Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Joy of Life

Henri Matisse, The Joy of Life, 1905-06, oil on canvas, 69 1/2 x 94 3/4 inches (Barnes Foundation #BF719).
By Charles Kessler

I went to the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia again and spent a lot of time looking at Matisse's great painting The Joy of Life. This is one of the most important paintings in the history of modern art. It's the painting that goaded Picasso to paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. There's been plenty written about it, of course, but I think I made an observation that might not be in the literature. Everything I ever read about the painting (The Barnes catalog, p.271, for example) refers to a piper (possibly Pan) with two goats (on the right).
The right side of Matisse's The Joy of Life.

But there is clearly an outline of a third goat further to the right, plus – and I think this is significant – the rear end of a fourth goat painted a purplish brown. I think what's happening in the painting is the piper is herding the goats into a sort of cave of red/orange light, and as the goats enter they change color and become more obscured by the colored light.
The left side of Matisse's The Joy of Life.
Moreover, and this is much more speculative, the figures on the left side of the painting can be thought of as having come out of the red and orange fields of color. So an interpretation of what's going on in the painting is the figures come out of red/orange light, romp about in an arcadian setting which we are privileged to witness, and then return to their red/orange environment.

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