Curator, Ann Temkin: The Red Studio actually began not as the red studio. The floor was pink, the walls were blue, and all the furniture was an ochre yellow.
After living with that a little bit, Matisse made the very bold decision that he was going to take one color—Venetian red—and coat the whole surface of the painting with it, except his works of art. So that the paintings and sculptures by Matisse, as well as a few of the objects in the studio, little dishes and vases and a Persian textile that he had on the wall, those would all pop out from the red.
And it is just such an incredible example of creative courage, because it's not like you can start painting over with red paint and then decide, “oh, I don't think that was a good idea.” This was not something he could step back from once he began.
The Red Studio is a painting that Matisse himself admitted that he didn't quite understand. He said “I like it, but I can't explain it to you.” And for me, this was profoundly moving. Because it does represent a moment that happens, not infrequently with great works of art, that they actually go further than the artist himself or herself can even really articulate.
Matisse painted very few self-portraits, but he made many paintings of his studios, often at points of either transition or particularly challenging moments in his work. So when Matisse is making paintings of his works of art, it's his self-portrait.