"Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don't know," Matisse once remarked. "I find that all these things . . . only become what they are to me when I see them together with the color red." This painting features a small retrospective of Matisse's recent painting, sculpture, and ceramics, displayed in his studio. The artworks appear in color and in detail, while the room's architecture and furnishings are indicated only by negative gaps in the red surface. The composition's central axis is a grandfather clock without hands—it is as if, in the oasis of the artist's studio, time were suspended.
Curator Emeritus, John Elderfield: This painting was made in the summer of 1911 and shows the studio, which Matisse was then using in a suburb of Paris.
We see examples of Matisse's own works of art—a presentation of his career to date almost. If we look to the left of the clock in the center of the picture—interestingly a clock without any handswe can see at the bottom of the clock a little landscape, one of Matisse's very earliest paintings. The big figure painting to the far right was done in 1907. And the white sculpture underneath it is a very recent work.
What he's giving us is the studio as an exhibition place, but also the studio as bearing marks of the presence of the artist, most obviously by the crayons on the table in the foreground. And we realize that the only things, which are marked separately from the red are all things to do with the works of art themselves.
One of the fascinations of the picture is that it is very flat. On the other hand we really have the sense of a room being there. And its provided by drawing. But instead of drawing all the lines, which would actually very abruptly divide up the space, Matisse has carried the red up to the point of where those lines would be. And its the absences of the red which provide the sense of movement into the room.
For Matisse, color was an agent of expression, and he also obviously used it as a way of organizing the space of his pictures. Here, color has this quality of functioning a bit like the medium of time, where all these things are floating, but open up into different worlds.
"Modern art," said Matisse, "spreads joy around it by its color, which calms us." In this radiant painting he saturates a room—his own studio—with red. Art and decorative objects are painted solidly, but furniture and architecture are linear diagrams, silhouetted by "gaps" in the red surface. These gaps reveal earlier layers of yellow and blue paint beneath the red; Matisse changed the colors until they felt right to him. (The studio was actually white.)
The studio is an important place for any artist, and this one Matisse had built for himself, encouraged by new patronage in 1909. He shows in it a carefully arranged exhibition of his own works. Angled lines suggest depth, and the blue-green light of the window intensifies the sense of interior space, but the expanse of red flattens the image. Matisse heightens this effect by, for example, omitting the vertical line of the corner of the room.
The entire composition is clustered around the enigmatic axis of the grandfather clock, a flat rectangle whose face has no hands. Time is suspended in this magical space. On the foreground table, an open box of crayons, perhaps a symbolic stand-in for the artist, invites us into the room. But the studio itself, defined by ethereal lines and subtle spatial discontinuities, remains Matisse's private universe.