December 6, 2014

Shorts: Henri Matisse, "Harmony in Red"

Title: The Dessert: Harmony in Red (aka The Red Room in Russia)
Artist: Henri Matisse
Date: 1908-1909
Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: 180 x 246 cm (5'11" x 8'1" ft)
Gallery: The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

"A painting comprises of overall harmony: Any superfluous detail would steal, in the mind of the spectator, the place of another detail that is essential..." -Henri Matisse, Remarks on Painting*

Henri Matisse was a French artist and leader of Fauvism, an artistic movement from the early 20th century that emphasized non naturalistic color as a means of expression over detail and formal representation. Fauvism was short-lived but Matisse remained a colorist, favoring bright and interesting combinations of color throughout his artistic career.

Matisse painted Harmony in Red shortly after the end of his Fauvist period for the famous Russian collector Sergey Shchukin. It was intended as a decorative panel for the dining room in the collector's mansion in Moscow. Matisse started the canvas as Harmony in Green, then Blue, until it was finally finished as Harmony in Red. The final composition has no central focal point and the vibrancy and energy of that bright red helps push your eye along as it jumps around the image. His forms are thinly outlined for definition and he keeps the flat planes of color within these lines interesting and fluid by leaving imperfect and random changes in value, like the dark spots within the red at the top of the canvas, possibly where the previously painted blue is peaking through.

Around the early 20th century, many artists experimented with abstraction in their work. The red and blue pattern in Harmony in Red dominates the picture plane and because there is no change in the pattern between the the wall and the table it covers, this area would look completely flat if Matisse hadn't done a few clever things to create the illusion of space. First, the woman on the right hand side of the canvas stands in front of the wall and behind one side of the table, a clear separation that is helped along by the thin horizontal outline of the table next to her. The edge of the table in front of her white skirt is slanted for perspective, a boundary that is paralleled by the chair seat on the other side. Finally, some fruit and other objects sit on its surface, confirming its three dimensionality. One bowl of fruit is actually being set down by the woman herself, an interaction that creates more presence and realism to these otherwise static objects.

For further depth and to give his intense colors a chance to breathe, a big window is added in the left hand corner. The windowsill's perspective aligns with the table's, and for further poetic harmony the shape of the trees outside coincide with the shape of the woman's hair and the curving "arabesque" blue lines of the pattern. 

Harmony in Red is one of Matisse's most famous works and considered by some art historians to be his masterpiece. What do you think of Harmony in Red? Is it Matisse's "masterpiece" or does he have other works that strike you more? Let me know in the comments.

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