Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911. Oil on canvas. 71 1/4 x 7′ 2 1/4″. (181 x 219.1 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
With Matisse: The Red Studio, MoMA takes a dive so deep into the eponymous masterpiece that it risks subjecting viewers to the bends. 
An interior view of Matisse’s atelier in the Parisian suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux, The Red Studio (1911) serves as the centerpiece for an impressive feat of scholarship that gathers photographs, documents, and ephemera related to the painting’s creation, along with a video on its conservation.
Henri Matisse, Female Nude, 1907. Ceramic plate, tin-glazed earthenware. Diam. 9 3/4″ (24.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photograph of the interior of Matisse’s studio in Issy-les-Moulineaux. October/November 1911.
More pertinently, the exhibition displays the actual objects pictured within—career landmarks such as Young Sailor II (1906) and Le luxe (II) (1907). The show also reveals the unusual circumstances surrounding the canvas, which include its rejection by the patron who originally commissioned it (the Russian textile magnate Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin), the bewildered reaction to its public debut, and its tenure as the unlikely property of a British nightclub owner.
True to its title, the painting suffuses its subject in a field of deep carnelian while falling into the time-worn tradition of artists picturing their places of work. Such efforts offered a look into their art-making process and were effectively surrogate self-portraits. This takes on added significance for Matisse since he rarely portrayed himself, though he did depict his various studios throughout his practice. 
Unlike similar paintings, however, The Red Studio presents little sense of the artist at work: Aside from an open box of blue crayons, there is no easel, palette, or brushes. Instead, there are completed works hanging on, or leaning against, the walls, along with objects and furnishings such as tables, stools, chairs, and a centrally located grandfather clock mysteriously devoid of hands.
Henri Matisse, Le Luxe II, 1907-08. Distemper on canvas. 6’10 1/2″ x 54 3/4″ (209.5 x 139 cm). SMK – The National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen.
Henri Matisse. Young Sailor II. 1906. Oil on canvas, 39 7/8 × 32 5/8″ (101.3 × 82.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The actual studio wasn’t painted red, of course, but it was the first that Matisse had purpose-built for his labors, and in this respect Shchukin’s support was key. Meeting Matisse in 1906, he became the artist’s most important collector, purchasing among other works, three specifically created for his Moscow mansion: The Dessert: Harmony in Red (1908), Dance II (1909–10), and Music (1910). Around this same time, Matisse had to vacate his Parisian domicile when it changed ownership. He and his family relocated to a house outside of Paris, with Shchukin’s money affording the means to erect a studio shed on an adjoining lot. Measuring 33 by 33 feet, it proved a step up from previous garrets Matisse had rented, and remarkably, the exhibit contains original building plans and bills from its construction.
Shchukin ordered three more paintings with subjects of Matisse’s choosing. The first, The Pink Studio was an earlier, more conventional, view of his atelier with work in progress, and met with Shchukin’s approval. The Red Studio did not.
Writing to Shchukin, Matisse explained that the preponderance of the titular color (described as Venetian Red), was meant as a “harmonic link” for other hues in the compositions, such as the green of a nasturtium on the left, and the yellow of a rattan lounger on the right. He added, “Mme. Stein [i.e., Gertrude Stein] finds it the most musical of my paintings. I relay her opinion to you knowing that you value it.” Although 
Although Shchukin did value Stein’s opinion generally, he did not in this case. He replied, “It must be very interesting, but I now prefer your paintings with figures….” Since Shchukin’s proffer was non-binding, he turned the work down, and the third commission was set aside. Even so, the patron continued to acquire Matisse’s work.
Henri Manuel, Henri Matisse in his studio in Issy-les-Moulineaux, 1909. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.
But what put Shchukin off? After all, the previously purchased Harmony in Red was dominated by an even brighter shade of scarlet, though its scheme was relieved by a landscape view out of a window and the presence of a figure. Moreover, it possessed the logic of gravity with all the elements rooted in place. In contrast, everything within The Red Studio seems unmoored, with the furnishings barely registering as ghostly outlines. 
Whatever the reason, Shchukin’s views in no way compared to the painting’s harsh reception when it was first exhibited in 1912 at Grafton Gallery in London, with one writer noting that it reminded him of a poster. 
Even worse was in store when the painting traveled to the 1913 Armory Show in New York, where another critic opined that Matisse “throws figures and furniture on his canvas with…the reckless drawing of a child.”
Installation view of Matisse: The Red Studio, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 1, 2022 – September 10, 2022.
Unsurprisingly, Matisse retained sole possession of the work until 1927, when it was purchased by David Tennant, the proprietor of London’s swanky Gargoyle Club. There, it served as the backdrop for evenings of Jazz Age partying. In 1938, Tennant offered to sell the painting back to Matisse, who demurred. After a brief period in the care of New York gallerist George Keller, it finally entered MoMA’s collection in 1948.
Ultimately the exhibit represents a cautionary tale about the clash between creativity and the necessity of financing it, and the vicissitudes of an artwork as its fortunes rise and fall with history’s tide. But, for a piece to stand the test of time, it must somehow exist outside of time. This, as the vacant dial on The Red Studio’s clock suggests, was always Matisse’s intention. 
In that, he succeeded brilliantly.
Howard Halle is a writer and artist who has exhibited his work in the United States and Europe. Between 1981 and 1985, he was Curator of The Kitchen’s Gallery and Performance Art series. From 1995 through 2020, he was Chief Art Critic for Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.
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