The Piano Lesson, 1916
Oil on canvas 245 x 212cm
MoMA, New York
21st November 1999
This was my first visit to MoMA and I saw so many ‘great’ paintings for the first time that I find it difficult to even remember them all. However, two paintings made such an impression that I will not forget the experience. One was Les Demoiselles D'Avignon by Picasso and the other was this painting by Magritte.
I remember being really surprised just how thin the paint was, Matisse uses a very loose scumbling of opaque paint over the canvas allowing the scrubby brush marks to be clearly seen. The result is a very lively surface although the hues are unmixed. Instead he gives striking contrasts between these rhythmically arranged flat planes of colour, that suggest an experimentation with the ideas of cubism. The colour scheme is predominantly sombre greys which combined with the sketchy brush work give the painting an ethereal melancholic air.
The painting is of Matisse's son having a piano lesson who gazes at the viewer with one eye, the other is obscured with paint. There is a woman, who might be his teacher watching him from behind. There is a balcony on the open window on the left that looks out onto a triangle of grass, and its wrought iron work echoes the music stand on the piano.
Painted in 1916 at the Matisse home outside of Paris, it is a combination of Matisse’s memory of a time when he was made to study the piano as a young boy and his son Pierre starting to learn 6 years earlier (his elder brother volunteered to fight in the First World War in 1916). The 'piano teacher' is actually a figure in a painting who seems to glare down upon the young pupil. It is a schematic rendition of Matisse's Woman on a High Stool that was hung in the apartment unable to be shipped to his Russian collector Schchukin on account of the war. He also painted one of his bronze sculptures in the lower left-hand foreground. This combination of his own works of art with the image of the memory of his own son playing music make an intensely personal and moving painting.