Matisse's Shaded 'Window'

Windows are not the exclusive concern of architects, glaziers, and the followers of Mr. Bill Gates.

As demonstrated by this intriguing Matisse, windows can be a great fascination to painters. (This particular painting is in the news because it has just been acquired from a private collector by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)

Paintings are, conventionally, framing rectangles within which spatial depth is suggested. They can easily be perceived as windows.

If a painter paints a view seen through a window, he is identifying his painting with its subject in a special way. The act of painting and the act of viewing become particularly alike.

Windows were one of Matisse's preoccupations, and he explored them with extraordinary variety. As it had been for earlier painters, a window acted as a light source within a painting. But Matisse was aware that painting can block light as well as convey it.

Matisse scholar Jack Flam writes that "references to external reality" in "The Window/The Yellow Curtain" "are minimal." Anyone, he says, would be "hard-pressed to tell whether [the painting] represents anything other than itself, a surface covered with colored shapes and lines."

He adds: "although this painting represents a window, ... in its insistence on its own surface it is more like a wall. This duality between painting as an opaque or wall-like surface and paintings as a transparent or window-like surface lies at the core of Matisse's art."

This painting belongs to a highly experimental period in Matisse's art. He called it "Composition," hinting that what art historian Lawrence Gowing called "one of the fullest and emptiest of Matisse's window paintings" was, in the artist's thinking, more abstract than depictive. Mr. Gowing quotes Matisse saying that the yellow forms simply expressed his "excitement and pleasure at the contrast of trees and sky."

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