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The Secrets Lurking Inside Matisse’s ‘Red Studio’

A flowered dress. A naked teenager. A Russian millionaire. A fancy room that hides secrets.

Sounds like promotional copy for a true-crime drama, but I recently spotted its plot in an icon of modern art, “The Red Studio,” painted in 1911 by Henri Matisse. That huge canvas, portraying the fancy atelier Matisse had just built for himself and the artworks that hung in it, is the subject of a brilliantly focused exhibition now at the Museum of Modern Art. My colleague Roberta Smith described “Matisse: The Red Studio” as “spectacular” when it opened in May, and I couldn’t agree more. Art lovers will want to catch the exhibition, or catch it again and again, before it closes on Sept. 10.

I’d seen “The Red Studio” before — it has lived at MoMA for decades — but it took me three visits to this latest show to winkle out a story that, for something like 100 years now, has lain camouflaged beneath the painting’s red surface.

Almost since the day it was painted, that surface has been seen as the heart of the work. It was supposed to teach us to leave behind the deep space of old master pictures and love modern art’s flatness instead. Starting somewhere around 1900 — and partly thanks to Matisse — paintings started to be read for the colors, lines and shapes that are right there for us to see, rather than for any scene that we might look beyond them to understand. In the excellent catalog for the MoMA show (those who can’t visit should buy it) the curators Ann Temkin and Dorthe Aagesen talk about “a bold new planarity” that turns “The Red Studio” into “an indisputable landmark” in the modern trend toward abstraction. Matisse himself originally titled the picture nothing more than “Red Panel,” as though color and flatness were its true subject.

That flat-talk has always been right, but on my several visits to “Matisse: The Red Studio” I started to appreciate another dimension — a different vector, you might say — that is at least as important as the one that sees our glance going no deeper than the painting’s redness. My new “vector” instead lives far inside the studio’s depicted space, crossing from the huge painting of a female nude that Matisse shows on its left-hand wall to the empty rattan chair that faces it at far right, standing out in bright yellow when the room’s other furnishings are swallowed in the painting’s red.

A 1916 photograph of Matisse’s “Large Nude,” a canvas later destroyed by his family. Long after his death, Matisse’s daughter Marguerite, who had posed for the painting in 1911, claimed that her father did not consider it finished, but the record shows that he admired the nude and tried to sell it more than once.Credit…Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via Archives Henri Matisse
Matisse’s “The Painter’s Family” (1911), commissioned by his Russian patron Sergei Shchukin. Matisse’s daughter Marguerite (French for “daisy”) wears a dress covered in the same flowers that reappear on paintings and drawings her father made of her in the nude.Credit…Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via The Museum of Modern Art

I got a clue to what might really be going on in the scene from the daisies that Matisse floated around his nude.

I had seen those flowers before, in reproductions of “The Painter’s Family,” a slightly earlier Matisse that now lives at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia: They were all over the dress of a teenage girl who sits doing needlework toward its rear.

And there those flowers were yet again, in the MoMA show, surrounding the naked girl who figures in a series of sketches Matisse did for the nude that fills that wall in “The Red Studio.” A wall text revealed who she was: Marguerite — French for “daisy” — Matisse’s eldest child, who, at the age of 16 or maybe just 17, had posed for the canvas, later known as the “Large Nude,” that her father had given such play to in his studio scene.

I think Matisse meant his daughter’s naked image to be the true focus of “The Red Studio,” or at least its hidden theme. That empty rattan chair invites us to venture into the depths of the scene and take in its nude at our leisure; Matisse has even set an ashtray or candy dish near at hand, for our added comfort.

But maybe Matisse’s invitation doesn’t really extend to us, today’s viewers of the painting at MoMA, so much as to a single man in its past: Sergei Shchukin, the Moscow textile magnate who had commissioned the picture for his mansion, and would have been its first and principal viewer. It was Shchukin’s extravagant patronage that had allowed Matisse, barely emerging from bohemian poverty, to afford the custom-built studio outside Paris that his painting depicts, and to finally move his long-suffering family into the comfort of a fine house next door. You could say that “The Red Studio” celebrates a subject that never appears on its surface: the man who had made it possible for that studio to exist.

Today, we recoil at the thought of a 41-year-old dad sketching his naked teenager just so a Russian tycoon can then ogle her body, almost like a thank-you gift from artist to patron. But in the utterly sexist, patriarchal world of Europe before World War I, Matisse’s sessions with his daughter don’t seem to have raised red flags: He was quite happy to write to his wife about them.

“The Red Studio” in a watercolor copy that Matisse sent to Shchukin. His patron rejected the finished canvas, for reasons that aren’t quite clear.Credit…Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
“The Red Studio,” originally intended for the lavish private mansion of a Russian magnate, found its only other home in the louche Gargoyle Club in London, where it hung (at far left), amid mirrored walls, for a few years in the 1920s and 1930s.Credit…via Collège de France, Bibliothèque byzantine, Whittemore Archives

By 1911, Marguerite had modeled for both Matisse and his friends, so her role in “Large Nude” might have seemed almost par for the course.

She had also played a vital, almost maternal role in running the chaotic Matisse household, and so might have come across as pretty much an adult, in an era when childhood didn’t last all that long. There’s certainly no hint that anything improper had gone on during the drawing sessions, at least by the weak standards then in force. And, within the logic of Matisse’s art at that moment, he absolutely needed to base his nude on Marguerite, rather than on some model brought in from outside the family circle.

For a while already, Matisse had been struggling to dissolve the boundaries between the “fine art” that had dominated Europe’s elite traditions — the kind of fine art that focused on female nudes — and the decorative objects, and domestic spaces, that seemed to matter in a lot of the world’s other cultures. In a few earlier works, Matisse had depicted his own radically new paintings as props in cozy domestic still lifes, aiming for “the productive ambiguity between the artistic and the domestic realms that characterized Matisse’s art throughout his career,” as the MoMA catalog puts it.

In “The Red Studio” Matisse magnifies the effect, depicting a painter’s entire atelier as something closer to a bourgeois living room: He conceals all the practical, almost industrial features he had spec’d out for his new workshop (the MoMA show sets them out) and instead fills its image with the furniture and gewgaws and framed paintings you’d have found in the comfortable Matisse home nearby. That’s where he had posed his kids and wife for that earlier Shchukin commission, “The Painter’s Family,” which Matisse had imagined hanging right beside “The Red Studio” once it arrived in his patron’s home. (In the end, Shchukin turned down the later “Studio” painting, for reasons that aren’t quite clear.)

In “The Red Studio,” Matisse took the homemaking Marguerite of his family painting, identified there by the “marguerites” on her dress, and translated her into his atelier’s artful nude, still recognizably daisied. A central figure from Matisse’s home life, that is, gets to play double duty as a symbol of the grand European tradition. He’s telling us that domesticity is still at hand in the new picture, however much art and its evolution might also be in play.

For all the sex and riotous style in “The Red Studio,” Matisse imagined that it might someday become family fare. Judging by the untroubled pleasure his painting gives us at MoMA, he succeeded.

Matisse: The Red Studio

Through Sept. 10 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, (212) 708-9400; moma.org.

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