It is one of the landmark paintings of the early 20th century: Henri Matisse's "The Red Studio," his depiction of his workroom filled with paintings and sculptures, even a plate, all of his own making.
"He's sharing his world with you; he's inviting you into his private space," said curator Ann Temkin of New York's Museum of Modern Art, which is presenting a remarkable new exhibit. For the first time since Matisse created "The Red Studio," almost all the works depicted in the painting have been reunited.
Among them: The painting "Le Luxe II."
Also, "The Young Sailor II," which is featured in "Red Studio." "It was made of a young fisherman, so if you look at ['Red Studio'], that young sailor has no eyes or mouth. Whereas in the painting, the eyes and the mouth are incredible. What he's done is a little bit softened the presence of the young sailor in this picture, so it doesn't dominate it. It kind of harmonizes with the others."
Today, Matisse is considered a trailblazer in the development of modern art. But in 1911, when he created this painting in his newly-constructed studio, just outside Paris in Issy-les-Moulineaux, his work was not universally praised, even within the art community.
"It's almost impossible for us, 100 years later, to wrap our heads around how reviled and disparaged an artist like Matisse was when he was 40 years old," said Temkin.
In fact, "The Red Studio" was commissioned by a wealthy Russian, Sergei Shchukin, who did collect other Matisse works. But when he saw it, Temkin said, "He did not understand, what was this flat picture? What were these elements that didn't seem to have background or foreground? And he rejected the painting."
Still, Matisse believed in the work, showing it, with no sale, at several exhibits, including the famed New York Armory Show of 1913. It was finally purchased in 1927 for a London nightclub, and then ended up in New York, where MoMA bought it some two decades later, for $29,000. Today, Temkin said, it's considered priceless.
As analysis in the museum's lab illustrates, "Red Studio" was not always red. Layers of an earlier version, with orange, pink and blue sections, can be seen underneath, applied before Matisse decided to overlay everything with red.
"Did he do it impulsively? Was it something he sort of really struggled with over a couple of weeks first?" Temkin said. "But the thing is, once he did it, there was no going back."
Tracking down all these works that appear in the painting took almost four years. One, of a cyclamen plant, is owned by a private collector, and hasn't been seen in public since 1965.
When asked if it was easy or difficult to persuade owners to loan to the show, Temkin replied, "We were very fortunate. There was agreement right away. I mean, with this exhibition if we had one 'no,' the whole concept would have fallen apart. We are just so grateful to everybody who came aboard."
For more info:
- "Matisse: The Red Studio" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (through September 10)
- Catalogue: "Matisse: The Red Studio" (Hardcover)
Story produced by Sara Kugel. Editor: Chad Cardin.
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