Curator, Ann Temkin: In the history of European painting, there are centuries of depictions of gods, goddesses in scenes of leisure and pleasure. And Matisse, as a modern artist, chose to take on this subject matter of the mythological. But the way in which he did it horrified his peers and his critics and the public. Matisse's viewers were still looking for beautiful flesh and marvelous hair. And what they saw instead were these figures that, to them, seemed preposterous, completely baffling.
Artist, Lisa Yuskavage: What happens when you take your place within a grand tradition is that you have to affect it. You have to do something to it, you have to change it. You paint something quite traditional and make it be seen in a way that's never been seen before.
Ann Temkin: At this time, because of European colonial intervention, one of the many anxieties current in European society had to do with ethnic and racial differences. When Matisse painted these female figures who didn't seem in the tradition of the white goddess, the criticism would be, your females don't even look human. That wasn't just an artistic problem. That was something that tapped into all of their fears about a changing society.
What's really remarkable is it seems like Matisse even picked up on that because when he represents Le Luxe II in The Red Studio, he actually paints the three women red.
Professor, Mehammed Mack: He existed in France during the colonial time when artists felt that Europe had run out of ideas, that everything that there was to be said had been said, and people turned to the colonized world to look for new forms, new ideas. They're looking for authenticity, purity, striking colors, vivacious bodies, aliveness.
Disassociating European skin with the color white is a kind of revolutionary act. When Matisse represented women in red—earthy red—I thought that was even more of a revolutionary step in denaturalizing aesthetic conventions.