The Paintings Within Matisse’s ‘The Red Studio’

When Henri Matisse painted “The Red Studio” in the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux in 1911, he not only let the viewer into his work space, with its box of crayons, ceramic plate and grandfather clock. He also captured tiny versions of his own paintings propped against the walls, and his sculptures perched on stools.

Now, for the first time since they left Matisse’s studio, those pieces of art will be displayed alongside “The Red Studio” at the Museum of Modern Art in an exhibition that opens next May.

“You will see ‘The Red Studio’ and you will also see in real life the paintings and sculptures that he miniaturized and reproduced in the painting itself,” said Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, co-organizer of the exhibition. “This is one of the great artists playing with the concept of art within art, presenting his own work within his own paintings. He painted a show of his work and we’re realizing it.”

Temkin collaborated on the exhibition with Dorthe Aagesen, chief curator and senior researcher at the SMK, the National Gallery of Denmark in Copenhagen, which owns three of the paintings — “Le Luxe II” (1907-08), “Nude With a White Scarf” (1909) and “Nymph and Faun” (1911). After the show closes at MoMA on Sept. 11, 2022, it will travel to the SMK for four months, starting that October.

“It’s a key to understanding what Matisse was aiming at in that important moment in his career,” Aagesen said. “We’re reconstructing every move that led to the creation of that painting.”

This is the first time these works will be shown as a group — the last time they were all together was in Matisse’s studio, when he painted them in this masterwork.

Of the 11 pieces created between 1898 and 1911 that are represented in the picture, two are privately owned and will be on public view for the first time in more than 50 years. One was destroyed many decades ago (“Grand Nu à la Colle”). The other eight are in museum collections in Europe and North America.

Also featured will be Matisse paintings and drawings that relate to “The Red Studio” — namely “The Studio, Quai Saint-Michel” (1917) and “Large Red Interior” (1948) — as well as archival materials such as photographs, catalogs, letters and press clippings.

The exhibition exemplifies how a generation of scholars is moving away from big retrospectives toward digging into more focused topics that pay attention to a specific moment in an artist’s career.

“You don’t want to gather things that have been gathered together all over again,” Temkin said. “You also want to introduce audiences to close looking, the idea that you can spend a lot of time thinking about one work of art and have a deeper experience.”

The painting was unusual for its time — representing identifiable objects awash in a flat monochrome surface of Venetian red, combining the figurative with the abstract and dismantling the illusion of depth.

“He’s leaving his own artworks to be revealed, but everything else in the room is covered by this red,” Temkin said. “It’s a very radical way of depicting a three-dimensional space he was standing in as a two-dimensional picture, taking a very traditional subject from centuries of art history — the artist’s studio — but creating an absolutely modern pictorial space.”

“Any depiction of a studio is by definition a meditation on what you do as an artist,” Temkin added, calling it “a revolutionary moment in the tradition of studio paintings because of the way it transforms that tradition.”

The red, as it happens, was an afterthought; Matisse finished the painting before deciding to cover it in that color, an evolution revealed by research over the last 20 years. A section of the exhibition will explore that conservation history.

“He had a whole painting made and then it was a late-stage decision that he would add this red,” Temkin said. “The idea of the artist’s process is that when you start you may not know where you’re going. You may think you do, but the painting takes over — and on some level the artist is listening to the painting or following the painting’s instructions about what to do next. This is an exceptional case of a painting becoming a different painting in the process of making.”

Six feet tall by seven feet wide, the canvas was among a series of works commissioned by Matisse’s early patron, Sergei Shchukin, a Russian textile businessman, for whom the artist made his “Dance” and “Music” paintings.

Yet Shchukin declined to acquire it for reasons unknown (he did purchase the painting’s predecessor, “The Pink Studio”). “He may have told Matisse he liked his paintings with figures better, but at the same time he bought other paintings without figures, so I think he was just being tactful,” Temkin said. “But if you think of what this painting must have looked like in 1911, you can imagine it was incomprehensible.”

“No one had made a monochrome picture before,” she added. “Here he jumped into a territory of abstraction and a plane of color in a way that was certainly unrecognizable.”

So Matisse kept the painting for more than 15 years, during which it traveled to the Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London in 1912 and to New York, Chicago and Boston for the 1913 Armory Show.

“The Red Studio” was eventually bought in 1927 by David Tennant, the founder of the Gargoyle Club in London, where it hung in the mirrored ballroom until the early 1940s, after which it was purchased by the Bignou Gallery in New York, and then acquired by MoMA in 1949. Finally, in the 1950s, people took notice.

“This painting that for several decades had not been fully appreciated — suddenly art history caught up to it,” Temkin said. “So you have somebody like an Ellsworth Kelly or a Mark Rothko or any number of artists in Europe and the U.S. seeing this painting as such a landmark.”

“It’s a really beautiful example of how art history is full of works that are ahead of their time and that find their place several decades after they were actually made,” she continued. “It’s the exact same thing that happened to Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’: They were made in the teens and ’20s and completely ignored and scoffed at as the work of an old Impressionist whose eyesight wasn’t very good anymore. And then when Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman started making color fields, there was interest in the ‘Water Lilies’ 30 or 40 years later.”

Although “The Red Studio” was made 110 years ago — and the show has been in the works for four years — Temkin said it has particular resonance in today’s world, when the pandemic has prompted reassessment and introspection.

“Here is an artist going outside his comfort zone,” the curator said. “It’s Matisse attempting something even he did not completely understand. And that is such a model for art making in any field.”