Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio – A look into the masterpiece

Henri Matisse’s Red Studio at MOMA Henri Matisse’s Red Studio at MOMA (Image credit: Herry Lawford on Flickr)

Upon its first showing in 1912, and for many years after, Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio (L’Atelier Rouge) was greeted with bewilderment. But over time it helped to redefine artistic parameters and would come to be regarded as one of the pioneering high watermarks in modern art.

By the time Matisse set up his easel in his Issy-les-Moulineux studio to paint the now revered L’Atelier Rouge in 1911, he was on the cusp of greatness – but few people recognised this. In fact, not only is L’Atelier Rouge at the vanguard of modern art, but it also documents his ascent as an artist, depicting a number of his paintings hanging on his studio wall, such as Le Luxe II (1907–08), to lesser-known works, such as Corsica, The Old Mill (1898), and even objects such as Matisse’s own sculptures, which have only recently been identified. This painting and its companion, the more delicate Pink Studio, mark a departure from Matisse’s earlier works inspired by mythology, and towards comfortable observation of his immediate surroundings. 

The start of the century had seen Matisse struggle with commercial success. Despite this, he was a leading light of the short-lived Fauvist art movement alongside friend and artistic rival André Derain. The movement only hosted three exhibitions, but it contributed to Matisse’s fondness for bright and expressive color, leading him to paint one of the most important of his early works in the Neo-Impressionist style, Luxe, Calme et Volupté.

His bold and expressive approach during this period was characterised by flat shapes and pointillism. Its influence is evident in works such as Les toits de Collioure, where dissonant tones fizzed with energy and paid little mind to the colors of nature.

The Historical journey of The Red Studio

“A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public”

Writer and critic, Camille Mauclair 

Not everyone was a fan though. In fact, some expressed vociferous opposition to Matisse’s modern approach. Criticism and rejection were something to which Matisse would become accustomed as he struggled for appreciation of his work. Appreciation, or even acceptance, would take a number of years to foster among a public sceptical of his radical approach to art. This was exemplified by the fact that his painting Nu bleu (Blue Nude, 1907) was burned (well, singed) in effigy at the Armory Show in Chicago in 1913.

Henri Matisse: Nu bleu aux pommes.

Henri Matisse: Nu bleu aux pommes. Sold for €6,875 via  Van Ham Kunstauktionen (June 2020).

Henri Matisse: Femme dans un Fauteuil

Henri Matisse: Femme dans un Fauteuil. Sold for £862,500 via Christie’s (June 2021).

This decades-long wait for the world to catch up with Matisse’s approach typified how revolutionary his art was. At the start of the 20th century, painting had been more uniform with the colors reflective of those in nature, as were shapes and forms. So, Matisse’s use of solid block interpretive colors and forced perspective caused a storm – and it took two or three decades for audiences to see the work through his eyes. Despite this exciting approach, widespread concern that ideals of classical beauty were being lost beneath the new wave of modern art meant that Matisse’s work was largely derided. The New York Times even went as far as labelling Matisse’s sculptures, “hideous”. 

Matisse did have one notable admirer, though, who would change the course of his career and elevate him to critical and commercial success. It was renowned American novelist, poet, playwright and of course, art collector, Gertrude Stein, who bought Matisse’s Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat, 1905) and welcomed him to her renowned Saturday evening gatherings for avant-garde artists and writers at her home on 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. Other notable guests included Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Francis Picabia

Influential artistic style

Henri Matisse: Woman with a Hat print.

Henri Matisse: Woman with a Hat print. Sold for $250 via Dane Fine Art (May 2022).

Paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Pablo Picasso adorned the walls of Stein’s apartment where Matisse first met the irrepressible Picasso. The pair became lifelong friends and while their approach to a shared modernism differed, they became friendly rivals who are often compared and shown together in exhibitions today. Matisse painted from nature and observation, while Picasso often worked from imagination. Both painted women and still lifes, with Matisse more likely to place figures in fully realised interiors, as he did with L’Atelier Rouge.

Today L’Atelier Rouge is housed in The Museum of Modern Art, New York, but initially it struggled to find a home. The painting first appeared in 1912 in the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London, and the next year in the Armory Show, in New York and Chicago, but it failed to sell (or any work by Matisse at all, for that matter). The painting was ahead of its time stylistically. It remained largely unseen until popular culture caught up stylistically and a members-only social club in London bought it in 1927, before MOMA snapped it up in 1949.

Seeing red

Monochrome had not yet entered the vocabulary of the art world so Matisse’s decision to coat the painting in Venetian red, so that more than two thirds were covered was a bold and brave decision. At the time, the artistic establishment – and its audiences – expected color to directly reflect reality. But by giving his painting such a red surface, Matisse rejected the idea that it was the job of the artist to express what the world looks like, he preferred to use them as inspiration to create something new. 

Henri Matisse: The Dessert: Harmony in Red print.

Henri Matisse: The Dessert: Harmony in Red print. Sold for €900 by A10 by Artmark (October 2019).

“Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know… I find that all these things… only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red.”

Henri Matisse

It’s the sea of red that suspends all the objects and establishes a sense of spatial depth by creating angles and perspective in an otherwise flat picture. L’Atelier Rouge, with its domineering vermillion, wasn’t the first time that Matisse had experimented with bold coloring. It was precipitated by his painting The Dessert: Harmony in Red (1908), which shows elements of Fauvism and Post-Impressionism too.

The bold use of color and disdain for realistic, representational painting is evident in the Fauvist philosophy that he spearheaded. Meanwhile the expressive use of color and lack of focal point has its roots in Impressionism. 

Matisse-inspired art

The melting pot of ideas, thoughts, and ideologies from which L’Atelier Rouge was drawn help to place it within art history.

The forced perspective depicted by Matisse is comparable to Vincent Van Gogh’sDe Aardappeleters (The Potato Eaters 1885), while the bold use of color brings to mind another Van Gogh work, Le Cafe de nuit (The Night Café 1888). And even though Matisse was denied widespread acceptance and praise in the first decade or so of the 1900s, a generation later he would be feted and his influence evident among a new wave of artists.

By the 1930s and ’40s, popular culture and artistic taste had caught up with Matisse’s pioneering approach. With the passing of time it became a piece that had enormous influence, particularly on artists working in New York following WWII. They produced artworks featuring big expanses of colour that were there for their own expressive purposes, paying little regard to classical convention and frequently didn’t describe anything. 

The work is considered by some a direct precursor to color field painting, of which Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland, who brought approach heavily influenced by European Modernism to American audiences. Rothko and Noland’s technique of layering color to establish depth or perspective, without formal use of line is at the core of most color field painting. 

Collecting Matisse’s art

Today, Matisse is an international household name and an ocean away from the figure derided by many in the 1900s. L’Atelier Rouge was even voted as the fifth most influential work of modern art in a poll of 500 art experts in 2014. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that his work is highly sought at auction, as many of his pieces have found homes in museums around the world. 

In November 2010, Danseuse dans le Fauteuil (1942) sold at Christie’s for $20,802,500, while Les Pivoines (1907) went under the hammer for $19,122,500 two years later, aptly demonstrating the wide appeal Matisse continues to holds over a century later. And his value doesn’t seem to be subsiding. His charcoal drawing, Femme dans un Fauteuil achieved £862,500 at Christie’s in June 2021.

Not all prices are prohibitive, though. Studies, sketches and prints can provide a viable entry for collectors looking to develop a Matisse collection with a wide choice available for between $2,500 and $10,000, depending upon the subject.

Whatever the format, Matisse’s position as a pioneer of modern art and influential master of expressive color make him an ideal choice for people looking to add vivid bursts of color to their wall, safe in the knowledge they have an investment from one of the most important artists of the 20th century.  

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