Henri Matisse – The Conversation (1908 – 1912)

“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.

Henri Matisse - The Conversation
Henri Matisse – The Conversation (1908 – 1912), oil on canvas

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!

Henri Matisse - Portrait of Madame Matisse
Henri Matisse – Portrait of Madame Matisse (1913), oil on canvas

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?


Next time: “Where the obsidian knives are creaking”

35 thoughts on “Henri Matisse – The Conversation (1908 – 1912)

  1. It’s very interesting to try and think what they might be discussing. To me it looks like she’s maybe calling him out on something, since you pointed out her “throne-like” posture on the chair and his shy hand-in-the-pocket stance.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. You’re very welcome! I realize this sort of painting style isn’t appealing to everyone – most people think that “even a child could do it”. But there are a lot of clues beneath this apparent simplicity and it’s such a joy to uncover them.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the background story Gabriela …husband and wife don’t share the same posture, the same stance, (one sitting & the other standing) and (a) painting comes between them, it is not source of warmth between them but neither is it a marriage breaker.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Anthony! You’re right, the space between the partners isn’t a marriage breaker. It simply adds tension and reveals we’re witnessing an uncomfortable discussion.


    1. Is it the BEST? I really enjoyed writing this post and I’m glad that my enjoyment somehow infused the text. At the same time, I realize that not everyone will be OK with an artwork painted in this style, regardless of the background story.

      And I don’t criticize! I mostly praise art.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur Charboneau. I’ve only recently discovered Frank O’Hara! Not that I’ve read his writings on art yet, but judging from his poetry I’d rather have him as my role model. I like “Having a Coke with You” so much! Poetry + art, what could possibly top that?

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting and I like your interpretation. What I first saw was a man in his prison uniform standing at ramrod straight attention as he is dressed down by the female warden, but I can’t take it much farther than that. Your Garden of Eden analogy appeals to me and the window gate I saw as bars holding him in confinement become a fence enforcing their banishment from the garden. Regarding the portrait, I agree with his wife. She looks like she is wearing a halloween mask or a feminine version of a Guy Fawkes mask.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As always, I greatly admire your imagination and free association, David! It’s so fun to read your take on these paintings.

      I think the window gate works primarily as a clue to the fact that we’re looking through a window. The second clue would be the blue door in the back. These two elements tell us we’re not actually seeing a painting or a poster. It’s a neat trick to signal more depth. But it also has a confinement symbolism to it – they’re stuck indoors, after all.

      I’m not a fan of the portrait either. Poor woman, to think she sat for so long only to be depicted as a ghost.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have enjoyed reading all posts of yours but this one just might be my favorite. When you point to the blue that exists between the couple and giving us the context of at what point in their relationship was it painted let me me see a completely different painting than all the previous encounters with the conversation. Also, the juxtaposition of staright and curved lines in the composition brings a sort of dynamism that went totally over my head before. Anyway it wouöld be great to see more of your interpretations of paintings on future posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Jo! I really appreciate your words. It makes me so happy to know that I was able to help you see this painting in a new light. It’s hard to believe that an artwork done in such a simplistic style would have so many layers to it, but it does! Matisse clearly knew what he was doing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s bizarre that this painting took 4 years (I gather it was done over the span four years, rather than it took four years of dedication), or that he used sitters at all. Why bother if one is trying to make a flat painting, about color and pattern, while simultaneously and necessarily eliminating anything remotely resembling correct anatomy, perspective, lighting, and so on? It’s usually trying to achieve those technical effects that someone has a model.

    From my perspective, I wouldn’t bother reading much of anything in the personal dynamics between the people, as I don’t see that as a real focus any more than anatomy. Surely, whatever content there is must be in the flat planes of colors, and the patterns. The arabesques of the railing, or the flat, upright, pools of water (that look like mis colored cactus pads.. and are those fish?) are as much or more of the content.

    If I were going to hazard an interpretation of the people, I’d go for a quiet, peaceful, rather banal, morning chat about nothing. Not in a negative sense, but in a (rather privileged, as it were) comfortable way. of course, I could be wrong, but if the goal were to conjure an intense confrontation, or a passionate one of one stripe or another, this would not be the way to go about it. I would say, rather, that his panting seeks harmony. If I were to search for musical accompaniment, it wouldn’t be Stravinsky, but rather Ravel or Debussy. No “Right of Spring”, but rather “The Afternoon of the Fawn”. The word that comes to mind is “languid”. His is a pleasant art that appears neither demanding of the viewer nor the artist.

    All is color, line, shape, form, pattern and movement. His influence over abstract art is enormous, and I can see his direct influence on someone like Richard Diebenkorn. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that. It’s rather nice in its way. True, I’m not a fan, not really. But I can imagine having a really good print or two or three in a coffee shop, and admiring them while I sip away. Matter-O-fact I’d probably make a point of going to the Matisse Cafe for my Croque Monsieur and coffee a Paris.

    I would just say that he’s not in it, for me, with a contemporary like Picasso, who really did explore intense feelings, passions, and so on, but also investigated color and form.

    Lastly, while I think it’s all fine and good to discuss interpretations of what is represented in a painting, it may be that going too far in that direction risks missing the point (though only if that was seen as the point, and not just an interesting foray). I suppose it really helps some people access the work in question. It is a bit like analyzing song lyrics. It’s worth it, I suppose, to discuss what “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was all about in terms of ideas in linguistics, but the real, or primary content of the song is in the way it sounds. And so it is with painting in general that the real content is only conveyed or understood visually. This painting is appreciated more like food. It is intended to be visually delicious.

    Imagine if he spent years on the painting how many hours were spent just on the relatively flat blue background. In his portrait of his wife her face is clearly a mask, and even her eyes are blacked out. We could try to read something into that (and I’m not finding fault here, but rather elucidating on what I think the art is really about), but I think it couldn’t be more obvious that he’s trying to negate meaning outside of the painted surface of the canvas. It’s not about her. It’s about line, color, form…. This is why he’s also a precursor of color field artists like Rothko. He retains figurative elements, sometimes very awkwardly, but he’s on the side of abstraction.

    Of course his relationship with his wife may be of interest to us, I just don’t think it was of much or any interest to him within the scope of his painting. It is the disinterestedness that gives it its sort of calm, breezy appeal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eric, you raise very good points. I think in art – all the arts, really – people take whatever they want out of it. For some it’s a matter of having their senses titillated. For others, it’s about finding meaning. Others yet, hope that art can spur societal change. As an artist, you cannot control how your art will be perceived and interpreted. But you should know I would never go on a wild goose chase seeking meaning. That’s the MO of someone who’s really fond of conspiracy theories, superstitions and whatnot.

      Most often than not, I look at an artwork and I initially miss its hidden symbolism – it’s one thing to get the general feel of it, and another thing to really understand why the artist chose certain colors or elements.So when I go heavy on interpretation, that’s usually because other people have already covered that (to a certain extent)– better educated, more knowledgeable people than me.

      Now, I’m not that confident to plainly reject art curators’ and art critics’ interpretations, but I won’t adopt their views either, unless I (somewhat) agree with them. And when I look at this Matisse, I take it that the distance between the partners cannot be accidental or purely compositional, to achieve a sense of balance. It’s not a confrontational talk, but it comes off as somewhat chilly, as far as I’m concerned. All the other elements are fun to look at, in terms of how he played with color and line.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great! I especially like that you ultimately rely on your own sensibility, knowledge, tastes, and so on to come to your understanding and appreciation of a piece.

        And I no more want everyone to agree on art than I do on food. Otherwise we’d have far less restaurants, and thinner menus.

        There’s one idea here that I might like to go a different direction on, and that’s your idea:

        “Most often than not, I look at an artwork and I initially miss its hidden symbolism – it’s one thing to get the general feel of it, and another thing to really understand why the artist chose certain colors or elements.”

        Why the artist made certain decisions, or what the underlying symbolism may be, I think are ultimately in the service of creating an impression, mood, feeling, sensation. In other words, the “general feeling”, if one gets it, may be the real meaning, and the deeper content.

        Imagine one of your favorite songs, and knowing all the details about why the musicians chose to sing it, and what the lyrics mean, and what this or that symbolizes, but you didn’t register the feeling or texture of it, which can’t be put into words.

        Interpretations and background information, say about a Beethoven piano sonata, may only really be useful in regard to appreciating the music if it helps one to get the feeling. And in more explicit examples, say Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence”, understanding the lyrics and intent and other background could add more depth to the music. Though, in that particular example, the first time I heard the song I was obsessed by if for a week, and I couldn’t even remember the lyrics. I was also probably too young to understand the assumed “deeper meaning”. But, again, I would argue that the “deeper meaning” is the intangible, ethereal, quality of the song, and not something that could be rationally understood through the intellect.

        Conceptual art, on the other hand, frequently requires an explanation, and is about a cerebral idea understood linguistically. There’s a full range of art and ways of appreciating it. More knowledge couldn’t hurt.

        I did lots of research on some of my favorite artists. It probably does help me understand them. But not as much as time spent looking at their work.

        But, that’s just my approach. Others may benefit more from another angle.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well, I’m afraid I’m one of those pesky people who do look up the meaning of lyrics once they really like a song. If I am to listen to it for hundreds of times, I might as well know what it means.

          Now, with art I’d rather propose another analogy: speaking to a foreigner. I might tell from the body language, tone, face expressions and other cues what their general mood is or even the subject of what they’re saying, but their words will be lost on me. That’s how I often feel about Renaissance art! Most of the time they seem to be using a coded visual language where every animal, character, object and color has a certain symbolism. And I think that many generations of artists that followed them were educated with the belief that they had to resort to these sorts of symbols or to dig deeper beyond mere appearance, and show how clever they were.

          But then, when I look at Surrealist artworks, I’m happily content to accept their mystery. So it really depends on the artist, context and their painting style if I am to just take in their work without looking for meaning.

          “I did lots of research on some of my favorite artists. It probably does help me understand them. But not as much as time spent looking at their work.” This search for meaning can help people spend more time with the art and really look at every brushstroke and every detail – that’s my impression, anyway.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I think we are talking about different things, rather than disagreeing, though it’s perfectly fine to disagree, even desirable when it comes to art.

            ” If I am to listen to it for hundreds of times, I might as well know what it means. ”

            If I were to take you literally here, than we might be at opposite ends of a spectrum of approaches or appreciation. You may just mean you might as well know what the lyrics mean. But what the song means is something different, otherwise we could just have the lyrics without the music. With a musical form, the meaning is in the music, not in any ideas in linguistics, which is a different kind of communication altogether.

            Painting, for example, crosses language barriers, and is still, while language unfolds in time, in a specific order, according to specific grammar structures. The meanings are in words and conclusions expressed in sentences and paragraphs. The meaning in a painting is none of those things.

            The meaning of a song, or a painting, can never be found in another language. At very least a meaning in language is a translation, and then it only has relevance in a certain context, in which case each piece of art is categorized according to overarching beliefs. Rather, I see painting and music as a checks-and-balances on linguistic understanding.

            I get our point about Renaissance painting, but many people appreciate Bosch who have no idea what any of it means, and I’m not sure how important it really is. If we try to ascribe meaning than we end up with something like a lecture on sin. But the real content is his own imaginative creations in paint. We could get the lecture just about anywhere else at the time, and nobody really wants to hear that lecture today.

            What do we do with a Monet haystack? The meaning is visual. If we try to project a statement about nature on it, that would apply equally to hundreds of his paintings. The thing that makes them individual is purely in the eye, or rather through the eye.

            Music without lyrics is even more obvious. Whatever we know about Beethoven’s Appasionata, the real meaning is only in the music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ak_7tTxZrk

            So, again, visual art and music can’t be translated into English or any spoken language. Outside information, interpretation, and so on can only perhaps help us to ascertain the meaning that is intrinsically in the language of music, or in visual language.

            Meanwhile, I’m writing about an artist and I can’t help trying to interpret some of her works. If you are addressing art in spoken language, you still have to say something.

            I don’t know what to say about Beethoven’s Appasionata other than that it’s incredible.

            But, I’m not criticizing your exploring all the background of a work (which really does make good sense with literature), just elaborating on where I think the meaning is. How can more information be bad?!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. I see what you mean! It always amazes me how artists can have such different approaches to their art: some of them write endlessly about what they’re trying to achieve and convey, while others go to great lengths not to have their art interpreted in any way. There is this artist I want to feature who used “Untitled” as the title for all his paintings. Haha, I don’t know, that’s rather extreme. He could have at least numbered them.

              So for you the meaning is more in the feelings and thoughts an artwork arises, on a purely subjective basis. I’m not sure Bosch would have been happy with how amusing we find his art today. I see it as a sign of respect to try to understand what artists had in mind, even if I don’t share their values. That typically doesn’t change my first impression of whether I like something or not.

              Speaking of Appassionata, now you know why I haven’t featured Monet or Abstract Expressionists. There’s nothing I could possibly add there without taking away from the experience or miserably failing to translate it into words. “X painted this. It’s gorgeous. Enjoy.”

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              1. “So for you the meaning is more in the feelings and thoughts an artwork arises, on a purely subjective basis. I’m not sure Bosch would have been happy with how amusing we find his art today. I see it as a sign of respect to try to understand what artists had in mind, even if I don’t share their values.”

                This is not quite what I’m saying. Notice I never mentioned the subjectivity of the viewer, nor denied the intent of the artist.

                I quite strongly maintain that if the artists are any good, they are quite likely to understand their art better than most anyone else, in which case I am definitely interested in their intent and interpretation, if they care to, or even can give it.

                I also think that if people are amused by Bosch, they are missing the point. I don’t grant the viewer the right to dictate what the art means. In fact I find this postmodern viewpoint really repugnant. I rather think we have to try to meet the artists halfway, and make a leap of the imagination to see where she or he is coming from.

                The feeling, or mood, or texture, or quality of art is not something it conjures, but is intrinsic to it and inseparable from it.

                For example, when I look at Van Gogh paintings it’s a very specific texture or quality that I derive from them. They don’t create an emotion that I could get anywhere else.

                I mentioned that visual art is a different language. What it expresses isn’t translatable into words. Thus I’m left with a jumble of words like feeling, mood, texture, and quality to describe the type of sensation (another inaccurate word) it contains.

                I think one can still write about Monet, or Pollock, but it’s more in terms of discussing paint, texture, color, light, and all that. But, yeah, in general I’d agree it’s tough.

                Let’s go back to Bosch. There’s a quality that only his paintings have. A certain atmosphere (another clumsy word). It’s almost a universe unto itself. I find it a really bizarre one, and the more heavenly paintings are not that much less disturbing than the hellish ones. There’s also a sense of place and time about them. Same goes for Van Gogh.

                In short, probably everything a painting conveys or conjures or manifests… that is important is not anything that can be put into words. In my opinion, of course.

                And my opinion is quite out of fashion. We should think that the purpose of art is to bring about social change, and that art makes specific arguments that can be put into context and can be understood via linguistic thought. I do find that view hopelessly shallow, myopic, and deadly, but it’s the current fashion.

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