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On view  |  Painting and Sculpture I, Gallery 6, Floor 5

Henri Matisse. The Piano Lesson. Issy-les-Moulineaux, late summer 1916

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Henri Matisse (French, 1869–1954)

The Piano Lesson

Issy-les-Moulineaux, late summer 1916
Oil on canvas
8' 1/2" x 6' 11 3/4" (245.1 x 212.7 cm)
Credit Line:
Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund
MoMA Number:
© 2015 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Audio Program excerpt

Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913-1917

, July 18–October 11, 2010

Curator, John Elderfield: This shows Matisse's living room at Issy-le-Molineaux with the grillwork in front of the garden window and Matisse's son Pierre behind the piano. Behind him is not the piano teacher, but a painting which we've seen earlier in the exhibition, called Woman on a High Stool, which was hanging there. And diagonally opposite, an earlier sculpture from 1908. And on the piano, of course, a metronome and a candle. So we're clearly being given clues to the passing of time—a representation of an art being practiced through his son playing the piano. So that we maybe are allowed to think of this as a surrogate self-portrait of Matisse in the interior of his home. We're also allowed to think of it as a specific moment, where a light has come on and cast light out into the garden and the wedge of green appearing there.

Curator, Stephanie D’Alessandro: There's a really lovely quality that Matisse tries to get across in the way that he uses paint in this work, of something about intangibility. That moment in the grillwork where we have half of it illuminated and there's the brilliant green behind. And light almost is so intense that Matisse scratches away the grillwork as if that solid is just broken apart by the intensity of light.

John Elderfield: Yes, and then there's this rather beautiful, rather melancholy, contemplative quality to the picture.

Stephanie D'Alessandro: I think it's interesting to look at Pierre's portrait, if we can call it that. The left quadrant of his face, which is basically there's no facial features there at all, but this grayish black wedge and the soft colors around on the other side. I think one way that Matisse is able to pull us around the picture, lead us around and also even maybe give a sense of pacing of time is by the triangles and the way that they move around the canvas. And the same thing with the banding and even some circular forms in the canvas.

John Elderfield: It's a bit like rhymes in poetry, which are both similarities and dissimilarities brought together.

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 75

The little boy playing the piano is Matisse's son Pierre. The woman who might be his teacher, apparently watching him from behind, is actually a figure in a painting, Matisse's Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal), which hangs on the wall by the window. Similarly the sensually posed nude at bottom left would be an unlikely class auditor were not this another artwork in Matisse's living room, his own bronze Decorative Figure.

Piano Lesson treats two unlike spaces—a view through a window into air and the flat and tangible canvas of Woman on a High Stool—as if they were quite equivalent. Matisse is addressing issues both formal and philosophical. In describing the playing of music he also takes art-making as his subject, and the filigree bar of curves supplied by the music stand and balcony ironwork—a lovely touch amid the painting's interlocking triangles and rectangles—might almost be a visual version of music's curling notes.

Those flat planes of muted color create a system of geometric compartments that link the painting to Cubism, whose radical inventions Matisse had observed over the preceding few years without ever committing himself to the style. Works like this one show him examining Cubist ideas about pictorial structure while also producing an image utterly personal to him.

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