Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Henri Matisse

The Piano Lesson, 1916
Oil on canvas 245 x 212cm

MoMA, New York
21st November 1999

This was my first visit to MoMA and I saw so many ‘great’ paintings for the first time that I find it difficult to even remember them all. However, two paintings made such an impression that I will not forget the experience. One was Les Demoiselles D'Avignon by Picasso and the other was this painting by Magritte.

I remember being really surprised just how thin the paint was, Matisse uses a very loose scumbling of opaque paint over the canvas allowing the scrubby brush marks to be clearly seen. The result is a very lively surface although the hues are unmixed. Instead he gives striking contrasts between these rhythmically arranged flat planes of colour, that suggest an experimentation with the ideas of cubism. The colour scheme is predominantly sombre greys which combined with the sketchy brush work give the painting an ethereal melancholic air.

The painting is of Matisse's son having a piano lesson who gazes at the viewer with one eye, the other is obscured with paint. There is a woman, who might be his teacher watching him from behind. There is a balcony on the open window on the left that looks out onto a triangle of grass, and its wrought iron work echoes the music stand on the piano.

Although it was painted in 1916 it is Matisse’s memory of a time 6 years earlier when his son (who was called up to fight in the First World War in 1916) was made to play the piano. The 'piano teacher' is actually a figure in a painting which hangs on the wall by the window. It is a schematic rendition of Matisse's Woman on a High Stool that must have been in the appartment, and he has also painted one of his bronze sculptures in the lower left-hand foreground. This combination of his own works of art with the image of the memory of his own son playing music make an intensely personal and moving painting.

©blackdog 2009


  1. Oh yes, an interesting, rather abstract painting whose complicated composition you have very well described! The theme is a favourite conflict- motive of literature- mostly combined with a negative connotation, a remembrance of being forced as child by parents and teacher to learn playing piano- here it seems to be a positive context.
    A fine explanation with music I found under :

  2. Just got in from London - will check the reference tomorrow. Thank you ;o)