Matisse's 'The Piano Lesson' at MoMA may be his greatest masterpiece

Matisse’s ‘The Piano Lesson’ at MoMA may be his greatest masterpiece


Henri Matisse painted this unspeakably moving picture in the summer of 1916, at the start of the Somme Offensive, one of the deadliest battles in history.

Matisse’s mother was stranded behind enemy lines in her hometown, Bohain-en-Vermandois, France. His brother was sent to Germany as a prisoner of war. Henri had tried to enlist twice, but he had been rejected: too old (46 years old) and with a weak heart. Instead, he raised funds to send supplies to civilian prisoners in Bohain and provided support for artists’ wives and others who had been sent to the front.

Haunted by guilt, Matisse did what he knew how to do. He painted.

A painting is a trace of the physical actions of the painter but also, of course, of his feelings. Matisse’s goal during these years (around 1913 to 1917) was to try to retain on his canvases what he called the “involution” of the painting. By this he meant a sort of radical, introverted distillation of his feelings about the subject—the visual (but less evanescent) equivalent of a fragment of song or smell that elicits intense nostalgia.

A drawing for “The Piano Lesson” shows a boy seated at a piano. Out the window behind him, a garden teeming with branches and leaves. Moving on to painting, Matisse slowly reduced the image to the point where he felt it expressed, in as concentrated a form as possible, the original emotion aroused by the subject.

What was this strong emotion?

The question seems crude, like asking what is the most important color in the paint. Strong emotions are never a thing, after all. The various ingredients are volatile, promiscuous.

But imagine: you have children – a daughter in her early twenties and two teenagers. You are a strict but loving father. And then this war, this human slaughterhouse. Your boys are almost military age. Your extended family members are in danger. You don’t know which way the war will go.

In such an atmosphere, everything seems precarious. You struggle to maintain order, routine. Even domestic life feels inescapably militarized. Every time the clock strikes, how many more are killed, mutilated? Now, walking from your studio to the living room, there’s your son, doing as you ask, enduring another lesson.

What emotions would be You feel?

“The Piano Lesson” is sensual but severe. Both qualities are compounded to maximum intensity. On the voluptuous side, the sinuous curves of the balcony railing and the desk (inscribed “PLEYEL”, for the famous piano manufacturer); the sculpted nude on the left; a burst of hot pink in the foreground; the promise of green grass, blue skies. More severely, you have the ubiquitous grey; the whitewashed-faced teacher sitting straight and strict on a tall stool behind the boy (actually a identifiable painting by Matisse hanging on the wall, but he definitely wanted the ambiguity); the sense of captivity; the ticking metronome.

Matisse wanted his canvases finished during these years to bear proof of the process of their making. So “The Piano Lesson,” which stands over eight feet tall, is marked throughout with scouring, scraping, painting, snippets of blank canvas, subtle shifts in degrees of finish.

The metronome and corresponding triangle wedged into one side of the boy’s head are the only two parts of the composition to show shading, and therefore three-dimensionality. The rest of the painting is resolutely flat, the space can only be deduced from the tension between verticals and diagonals. The largest diagonal, evoking a curtain drawn from the window, creates a triangle that echoes the metronome and the left side of the boy’s face.

So everything vibrates with a kind of instant connectedness, all at once, as shapes iterate other shapes and colors inflect colors. The whole thing is taut, locked in place. However, he trembles with a latent power, as though charged with the static of a father’s love, of his anguish.

“The Piano Lesson” is not just an adornment, a decoration. It’s oracular. It has the force of an icon, of an altar. It’s something you could pray to before the world around you fell apart.

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