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Matisse’s paintings were first exhibited in the United States during the 1913 Armory show, they created an uproar that superseded even objections to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912).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


“Memories Live in Our Bodies:” Review of Well Contested Sites at Columbia University

Well Contested Sites was part of a three-day symposium at Columbia University, “Art and Mass Incarceration,” Feb. 27th – March 1st

by Irini Zervas

“Over-incarceration is not just a black or racial issue, it’s an issue for all Americans who care about democracy and equity and fair play and decency. We are killing our own country’s future. And we’re killing genius in jail cells that does not have a chance to blossom and to flower. “ – Randall Robinson, lawyer, author and activist


Walking into the auditorium at Columbia’s Barnard College, I wasn’t sure what exactly I was walking into. It turns out that Columbia’s screening of Well Contested Sites (see link here), a 12-minute film produced in 2012, brought a diverse mix of public policy and art students, lawyers and human rights activists, dance professors and ex-convicts into the same room. The screening was followed by a few audience ice-breakers and a Q-and-A with some of the individuals mentioned above.

The film is a collaboration between a group of previously incarcerated men, Bay Area performing artists, choreographer Amie Dowling and filmmaker Austin Forbord. With Alcatraz as its backdrop, the dancers move about the decaying space in movements that are at times symbolic, cathartic and utterly quotidian. Well Contested Sites’ actors are both its performers and the subjects of the piece. It is these dualisms of subject and object, confined and freed, that play out in the piece, challenging the viewer’s conception of the complex site that is the modern-day justice system.

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“What Mozart Saw and What Saint-Aubin Heard: A View of the Concert Spirituel in 1778,” A Collaborative Lecture by Professor Kim de Beaumont

On Wednesday, February 26th the Graduate Student Lecture Series continued in the Zabar Art Library with a presentation by Professor Kim de Beaumont, Ph.D. on her latest research on French eighteenth-century artist Gabriel Saint-Aubin. Professor de Beaumont’s engagement with Saint-Aubin is extensive, having written her doctoral dissertation on his work and guest curating the retrospective exhibition Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724-1780) at The Frick Collection, which opened in 2007 and traveled to the Louvre.

Gabriel Saint-Aubin, Vue du Salon du Louvre en l'année 1753, etching Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Gabriel Saint-Aubin, Vue du Salon du Louvre en l’année 1753, etching
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Professor de Beaumont’s talk was a preview of her collaborative lecture entitled “What Mozart Saw and What Saint-Aubin Heard: A View of the Concert Spirituel in 1778,” given with her musicologist colleague Dr. Beverly Wilcox from the University of California, Davis on March 1st at the Sixth Biennial Conference of the Society for Eighteenth-Century Music at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Saint-Aubin was a prolific artistic innovator, injecting his scenes of contemporary Parisian social life with imagination, wit and humor. His drawings of the Concert Spirituel at the Tuileries Palace were no exception. A center of activity for Parisian socialites, the Concert Spirituel was an internationally renowned concert space where people went to listen, but also to see and been seen.

Trained as a history painter, Saint-Aubin was no mere documentarian. In the course of her research, Professor de Beaumont has been able to identify many scenes in which Saint-Aubin took liberties with events both on stage and off when his artistic motivations required it. An excellent example was his large drawing of Quinault and Lully’s Armide, in which Saint-Aubin’s Rinaldo wears a sword, despite the fact that at this point in the narrative he had given up arms. He also animated his social scenes with lively gestures and well-thought-out arrangements. In one drawing of the Concert Spirituel, Professor de Beaumont pointed out how the figures resemble musical notation, anchored by a staunch, cleft-like figure to the left. A master of architectural rendering, he altered both decorative and structural elements to suit his vision, adding or subtracting as he saw fit. Saint-Aubin gives us a nuanced view of Parisian contemporary society that he innovatively enlivened and interpreted in a way that had never before been attempted, and would not be for many years to come.

The Graduate Student Lecture Series continues tonight in Zabar Art Library at 7 pm with Wayne Salazar, MFA Candidate, presenting Against Late Postmodernism and Silvia Benedetti, MA Candidate, presenting The Censured Biennial: The Boycott and the Contrabienal.

Megan Hines