Henri Matisse: Piano Lesson. 1916
“When I have found the relationship of all the tones the result must be a living harmony of tones, a harmony not unlike that of a musical composition.”[i] Henri Matisse stated this in “Notes of a Painter” in 1908, a piece written to reveal some of his inner ideals, theories, and aims as an artist. Eight years later, in the late summer of 1916, Matisse painted in the living room of his villa in Issy-les-Moulineuax and created one of his most compositionally, tonally, and mentally successful paintings, Piano Lesson. He composed this momentous painting just as a musician would a sonata by forming a harmony in structure and color which evoke, not impose, emotional consideration within the viewer. Piano Lesson epitomizes Matisse’s notions of harmony of tone.
At 8′ ½″ x 6′ 11 ¼″, the equilibrium is legible from a distance, emanating with its beauty of simplicity. The majority of the canvas is consumed by a single plane of concrete gray which is only broken by deliberately chosen exceptional moments of line and color. The gray originates from what seems to be a teacher or supervisor sitting behind Pierre, Matisse’s son, who peaks out from behind the music rack on his piano.
However, the woman sitting rigidly in the top right corner of the canvas is Matisse’s painting Woman on a High Stool, 1914, hanging on the wall. Perfectly complementing the woman rests a bronze sculpture of a woman entitled Decorative Figure, 1906, another Matisse, in the lower left hand corner. The pale blue of the woman’s skirt accents the muddied bronze of his sculpture. Again in contrast, an energetic green, geometric form, perhaps the leaves of a tree or a garden outside the window, vertically occupies the top left corner. Its counterpart, a horizontal pink geometric form is located in the bottom right corner. In “Notes of a Painter”, Matisse reflects upon the deliberation involved in composition and color:
“…every new brush stroke diminishes the importance of the preceding ones…But these several tones mutually weaken one another. It is necessary, therefore, that the various elements that I use be so balanced that they do not destroy one another. To do this I must organize my ideas; the relation between tones must be so established that they will sustain one another.”[ii]
He uses tone in this way to create harmonies and dissonances, their sum producing the serenity he desires.
While the center of the painting is passive, the empty planes also sharply congregate at moments of excitement. The point of the green wedge in the window converges with the point of the pink plane, creating one continuous diagonal line from top to bottom and horizontal line from side to side. The juxtaposition also includes the gray background and black line, uniting four colors in an invigorating coalescence.
Matisse comments on the importance of composition:
“The whole arrangement of my picture is expressive. The place occupied by figures of objects, the empty space around them, the proportions, everything plays a part. Composition is the art of arranging in a decorative manner the various elements at the painter’s disposal for the expression of his feelings. In a picture every part will be visible and will play the role conferred upon it, be it principal or secondary. A work of art must be harmonious in its entirety…”[iii]
Amplifying this moment are the decorative black arabesques in the grill of the window and the music rack. They boarder the top of the piano, flowing from one side of the canvas to the other as if they were music notes curling and rising out of the piano. The palpability of the music gives movement and buoyancy to a disciplined situation. This charm arises slowly out of the condensed complexity of the situation. Because the appeal is less readily apparent, the viewer may become captivated by amount the painting has to offer after the initial encounter, allured by the music.
The sound echoes throughout the painting just as the contents echo each other. The triangular base of the candlestick, metronome, and shadow on his son’s face reflect the larger green triangle in the window. Similarly, the vertical poles and horizontal railing of the window are reverberated by the vertical lines of the chair and woman in Woman on a High Stool and the horizontal lines of the music book and rack.
These lines and juxtapositions hint at the notion of cubism. Piano Lesson is certainly much more geometric that many of his organic paintings such as The Dance, in which the focus lies within the curves of their continuous flow and movement. However, the grid-like and linear forms are solely traces of cubism, a sign that Matisse may have been addressing the movement. Yet it seems unwarranted to draw a full comparison because no cubist painting provides such grave yet peaceful grace as an entity.
The complete unity Matisse has the ability to express is not something technical that one can learn; it comes from much deeper. He is quoted as saying, “I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have for life and my way of expressing it.”[iv]The intuitive quality which he uses to discover and portray a higher ideal of beauty makes him as exquisite as this painting.
[i] Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908. Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art. P. 134
[ii] Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908. Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art. P. 134
[iii] Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908. Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art. P. 132
[iv] Henri Matisse, “Notes of a Painter,” 1908. Chipp, Herschel B. Theories of Modern Art. P. 132