The Red Studio: How One Painting Paved the Way for 20th Century Art

The Red Studio

On Wednesday, March 26th at the Graduate Student Lecture Series, Professor Agee shared his research on Henri Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911), a key painting in the development of 20th century art. Its exhibition history in the United States may be well known, but the impact of Matisse’s use of color as a structural and expressive methodology on American artists is under recognized. While cubism’s importance in the move away from illusionism is well documented, color remains a relatively unexplored agent of change in the history of painting. Professor Agee’s explication of The Red Studio mapped out the crucial encounters in which this painting altered how artists understood the function and value of color.

When Matisse’s paintings were first exhibited in the United States during the 1913 Armory show, they created an uproar that superseded even objections to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912). Art students in Chicago burned Matisse in effigy in protest of his “grotesque” figures and expressive use of line and color. Of the paintings exhibited, The Red Studio makes particular use of color, specifically red’s, ability to dominate a space in order to structure the painting. By moving away from color’s mimetic qualities, Matisse portrayed a subjective view of objective reality. Expressing the qualitative and heterogeneous nature of inner experience, he aimed to overcome the homogenizing and deterministic rules of academic painting.

The impact of Matisse’s vision on subsequent artists is manifold. In 1949 the painting was gifted to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where it inspired  Mark Rothko’s departure from figurative surrealism in favor of Color Field painting. Assumed to be a Greenbergian development, the color field in fact began with Matisse. The dominant use of red appears again and again in work by American artists, from Warhol’s Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times (1963) to Josef Albers Homage to the Square/Red Series, Untitled III (1968) and Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51).

Essential to Matisse’s subjective vision are the autobiographical elements in this painting. Completed paintings, ceramics, and a sculpture along with personal items and souvenirs fill the studio, in effect providing a review of his artistic career. Notable artists would follow suit, painting subjective views of their own studios, such as Stuart Davis’s Studio Interior (1917). Davis would continue to paint autobiographical references into his own work, particularly after his revival in the 1950s, spurred by Matisse’s cut out works. Agee suggests Davis’s Little Giant Still Life (Champion) (1950) is a reference to his own artistic comeback. Fourteen years later, Davis painted his last painting Fin (1964), in which with incredible prescience, he painted the word fin (end) as a last addition. It was the ultimate act of self-expression. It was Matisse who pioneered expressive, self-reflective commentary in painting, a development that shaped American art for the next century and beyond.

by Megan Hines

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