Can anything essentially new be said about a canonical modernist painting? The Red Studio at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) tells the story of Henri Matisse’s 1911 painting of the same name. For several years, the painting went unsold. Turned down by his great Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin, who told Matisse that he preferred works with figures, the painting was included in Roger Fry’s significant Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1912. But in neither London nor the United States, where the show traveled, was it sold. In 1927, “The Red Studio” was purchased as a decoration for a fashionable London social club. When that nightclub closed, it made its way to Georges Keller’s gallery, Bignou Gallery, in New York City. Finally, in 1949, thanks to Alfred H. Barr’s initiative, it entered the MoMA collection.
“The Red Studio” depicts Matisse’s studio, painted in intense solid red, save for his own artworks, which line the walls or are set on the floor and on the table in the foreground. The exhibition texts provide full accounts of the 11 works that are in the painting, as well as elaborate information about Matisse’s actual studio, where this work was painted. (In addition, a video features four conservators discussing the painting.) The strangest, and largest, is his “Large Nude” (1911), the pink work with a decorative background and frame on the left, which was destroyed at Matisse’s request immediately after his death. Unlike most of his nudes, it is an oddly tawdry composition. A large grandfather clock in “The Red Studio” has no hands, a reminder that we are in the timeless world of aesthetic pleasure. The show also presents Roger Fry’s “A Room in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition” (1912), which shows the painting in the London exhibition.
Because “The Red Studio” has become so familiar, it takes a little effort to see how very strange a painting it is. As Hilary Spurling writes in her 2005 biography of Matisse, Matisse the Master, we see what looks “like a detached wall segment with rudimentary objects floating or suspended on it.” Refusing to simply accept its status as a masterpiece, she hints at how problematic the work originally appeared. Shchukin’s preference for the compositions of this period with figures was unsurprising. And perhaps it’s also not surprising that in 1948 Clement Greenberg, who considered Matisse the greatest living artist, found this work “only the brittle beginning of something in the way of large dramatic decoration ….” The exhibition catalogue gathers a great deal of information, but it doesn’t provide a useful perspective on the strange history of this painting, which for decades remained unsold.
Pictures within pictures were a common trope in Old Master paintings. In the 17th century, for example, Giovanni Paolo Panini represented a number of elaborate ensembles of artworks. (His “Modern Rome,” from 1757, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Such paintings celebrate the power and wealth of a collecting culture. In modern art, the trope served a more personal role. In Maurice Denis’s “Homage to Cézanne” (1900), for instance, a number of Cézanne’s admirers group around one of his still lifes, demonstrating the artist’s importance to Denis’s generation of painters. “The Red Studio” radicalizes and transforms that tradition by including only Matisse’s own works, and no figures, in the empty studio. It’s easy to understand why Mark Rothko found the painting — a great, pioneering exercise in large-scale all-over composition — so intriguing. Remove the artworks and furniture, which are submerged in the field of intense red, and you have a remarkable anticipation of the color and scale of Rothko’s paintings. But since Matisse was not interested in abstraction, it’s worthwhile to enter into this painting on its own terms — not as an anticipation of Rothko or of more recent monochromatic abstraction, but as a stage in Matisse’s personal development, best understood by looking to some of his works (not in this show) that he produced a decade or two later in Nice.
Until relatively recently, these Nice paintings and drawings were generally seen as highly traditional artworks, with only a marginal place in Matisse’s career. Abandoning the competition with Pablo Picasso, which produced his adventuresome paintings of the 1910s, and leaving his family to move to the South of France, Matisse depicts himself in the act of art making. These works portray him, his model, and the image in progress. In some drawings (“Reclining Nude in the Studio,” 1935, is the best one), he develops that conception in a more radical way. At the bottom right-hand corner the artist draws the very image that you see, resulting in a mise-en-abyme, the infinite regress of a drawing within the drawing. This process imaginatively takes the viewer into the creative process, as if the painting were being created right before our eyes. He thus discovered that he didn’t need to produce the large painting of his workplace that is “The Red Studio” to reveal his studio life; the ink on paper “Reclining Nude in the Studio” accomplished that goal more effectively.
In the Nice images, the drawing or mirror creates the illusion of placing the viewer in a self-enclosed space: We are in the picture that we view. Matisse made a great many such paintings and drawings — this theme of the radically self-sufficient artwork was deeply fascinating to him. “The Red Studio” anticipates this motif. In 1911 Matisse created a self-enclosed world in his studio by showing 11 earlier works of art, without the presence of the artist. The Nice images look very different from “The Red Studio,” but they accomplish the same goal. Yet in place of the multitude of artworks in the studio, he renders just one image, the very one that we see. Why show many works when only one is needed to reveal studio life? It’s no wonder that “The Red Studio” was misunderstood, for to perceive it as a step toward modernist abstraction is to misunderstand his fundamental goal.
Matisse: The Red Studio continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 10. The exhibition was organized by Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, and Dorthe Aagesen, Chief Curator and Senior Researcher, SMK – National Gallery of Denmark; with the assistance of Charlotte Barat, Madeleine Haddon, and Dana Liljegren; and with the collaboration of Georges Matisse and Anne Théry, Archives Henri Matisse, Issy-les-Moulineaux, France.
Editor’s Note, 8/25/2022, 5:56 pm EST: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that “The Red Studio” went to Pierre Matisse gallery, instead of Bignou Gallery. This error has been corrected.