‘Matisse in the Studio’: A Thorough Look at an Artist’s Work Space

Interior With Egyption Curtain
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

On April 3, the Museum of Fine Arts previewed its upcoming exhibition, “Matisse in the Studio.” Organized by both the Museum of Fine Arts and London’s Royal Academy of Arts, and in partnership with Nice’s Musée Matisse, which provided the curators with many of the objects and paintings featured in the exhibition, it is the first major international show to highlight not just Matisse’s art, but also the space in which he created his masterpieces. The collection juxtaposes Matisse’s works of art with the objects he used as inspiration, and features the artist’s talents across mediums—from his paintings to his drawings and cutouts.

The collection explicitly highlights the diversity in both Matisse’s sources of inspiration and artistic production. Matisse kept a variety of objects in his studio, including a turquoise vase and chocolate pot, which appeared in his still life paintings “Vase of Flowers” and “Bouquet of Flowers in a Chocolate Pot.” But sculptures and tapestries from different cultures also had a significant impact on his artistic choices. Not only did his paintings and drawing feature exquisite furniture, they also featured Egyptian curtains, alluded to Islamic interiors, and were inspired by west and central African sculptures.

Ellen M. McBreen ’92, one of the exhibit’s co-curators, used one of Matisse’s myriad sources of inspiration—an African sculpture—as a framework through which to explain the impact such influence had on European art. “This is an object that Matisse acquired in late 1906, which inaugurated a watershed moment in the history not only of Matisse’s art, but of European art in general, of artists learning, taking, borrowing principles from African design,” she said. "One of the things he is borrowing is a kind of abstract language for treating the body, moving away from a naturalistic depiction of anatomy. In fact, it’s one of the things that Matisse admired about African art. He said that unlike European art or sculpture, which starts from a description of anatomy, African art is a purely sculptural language, meaning that its artist and maker was interested in the relationship between forms. That’s a very central, foundational idea, if you will, of Matisse’s borrowing from African art.”

The inclusion of a portraiture-focused section provides a subtle look at the evolution of Matisse’s view of human subjects. Indeed, Matisse’s portraits—clearly influenced by the many masks he collected from the Punu, Yoruba, and Kuba cultures in Africa—emphasize his original approach and style in depicting the face. His portrait of his daughter, “Marguerite,” is distinctly simplistic, highlighting her childhood innocence, and his own 1906 self-portrait—a rarity, as he only painted four in his lifetime—intently underlines his knowing gaze, instead of the studio, brush, and easel he typically featured in his previous self-portraits.

The exhibition exposes its audience to the many different media in which Matisse excelled. He made a few sculptures, and eventually turned to the drawings and cutouts that characterized the majority of his pieces toward the end of his career. Beatrice C. Lee, a writer for the Boston Chinese Journal, said that she was impressed by the new insights offered by the exhibition. “I studied this before, and I really enjoyed it. But I think there are a lot of things about it that I never realized. He had more sculptures than paintings, and he had a lot of Chinese things that I never realized.”

Helen M. Burnham, one of the other co-curators for this exhibit, explained the curatorial choice to structure the exhibition around the studio. “We wanted to look at so many different objects and works of art, and I think one of those lenses might have been too restrictive for one part of what he was doing. So the studio is kind of a flexible framework to incorporate all of those questions,” she said

The curators could have used multiple frameworks to look at Matisse’s works, but instead of looking at them exclusively through his objects as a lens, or focusing on a particular aspect of his works, they chose to highlight the studio itself. “All that is happening in the studio. Certainly, there are so many things happening outside contextually in the world around him, but I think he’s filtering a lot of that through his artistic process and we are looking at art objects,” said Burnham.

“My life is between the walls of the studio,” reads a quote from Matisse himself that appears on one of the walls of the gallery. From the furniture he collected in different countries, to the African masks he acquired, to the curtains and tapestries paired with their respective paintings, the Museum of Fine Arts recreates “Matisse in the Studio” to reveal the importance of his work space—packed with these many objects—to his artistic process.

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