“I love you dearly, mademoiselle, but I shall always love painting more”, Henri Matisse reportedly told his future wife, Amélie Parayre, soon after they met. The warning was true and it came to define the couple’s four-decade long marriage. It’s hard to tell how much love there was between them or if pragmatism ruled them both, but it’s certain that the Frenchman couldn’t have asked for a more loyal and selfless partner than his wife. She ran the house, raised the children, managed his business affairs and waited for him when he disappeared for months on end during his travels. Amélie also posed patiently for her husband during endless and strenuous painting sessions. I assume she couldn’t have been too ecstatic about the end results, but she encouraged him anyway, even when the whole art world was ridiculing him and dismissing his vision.
The Conversation shows an intimate scene from the couple’s domestic life, painted at a time when they had been married for a decade. To the left, we have Matisse in blue pajamas with white stripes, standing upright. To the right, Amélie is seated, wearing a black dress topped in green. Their gazes are interlocked and they seem to be having a conversation, as the title suggests. Between them, a window with a view towards an idyllic, green garden gives us a respite; it’s a beautiful day, after all. You may have noticed, however, that the main protagonist of this scene isn’t a figure, but – as often was the case with Matisse – it’s color. A deep blue engulfs the pair, creating distance, coldness and space. Even the chair on which Amélie sits gets lost in this ocean of blue.
There’s a contrast between the glacial interior scene and the peaceful garden. It’s been suggested that the tree we’re looking at through the window is actually the tree of life exerting its influence over the couple; the pair thus symbolizes the two eternal sources of Life – Man and Woman – bridged together by the black window fence. But I’m not sure I can buy into this birds-and-the-bees interpretation. If anything, the garden, in my view, seems to be a reference to a lost paradise. Once they’ve eaten from the tree of knowledge, the mystery between the partners is gone and they’re seeing each other in a colder, less idyllic light. Hence the not-so-cozy morning talk.
Much can be said about their body postures too. Remember Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky in Boating? There, the seated Münter appeared subordinated to a standing Kandinsky. Here, I’m not so sure that’s the case. Look how Amélie is puffing her chest and tilting back her head, as if she’s sitting on a throne, unafraid to confront her husband. She appears almost as dominating as Matisse’s towering figure, who nevertheless holds his hand in his pajama pocket, in a shy or defensive gesture. The black that Amélie is wearing also makes me think that she’s particularly unhappy – and there’s a black smudge on her face too. The differences between them aren’t only limited to color and body postures. Matisse’s self-portrait looks like a LEGO man, built of straight lines, while Amélie’s representation is defined by curves. This play of straight and curved lines is also mirrored in the meadow behind them.
Now, before you dismiss this flat and apparently simplistic composition as child’s play, keep in mind that the French artist spent years working on his canvases, paying particular attention to color and line. It took Matisse four years to complete The Conversation, according to writer and biographer Hilary Spurling. We’ll never know what the couple had to discuss on that particular morning, but we’re free to bring forward our own experiences and lay them over the deep blue between them.
Over the years Matisse had many models posing for him, who were quickly adopted and embraced by his family and, unlike many of his contemporaries, these muses never turned into love affairs. He was loyal to painting and Amélie. In a 1942 interview, Matisse put it like this: “I don’t keep a model as a source of anatomical information, but to sustain an emotional state; it’s a kind of flirtation – which ends in rape. Whose rape? My own.” This is probably why his models are often devoid of expression and sensuality, as if they transcend their biological condition. The artist’s greatest passion was color, and not the female form. And boy, did he like to flirt with color!
Amélie eventually stopped posing for her husband after she became particularly distressed with her depiction in Portrait of Madame Matisse, for which she had sat twice a day for three months. The French artist tried in vain to dissuade her, referring to the artwork as “the one that made you cry, but in which you look so pretty”. However, the damage was done and Madame Matisse never wavered. Her modeling career was over.
What do you think the couple is discussing? Does the garden hold any symbolism?