Matisse’s — and maybe the 20th century’s — great masterpiece

Painted as war raged, ‘The Piano Lesson’ is both sensuous and severe

Henri Matisse painted this inexpressibly moving painting in the summer of 1916, in the early days of the Somme offensive, one of the deadliest battles in history.

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

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

A painting is a trace of the painter’s physical actions but also, of course, of his or her feelings. Matisse’s aim during these years (roughly 1913 to 1917) was to try to preserve on his canvases what he called the picture’s “involution.” By this he meant a kind of radical and inward-turning distillation of his feelings in front of the subject — the visual equivalent (but less evanescent) of a fragment of song or a smell that sparks intense nostalgia.

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

What was this strong emotion?

The question sounds crass, like asking what the painting’s most important color is. Strong emotions are never one thing, after all. The different ingredients are volatile, promiscuous.

But imagine: You have children — a daughter in her early 20s and two teenage boys. You are a strict but loving father. And then this war, this human abattoir. Your boys are almost military age. Members of your extended family are in peril. You don’t know which way the war will go.

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

What emotions would you feel?

“The Piano Lesson” is sensuous yet severe. Both qualities are dialed up to maximum intensity. On the sensuous side, the serpentine curves of the balcony railing and the music stand (inscribed “PLEYEL,” for the famous piano manufacturer); the sculpted nude off to the left; a burst of hot pink in the foreground; the promise of green grass, blue sky. More severely, you have the pervasive gray; the blank-faced, bleached-out teacher sitting strict and upright on a tall stool behind the boy (actually an identifiable painting by Matisse hanging on the wall, but he definitely wanted the ambiguity); the sense of captivity; the ticking metronome.

Matisse wanted his finished canvases in these years to carry evidence of the process of their making. So “The Piano Lesson,” which is more than eight feet high, is marked all over by scouring, scraping back, overpainting, snippets of blank canvas, subtle shifts in degrees of finish.

The metronome and the matching triangle wedged into one side of the boy’s head are the only two parts of the composition to show shading, and hence three-dimensionality. The rest of the picture is resolutely flat, the space inferred only from the tension between verticals and diagonals. The biggest diagonal, evoking a curtain pulled back from the window, creates a triangle that echoes the metronome and the left side of the boy’s face.

So everything swishes with a kind of instant, all-at-once connectivity, as shapes reiterate other shapes and colors inflect colors. The whole thing is taut, locked in place. Yet it trembles with latent power, as if charged with the static of a father’s love, his anguish.

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

The Piano Lesson, 1916
Henri Matisse (b.1869). At the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.