Last weekend, I went to Michigan to visit family. Friday afternoon, I met my friend Jenny at the Detroit Institute of Arts for what was supposed to be some cultural appreciation. Actually, we wound up sitting down in front of an amazing Van Gogh and just looking at it and talking for hours. I had gotten to the museum a few hours early, though, and lucky thing I did. I’m always amazed at the quality of their collection, but last Saturday, this was the painting that literally stopped me in my tracks.
It’s called The Window, by Henri Matisse. Look at it! Isn’t it amazing? Doesn’t it make you so glad that you were born with eyes to see something like this? So, let’s talk about what makes it so great.
First and foremost, this is a painting about light. It’s of the interior of a living room. There are two chairs, a wastebasket, a table in the center, a radiator on the wall, and a curtained window that looks out on a sunny, tree-filled park.
The forms are flattened out. Look at floor near the wastebasket. The brown paintstrokes indicating the interlocking boards of a parquet floor are only way you can tell where the floor ends and the wall begins. Look at the surface of the table, tilted until it’s nearly parallel to the surface of the picture, so that the flowers, were they real, would slide right off. The chairs are just intersections of straight and curved black lines, their varying thicknesses giving them a kind of quiet energy, like in Japanese ink drawings. Matisse has simplified his objects so that they hardly look like more than sketches, and expresses his content with color.
At the beginning of his career, Matisse belonged to a group called the Fauves. They wanted to develop art that was direct, like Impressionism, but used intense color to create emotional responses to their work. In The Window, the bright turquoise walls and floor practically glow with an electric vibrancy, but still, the overall feeling of the picture is quiet and peaceful. Matisse accomplished this with strong horizontal elements: the crossbar in the window, the arms of the chair in the foreground, the brown band on the table, the paneling on the wall at the back left, and even the edge of the rug at the bottom. The strong black horizontals calm the vibrant walls and floor and give the work an element of tranquility.
Art critic Clement Greenberg wrote about the tension between pictorial art and decorative art (that is to say, abstract art, art that he called “pure surface”). Though The Window isn’t an abstract painting, the objects in the room are flattened, generlized, and made abstract, elements that Greenberg found purer and soothing. In general, abstraction in painting isn’t confied to totally abstract surfaces (like, say, Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings). In this case, The Window, as a painting, is enhanced by the tension between the figures and their own abstractions: the chairs, wastebasket, and even the floor exist, but only as sketches. The viewer knows that these objects are chairs, but Matisse never lets you forget that they’re really just strokes of paint on canvas.
This isn’t a painting with much depth, in that most of the image takes place on the surface. The walls and floor are flat, the table is nearly flat. But there is some depth in the upper right, where the titular window comes into play. Beyond the room, you see a cheerful green park and a strong, vertical tree. Like Cezanne before him, Matisse used color to pour light into the painting. The other elements of the room – the table, the foreground chair – are transparent, little more than outlines suggesting their shapes, so that the light from the window can shine through. When you look at this picture, your eye immediately goes to my favorite part: where the curtain transforms into a sunbeam across the floor. No visual transition is necessary. It’s gorgeously done.