The First Studio Henri Matisse Invented Entirely for Himself
Read an exclusive Matisse: The Red Studio catalogue excerpt, about how the artist came to work in the space where he made his iconic painting.
Ann Temkin, Dorthe Aagesen
Apr 27, 2022
The new studio would be very different from any of his previous ones.
Path to the Issy studio. Autochrome. Summer 1917
During the year and a half the Matisse family spent at the Couvent du Sacré-Coeur, their lifestyle was uniquely communal. The convent’s various buildings and large garden, though long abandoned and wildly overgrown, became a bustling center in which there was little or no dividing line between family, friends, and pupils, some of whom rented their own residences and studios in the complex. Purrmann, Matisse’s head of school, lived above him, as did the American painter Patrick Henry Bruce. The sculptor Auguste Rodin occupied the ground floor of what had been the convent’s school, the 18th-century Hôtel Biron (today the Musée Rodin). Rodin had been introduced to the building by another occupant, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, his friend and former secretary. An assortment of other artists, poets, musicians, and actors filled out the community, taking advantage of a rare opportunity for an unaffluent cohort to enjoy a distinguished address in the center of Paris, even if its indoor and outdoor spaces retained few traces of their former glory.5
The Matisses’ move from Paris to Issy-les-Moulineaux was prompted by the government’s decision to sell this convent, too, resulting in the delivery of an eviction notice to its occupants in early 1909. Matisse was by now accustomed to the spacious accommodations that the convent provided, as well as to its parklike setting. He knew that he needed to look beyond Paris if he wished to find an affordable equivalent, and by April he had located and decided on the property in the nearby town of Issy-les-Moulineaux.6 Its unique advantage was a double lot: one containing the house, and the other providing a site for a studio. The relocation brought Matisse to a small industrial town in which he was one of very few artists. The residential area was located high above the local factories and businesses and was still very lightly populated.
Interior of Matisse’s studio in Issyles-Moulineaux. October/November 1911
The artist’s move to Issy served to distance him from an accumulating set of professional pressures and anxieties.
The new address in Issy freed Matisse from the constant company that was part of life at the Couvent du Sacré-Coeur. As it turned out, there was no immediate sale of the convent, and Matisse’s school continued on its premises during the 1909–10 academic year. But the artist greatly reduced his commitment, appearing only once a week to critique students’ work. Matisse’s self-enforced withdrawal reflected his recognition that he could no longer expend upon his classes the energies necessary for his own painting. Equally important, the artist’s move to Issy served to distance him from an accumulating set of professional pressures and anxieties apart from those of a teacher. On the brink of turning 40, Matisse was battling widespread disparagement of his work, despite the fervent admiration of his students and a small number of devoted collectors. Only four years earlier, he had risen to avant-garde fame as the leader of the notorious artists known as the Fauves (“wild beasts”), who had horrified the art world with their paintings’ free brushwork and vivid, nonnaturalistic colors. But in 1909 the Parisian art world was firmly in the grip of a then-nascent Cubism, pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Matisse’s former Fauve comrade Georges Braque. The move from Paris allowed Matisse to literalize his sense of having been relegated to a position no longer at the center of discussion. The commodious new studio in Issy would provide the setting for what was to be an independent and by no means easy course.
Want to read more? Pick up a copy of Matisse: The Red Studio.
Matisse: The Red Studio is organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, Denmark. The exhibition is organized by Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, The Museum of Modern Art, and Dorthe Aagesen, Chief Curator and Senior Researcher, SMK – National Gallery of Denmark; with the assistance of Charlotte Barat, Madeleine Haddon, and Dana Liljegren; and with the collaboration of Georges Matisse and Anne Théry, Archives Henri Matisse, Issy-les-Moulineaux, France, and is on view at MoMA May 1–September 10, 2022.
Lucien Assire to Henri Matisse, June 2, 1909, Archives Henri Matisse, Issy-les-Moulineaux, France (hereafter cited as AHM). All translations from French were done at MoMA, in consultation with Jeanine Herman.
Matisse to Mme Cocurat, April 26, 1909, AHM. Therein Matisse expresses his wish to sign the lease as soon as possible. For more information on the house, studio, and property, see Peter Kropmanns, Matisse à Issy: L’Atelier dans la verdure (Paris: L’Arche, 2010).