archival materials, including photographs and letters, will reveal new information about the painting’s subject and history. The exhibition will also explore the radical nature of its almost entirely red surface and present recent discoveries about the process of its making. Following its presentation at MoMA, the exhibition will be shown at SMK, the national gallery of Denmark, in Copenhagen from October 13, 2022, through February 26, 2023. Organized by Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, MoMA, and Dorthe Aagesen, Chief Curator and Senior Researcher, Statens Museum for Kunst, with Madeleine Haddon, Curatorial Assistant, and Charlotte Barat, former Curatorial Assistant, MoMA.

*(from MoMA.org news)