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.
This composition shows the open living-room window of Matisse’s house at Issy-les-Moulineaux, outside Paris, with his son Pierre practicing the piano. A candle sits on the instrument, illuminating a triangle of lawn. In the bottom left corner is a representation of one of Matisse’s sculptures, Decorative Figure (1908), while the severe “teacher” in the opposite corner is actually a representation of the painting Woman on a High Stool (1914). Together they afford a contrast of sensuality and hard work and, reinforced by the metronome on the piano and the candle, suggest the passage of time.
The Piano Lesson depicts the living room of Matisse's home in Issy-les-Moulineaux, with his elder son, Pierre, at the piano, the artist's sculpture Decorative Figure (1908), at bottom left, and, at upper right, his painting Woman on a High Stool. Matisse began with a naturalistic drawing, but he eliminated detail as he worked, scraping down areas and rebuilding them in broad fields of color. The painting evokes a specific moment in time—light suddenly turned on in a darkening interior—by the triangle of shadow on the boy's face and the rhyming green triangle of light falling on the garden. The artist's incising on the window frame and stippling on the left side produce a pitted quality that suggests the eroding effects of light or time, a theme reiterated by the presence of the metronome and burning candle on the piano.
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.