Matisse’s La Coiffure (1901)

This early and important painting by Henri Matisse depicts his wife, Amélie, facing a mirror while arranging her hair. Hair has a long but little-known history in art, going as far back as Titian, linking the similarity of its texture and composition to the hairs of a paintbrush. The subject, as ever, must be art which means that the female nude facing the mirror represents the artist facing his painting which is represented within the painting as the mirror on the wall. Mirrors often represent paintings, in part because they are an age-old metaphor for the mind's surface and, in part, because if every painter paints himself, every painting must reflect the artist.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Matisse, La Coiffure (1901) Oil on canvas. 95.2 x 80.1 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

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Another form to note is Amélie's black hair enclosed within her symmetrically bent arms, both hands adjusting it and facing inwards. Like Matisse himself with his hand facing the canvas, she is in the process of composing her hair. Taken out of its apparent context, though, the overall shape resembles a giant eye with a large black pupil, thereby linking - as I so often point out - the unity of hand and eye, of craft and perception. However, in making her head his "pupil", he also associates thinking with sight.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Matisse's La Coiffure

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Her lower torso, where her womb is located, emerges from a white contour on a background of red. Circular, it too may represent an "eye" with white for the white of the eye and red for blood behind it. Thus, instead of two eyes horizontally placed, as we expect them, we have two "eyes" vertically placed. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Matisse's La Coiffure

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The fertile one in the womb below, then, would represent a physical eye with the upper one as his inner eye, the two connected by her torso.1 One grows out of the other which may even explain why her figure resembles a vase of flowers by Matisse.

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Matisse, La Coiffure (1901)
R: Matisse, Geranium in a Vase (1915-16) Charcoal on paper.

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Lastly, do note a detail that never has been: the contour of her white dress is Matisse's profile. Thus from Matisse's inner eye, her womb, emerges Amélie's inner eye, her head. I recently revealed a similar illusion in Lord Leighton's masterpiece, Flaming June (1895). No doubt the two developed their ideas independently because I will soon show something similar in a painting from the 17th century.

 

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Matisse's La Coiffure
R: Detail of a photograph of Matisse on the cover of Time Magazine (1930)

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Notes:

1. In Renaissance diagrams of the head, the inner eye is almost always shown above the real eyes.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 07 Apr 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.