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Matisse, The Red Studio

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911, oil on canvas, 181 x 219.1 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911, oil on canvas, 181 x 219.1 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Dismantling spatial illusion

Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911, oil on canvas, 181 x 219.1 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911, oil on canvas, 181 x 219.1 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Since Manet (and Degas, Monet, and Cezanne), artists have sought to undermine the illusion of space that had ruled painting since about 1425. Spatial illusion was increasingly seen as a defect that reduced the integrity of painting. But as the earlier painters of the avant-garde have shown, ridding a painting of illusion is almost impossible. The audience is trained to expect three dimensional space and sees it given the opportunity. This is Matisse’s challenge. He meets this challenge–the destruction of spatial illusion, in three stages.

The color red

Red is often thought of as the most aggressive color. It has the most punch, and that’s what Matisse needed here. This canvas was a part of a series, there is, for instance, a Pink Studio too. But that canvas was concerned with different issues. Here, the red is an attempt to find a color that is forceful enough to resist the illusion of deep space by pushing to the surface. The red is, of course painted onto the flat canvas but actually fails to remain there visually. Instead, the red becomes the walls and furnishing of the room seen in space. Illusion triumphs–Matisse is thwarted.
Henri Matisse, The Pink Studio, 1911, oil on canvas, 181 x 221 cm (Pushkin Museum of Fine Art, Moscow)

Illusionism

This triumph of illusion is due in part to the linear perspective that defines the table, chairs, and the walls and floor of the studio. But look! Matisse has constructed some of the worst linear perspective ever seen. Receding lines should converge, but look at the chair on the lower right. The lines widen as they go back. And look to rear left corner of the room. The corner is defined by the edge of the pink canvas but above that painting, the line that must define the corner is missing! Matisse is literally dismantling the perspective of the room but it makes no difference, we still see the room as an inhabitable space. Illusion still triumphs.
Chair (detail), Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911, oil on canvas, 181 x 219.1 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
Chair (detail), Henri Matisse, The Red Studio, 1911, oil on canvas, 181 x 219.1 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Figure-Ground Relationship

Although it is very difficult to see in reproduction, if seen in person at MoMA, it is clear that the whitish lines that define form in the red field are not painted on top of the red. Instead, they are reserve lines. In other words, the white lines are actually the canvas below. Matisse painted the red planes up to the line on either side, leaving a narrow gap of white canvas in between. This is really IMPORTANT. Stay with me on this. The white line is actually emerging from below the red. It is beneath. The red is of course painted on top of the white canvas.
Okay, now pay attention. Matisse has realized that illusion is almost certain to triumph no matter how aggressively he tries to undermine it. We, as the audience, will see space if given the slightest opportunity. So if we see illusion at such a basic level, what hope does Matisse have of destroying it? In fact, his reserve line are his really brilliant solution. The chairs, the dresser, the clock, each object, or figure in The Red Studio is constructed out of the canvas below. At the same time, the ground which supports those figures, is constructed out of a plane of red that is physically above the canvas. What Matisse has done then is reverse the figure ground relationship. He has made the figure out of the ground (the canvas) and made the ground out of the figure (the red paint on top). When seen in person, the recognition of this does finally destroy illusion, Matisse triumphs! Yeah!
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user 2020micaela
    why did he want to destroy/ overcome the special illusion?
    to be different from any other artist?
    (4 votes)
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  • winston default style avatar for user Roe
    This is fantastic! The 'meta' approach he takes to shutting down a basically universal understanding is wonderful. We learn this not just from paintings in history but even in our everyday life. We learn what is natural and real. We like to see a creation which imitates this well but understanding the natural very well also makes us able to appreciate when it is upturned. It's all fine and well to put green or blue over brown and declare that the earth is upside-down but far superior is the work that picks at the core of an aspect of something we know so well.
    (4 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user KRoyal51
    Why is illusion such a big part of art? And how is one supposed to truly know when to look for it?
    (2 votes)
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    • female robot amelia style avatar for user Aimee
      I think that illusion is such a big part of art because that is what art is, it is an illusion. Artists are always trying to make us see something and understand something that is not reality. I think that we should be looking for illusions in every painting, since it is the nature of artwork.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Caitlin Goebel
    Can you please provide the name of the author for the text on this page specifically? I would like to read more from them, and share their work with people who are struggling to understand perspective/depth concepts & theory.
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Candice Knowles
    In all is this Matisses only rogue piece out there?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Nhat Anh
    I feel there is not connected among items in this picture
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kamryn  Butler
    Why is red used so much as an illusion color?
    (1 vote)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user 9938095
    In the first picture what was the thing touching the bottle?
    (1 vote)
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  • old spice man blue style avatar for user railman
    why is the backround always red
    (1 vote)
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