Famous Paintings: "The Red Studio" by Henri Matisse

01
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What's the Big Deal About Matisse and His Red Studio Painting?

A still photo of a still painting
Maureen Didde/maureen lunn/Flickr

Matisse gets his place in the timeline of painting because of his use of color. He did things with color no-one had before, and influenced many artists who followed. Matisse's Red Studio is important for its use of color and its flattened perspective, his altering of reality and our perception of space.

He painted it in 1911, after his exposure to traditional Islamic art during a visit to Spain, which influenced his use of pattern, decoration, and depiction of space. Red Studio gets grouped together with three other paintings Matisse did that year -- The Painter's Family, The Pink Studio, and Interior with Aubergines – as standing "at a crossroads for Western painting, where the classic outward-looking, predominantly representational art of the past met the provisional, internalised and self-referential ethos of the future"1.

The elements Matisse included "sink their individual identities into what became a prolonged meditation on art and life, space, time, perception and the nature of reality itself."2 Or put far more simplistically, he painted a personal reality, the world as he perceived and experienced it, in a way that made sense to him.

If you look at his earlier paintings, such as Harmony in Red, painted in 1908, you'll see Matisse was working towards the style in Red Studio, it didn't pop up from nowhere.

I like The Red Studio partly because of the intense, glowing red; partly for the cheek of reducing objects to mere outlines; partly because he’s included other artwork of his in it as well as his easel and a box of pencils. It's as if I'm walking through the studio door, as if he’s behind me and about to say something about what he’s working on. But it wasn't love at first sight; it's grown on me.

REFERENCES:
1&2. Hilary Spurling, Matisse the Master, p81

02
of 06

But the Perspective's All Wrong...

Matisse Red Studio Painting
"The Red Studio" by Henri Matisse. Painted in 1911. Size: 71" x 7' 2" (approx. 180 x 220 cm). Oil on Canvas. In the collection of Moma, New York. Photo © Liane Used with Permission

Matisse didn't get the perspective "wrong", he painted it the way he wanted it. He flattened the perspective in the room, and altered it from how we perceive perspective with our eyes.

The question of getting perspective "right" applies only if you're trying to paint in a realist style, that is to create an illusion of reality and depth in a painting. If that's not your aim, then you can't get the perspective "wrong". And it's not that Matisse didn't know how to get it "right" neither; he just chose not to do it that way.

A painting is a ultimately a representation or expression of something recreated in two dimensions, it doesn’t have to do it as an illusion of three dimensions. Western painting styles before the Renaissance didn’t use what we now think of as traditional perspective (e.g. Gothic). Chinese and Japanese art forms never have. Cubism deliberately breaks up perspective, representing a single object from several viewpoints.

Don’t be deceived into thinking Red Studio is a totally flat painting or style. There's still a sense of depth to the room, created by the arrangement of the elements. For instance, there’s a line on the left where the floor and wall meet (1). The furniture may be reduced to outlines, but the table edges still angle in as they get further away (2), as does the chair (3). The paintings at the back are clearly propped against a wall (4), even though there’s no separation of the side/back walls (5) in the way there is between the floor and side wall. But we read the edge of the large painting as being in the corner anyway.

It could even be said each element of the painting does experience perspective, but is presented as if the artist were seeing only it. The chair is in two-point perspective, the table in one, the window also recesses to a vanishing point. They are juxtaposed, almost a collage of different views.

03
of 06

A Deceptively Simple Painting

Matisse Red Studio painting composition
"The Red Studio" by Henri Matisse. Painted in 1911. Size: 71" x 7' 2" (approx. 180 x 220 cm). Oil on Canvas. In the collection of Moma, New York. Photo © Liane Used with Permission

I believe this is a painting with deceptively simple composition. It may seem that Matisse plonked things onto the canvas any old place, or that he painted the table first and then had to fill up the rest of the space with something. But look at the way the arrangement of the elements leads your eye around the painting.

In the photo I’ve marked what are to me the strongest directional lines, pushing your eye up from the bottom and back from the edges, around and around to take in everything. Of course it’s possible to see this in other ways, such as up on the right, then across to the left. (Though the way you read a painting is influenced by the direction in which you read text.)

Consider how he’s painted the various elements, which are reduced to outlines and which are given prominence. Notice that there are no shadows, but there is a reflected highlight on the glass. Squint at the painting to see the areas of light tone more clearly, and how create a unity in the composition.

You can't see it in the photo, but the outlines aren't painted on top of the red, but colors underneath the red showing through. (If you're working in watercolor, you'd need to mask out these areas, and with acrylics probably paint it on top given how fast they dry, but with oils you could scratch through to the lower color if that layer were dry.)

"Not only did Matisse flood his pictorial space with a flat, monochromatic lake at full saturation, swamping the studio’s oblique angle; in addition he treated everything three-dimensional as nothing more than inscribed contours. Meanwhile, the only objects allowed full color or modelling come across as conceptually flat by virtue of their being in themselves flat—that is the circular plate in the foreground and the paintings hung on the wall or stacked against it."
-- Daniel Wheeler, Art Since Mid-Century, p16.

04
of 06

An Autobiographical Painting

Famous paintings Matisse
"The Red Studio" by Henri Matisse. Painted in 1911. Size: 71" x 7' 2" (approx. 180 x 220 cm). Oil on Canvas. In the collection of Moma, New York. Photo © Liane Used with Permission

The elements in Red Studio invite you into Matisse’s world. To me the "empty" bit in the foreground reads as floor space, where I’d step to be amongst the things in the studio. The elements form a kind of nest in which the creative process takes place.

The paintings depicted are all by him, as are the sculptures (1&2). Notice the box of pencils or charcoal (3) on the table, and his easel (4). Though why doesn't the clock have hands (5)?

Is Matisse describing the creative process? The table acts as a container for the ideas of food and drink, nature, and artist's materials; the essence of an artist's life. There's representation of different subjects: portraits, still life, landscape. A window for illumination. The passage of time is denoted both by the clock and the framed/unframed (unfinished?) paintings. A comparison is made to the three dimensionality of the world with sculptures and a vase. Finally there is contemplation, a chair positioned to view the art.

Red Studio wasn't initially red. Instead it "was originally a blue-grey interior, corresponding more closely to the white of Matisse’s studio as it actually was. This quite powerful blue-grey can still be seen even with the naked eye around the top of the clock and under the thinner paint on the left-hand side. What forced Matisse to transform his studio with this dazzling red has been debated: it has even been suggested that it was stimulated in the most perceptual of ways by the after-image of greens from the garden on a hot day."
-- John Gage, Colour and Culture p212.

In her biography (page 81) Hilary Spurling says: "Visitors to Issy [Matisse's Studio] grasped immediately that no one had seen or imagined anything like this before... [The Red Studio painting] looked like a detached wall segment with rudimentary objects floating or suspended on it. ... From now on (1911) he painted realities that existed only in his mind."

05
of 06

It Isn't Even Well Painted...

Famous paintings Matisse
"The Red Studio" by Henri Matisse. Painted in 1911. Size: 71" x 7' 2" (approx. 180 x 220 cm). Oil on Canvas. In the collection of Moma, New York. Photo © Liane Used with Permission
  • "It looks as if he couldn't make up his mind where to put things."
  • "It's just a mishmash of bits with no regard for compositional design."
  • "He could have portrayed his feelings about this room with his pieces in a much more pleasing fashion and maybe wouldn't have had to explain it."
  • "The pieces aren't even painted well."

Comments such as these (made on the Painting Forum) raise the question: "What do you define as 'well painted'?" Do you need it to be with realistic, fine detail? Do you mean painterly where you can clearly see what it is but there's also a sense of the paint/brush strokes used to create the image? Can it convey a sense of a thing without fine detail? Is some degree of abstraction acceptable?

It ultimately comes down to personal preference, and we're fortunate to live in an era in which so many styles exist. However, only ever painting objects so they look like realistic representations of themselves very much limits the potential of paint, in my opinion. Realism is just one style of painting. It feels "right" to many people because of the influence of photography, that is the image looks exactly like the thing it represents. But that so limits the potential of the medium (and photography for that matter).

Knowing what you like and don't like is part of developing your own style. But rejecting an artist's work without figuring out why you don't like it or knowing why it's considered a Big Deal is to shut off a potential avenue of discovery. Part of being a painter is being open to possibilities, to experiment simply to see where it may take you. Unexpected things can come from unexpected sources. Time and again I get emails from people who've tackled various Painting Projects saying they'd never done anything like it before and were pleasantly surprised by the results. For example: The Worrier and Pinpointing the Problem!.

06
of 06

I Don't Think I'll Ever Like Matisse's Paintings

Famous paintings Matisse
"The Red Studio" by Henri Matisse. Painted in 1911. Size: 71" x 7' 2" (approx. 180 x 220 cm). Oil on Canvas. In the collection of Moma, New York. Photo © Liane Used with Permission

Liking an artist’s work is not the same as understanding its importance within the art timeline. We're so used to "wrong" perspective today we don't give it much thought (regardless of whether we like it or not). But at some stage an artist was the first to do this.

Part of the appreciation of The Red Studio comes from context in which Matisse was working and the concept, not solely the actual painting. A comparable example would be the color-field paintings of Rothko; it’s hard to envisage a time when covering a canvas with just color was unprecedented.

Who gets written into the books as a master is a question of fashion and to some extent luck, being in the right places or galleries at the right time, having academics and curators researching and writing about your work. Matisse went through a period of being dismissed as merely decorative (and worse), but has been reevaluated and given a more prominent role. Now he's well regarded for his simplicity, his use of color, his design.

Never worry about being called art ignoramuses for not liking the art of some Big Name; that's just snobbish and elitist nonsense. There's no reason you need like someone’s work, ever. But that’s not the same as being ignorant about why they’re regarded as important. Take a moment, at least, to try and understand why an artists did the painting in that manner -- you may be surprised at the answers you come up with!

Just because something was done by a Big Name doesn't make it a good painting, it just makes it a painting by a famous painter. (Every famous painter has done duds; the sensible ones took time to destroy them before they died rather than trust someone else to do it.) You need to judge for yourself what you like or don't. If you don't like the work of a Big Name, then you don't and stuff what anyone else thinks.