Matisse’s Red Studio (1911)
Henri Matisse's Red Studio has been interpreted variously, sometimes quite close to the idea that this is a scene in his own mind, and not just some innovative, 20th-century way of painting. The unseen evidence supporting EPPH's general theory is in the lower-right corner where an artist's signature traditionally appears.
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The chair and sculpture stand form the H and M of Henri Matisse's name (top). Empty chairs facing into an image like this one commonly symbolize the artist sitting in the studio while painting it. With Matisse's own works displayed in the blood-red studio, the scene in our opinion depicts the creative process inside his head at the very moment this painting was conceived. That's what the crayons on the foreground table signify along with the wine glass for several reasons. The most immediate is that fermented grapes, a product of nature, can stimulate the imagination and, given it is empty, it has probably been drunk. Similarly, the creeping plant in the decanter-like vase suggests creative fertility too. There is a link between them, as we will see shortly.
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The plate on the table is decorated with the image of a crouching female nude. Turned through 90° though (top), a caricatural self-portrait of Matisse becomes visible with her hand functioning as his right eye, thereby combining the hand of craft with the eye of intellect (bottom), a common combination in art generally. The self-portrait comparison is one of his many such sketches on a postcard though drawn 20 years later. Nevertheless, Matisse was already sketching cartoon-ish self-portraits as early as 1909. The fusion within this illusion of male and female further signifies the artist's and humanity's androgynous mind.
When similarly turned the wine-glass (top) resembles an eyeball. Compare it to a wax model with its yellow optic nerve (below). The glass rim even recalls an iris and pupil. Besides, glass like an eye is transparent and reflective. Yet in art there is another mode of vision: insight, often conveyed by a closed eye, blind eye or blank one. Insight comes from the dark which is why the black vase also resembles an eye with its optic nerve. Turning inwards unlike the (real) glass one, the eye of insight faces in the opposite direction.
None of this is original, as you can see elsewhere on EPPH. Picasso and others have merged their initials in the same way for centuries. Botticelli, Raphael, Dürer, Titian, and Hans Holbein all did so in the Renaissance. Though unknown to critics, no major artist would miss them nor their meaning, that the scene is self-reflective and internal.
More Works by Matisse
See how Matisse's identification with an earlier artist is conveyed in a businessman's portrait
See how one great master resides in another, or sometimes two.
Original Publication Date on EPPH: 24 Jul 2010. © 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.